On the 18th of December 2020, I started writing my PhD thesis. On the 9th of December 2021, I submitted it to my faculty for examination. I never set myself a concrete due date, but I’m rather pleased that I was able to accomplish the task in just under a year. Writing is an arduous task for many PhD students, and Twitter is awash with tweets asking for advice, tips, and tricks to make the task easier. I myself have shared some advice on Twitter and on my blog with the hope that I could be of some help to those seeking it. Some people have also got in touch with me on Twitter to ask how I managed to complete my thesis in a year. So, after I was invited to contribute an article to The PhD Place, I eventually decided to share my writing journey with other PhD students. Hopefully, my experience will be able to give you some ideas or inspiration to help you write your own thesis.
I prepared for my thesis before I started writing it.
Although I technically started writing my thesis on the 18th of December 2020, I was actually already working on my data analysis, preparing figures, graphs, and charts before I started writing. I also wrote a review paper (which was submitted for publication in November 2020) before I started writing my thesis, so that laid the foundation for my literature review. With my results and review paper done, writing my thesis was a little bit easier.
I prepared a "changelog" for my supervisors for revised drafts.
You know how when an app on your smartphone or a video game gets updated, the developer will list down all the changes made from the previous version? Applying such a practice when you’re sending drafts of your thesis (or chapters) back and forth to your supervisors can come in real handy. Considering how long your thesis is and how busy your supervisors could be, having an itemised list highlighting all the changes you made in your drafts could make it much easier for your supervisors to provide feedback in a prompt manner, saving you days, maybe even weeks. I did this from around the third draft onwards as I’m sure after a few revisions my supervisors wouldn’t be able to identify what I changed, deleted, or added to my chapters.
I wrote whenever I was in the mood.
Writing is probably the most volatile part of the PhD process. Sometimes you just get into the zone at the most unlikely times and don’t want to stop even though you should. Other times when you actually want to do some writing, you suffer from writer’s block. Writing when you aren’t in the right mental state won’t be productive. It’s one of those things that’s just different for different people and you can’t really control it, so I didn’t try to. If it was late but I was on a roll I just kept writing and went to bed a bit later. If it was the weekend and I felt like writing, I did. On the other hand, if I couldn’t write and wasn’t in the mood, I didn’t try to force it.
I worked on a flexible schedule.
It’s good to organise your writing and to set yourself schedules and deadlines, but at the same time, I feel like allowing yourself some flexibility to adjust and modify your schedule will be beneficial to your productivity. Following on from what I said in the previous point, you shouldn’t force yourself to write because of a deadline you set for yourself if you aren’t in the mood. I would often set myself a “soft” deadline when it came to completing sections or chapters. If I felt like I couldn’t meet that deadline, I’d give myself another week. Your brain is a muscle, and just like the other muscles in your body, you can’t work it to the point of exhaustion. Draw your schedule and deadlines in the sand, rather than setting them in stone.
My supervisor checked my content, not my writing.
This is something that you can’t really control, but it helped me immensely to complete my thesis in a timely manner. Some supervisors tend to check your writing, making revisions, edits, and corrections, which gives you a lot of work as you have to sift through hundreds of edits. My supervisor, on the other hand, left my writing mostly alone and just gave me suggestions to improve the content of my thesis. For example, telling me if there were gaps in my literature review, if any sections should be rearranged, or if my results needed to be presented in a different way. A supervisor who checks your content rather than edits your writing can make a big difference.
I enjoy writing.
This last point is probably the most important, as an internal motivator is better than any external influence. I’ve been writing for more than 10 years, from back when I was a mere undergraduate; I wrote blog posts throughout university. I also wrote long-form content on social media, then I started writing academically more recently. I also have a personal blog now where I share my thoughts and opinions about academic life. I’ve always enjoyed putting pen to paper (or whatever the digital equivalent is), and I believe this helped me when it came to writing my thesis. Enjoying the process will make any task easier, and with a task as daunting as writing a thesis, enjoying it can go a long way to easing the burden.
These were the factors which allowed me to complete my thesis in a year. They may not apply to everyone as we each have our own journeys towards our PhDs, but hopefully my experience will be able to help you along yours, either by giving you ideas, inspiration, or motivation.