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PhD Life

How to write your PhD thesis.

Writing your PhD thesis can be a confusing and overwhelming task. It’s essential to look into what a PhD thesis actually consists of and what your university’s requirements are. After this, it’s all about starting early and pacing yourself. A free downloadable progress tracker is also included.

Writing your PhD thesis is one of the most stressful, satisfying and pressured parts of your PhD. The sheer thought of having to write it can be extremely overwhelming. It’s quite often difficult to find concrete guidance on thesis writing, partly because it’s quite flexible and also varies quite drastically amongst fields of study. However, a general rule applies and it’s something you should not take lightly. START EARLY. And early means, 6-12 months before your submission date. Even if it’s just to plan. If you have difficulties with things like time management or imposter syndrome it might be worth starting somewhere between 12-15 months before your submission date to give you some extra room for flexibility and avoid burnout. But before we dive into it further, it’s important we distinguish what a PhD thesis is and the different types (yes, different types of theses exist).

For starters, a traditional PhD thesis is a compilation of your research or work throughout the course of your PhD. Here, the goal is to consolidate, discuss, and critique your own work that follows a particular narrative. In this instance, a narrative refers to the ‘story’ of your PhD. Typically, a PhD is designed to solve a particular gap in our current understanding about a topic – and such your narrative should start from explaining and contextualising this problem before discussing how you plan to resolve it (i.e. provide a drop of knowledge to the pool of what we already know about your topic).

This might feel quite similar to how you would explain your PhD to your friends and family, just more ‘academic’ to a higher level. A traditional PhD thesis is an in-depth, independent, piece of work that may compile together to create your narrative. Your chapters within your thesis help create your story from start to finish, with each chapter representing a distinct part of your work. This is also partly why there is no hard and fast rule as to how many chapters you should have for a PhD thesis – different stories require a different number of chapters. You write your chapters, compile it together, and then submit – the rules and guidelines are quite vague, but we’ll get to this later. The key thing here is to note that all academic institutions (currently) provide this type PhD thesis.

Your second type of PhD thesis is a more contemporary and modern twist – which means not every university will support this – so check. This more atypical approach is what’s known as submitting a thesis ‘by’ publication. The premise is, on the most part, similar to a traditional thesis whereby you have to discuss a narrative and story but you simply do this by stringing together a sequence of publications. Rather than writing an introduction, several chapters, and a discussion chapter you literally just submit a sequence of published work together. This can save you a significant amount of time at the end of your PhD as you would have written throughout your PhD – as opposed to right at the end. Over time, it’s probably expected that this type of PhD thesis will be more common, however it’s always best to check what your university offers currently.

The third type of PhD thesis is a sort of ‘hybrid’ between the traditional PhD thesis and thesis ‘by’ publication. Instead, it is referred to as a thesis ‘incorporating’ publications. As this is a hybrid approach, it typically conforms to a traditional thesis except you are able to switch chapters out for publications. In essence, publishing your work throughout your PhD is often the ‘gold standard’ in academia, except published work on its own is not enough to create a narrative about your PhD. Therefore, you need to connect your publications together with supplementary chapters or place them in greater context with more background information that otherwise would be excessive for a publication. Again, not all universities offer this option and it’s best to check. It’s recommended to check this as soon as possible as if you’re in the early stages of your PhD you can begin to consider the benefits of writing throughout your PhD as opposed to at the end.

After figuring out what type of PhD thesis you are going to aim for there are a few other things to look into. Firstly, when and if you have to declare the type of PhD thesis you are going to submit. Some universities need this information in early so don’t miss it. Secondly, try to work out the rough skeleton of your PhD thesis and the shape it will follow. This can look very different across the board but there are a few general tips. Tip one: think about your narrative and story, as if you were writing a novel. What’s the beginning, middle and end? Answering this question will allow you to identify chapters or potentially a rough order. Tip two: How many chapters do other people of the same discipline for their PhD thesis have? You don’t necessarily have to have the identical number of chapters, but you can aim for a similar ballpark, plus or minus a chapter or two.

Almost all universities collect, and store submitted theses over the years, so this can be accessed digitally or through your university library – or just ask your supervisor. Tip 3: What’s the maximum word limit for your thesis submission? Most universities provide very vague and basic ‘rules’ about the formatting of your PhD thesis, so it’s worth looking through this sooner rather than later. Usually it’s just about the basics such as referencing style, font size and line spacing. Tip four: Speak to your supervisor about timelines, how you want to navigate feedback/comments, and what they think a good structure or word count is. Speaking to your supervisor early on about this will not only will help you figure out how to attack your PhD thesis, but it can also save you a significant amount of time – especially if a ‘good’ PhD thesis is 30,000 words less that what’s advised or if they have difficulty with their time management and need a lot of notice to look through your work.

Once you’ve navigated through all these parts, take some time to put together a Gannt chart or progress table to keep track and organise your schedule. If this feels overwhelming or even not possible, have a re-evaluation of your priorities. This post on time management might be able to help. If you’re not sure how to put together a Gannt chart or progress table, here’s one for free:

At this stage you’ve got your plan and idea, the next best thing is to not overthink it and just write. Do not try and write the perfect thesis, just try and finish one chapter at a time, get feedback and amend. Repeat this process indefinitely until you’re ready to submit. It sounds easy and it sounds straightforward but it’s not. Writing your PhD thesis is a slog, can be draining and ultimately can feel very monotonous and lead to burnout if you’re not careful. So do try to break the writing up, write in different venues or locations, change your desk set up, and schedule in routine breaks. Certainly, if you start earlier you can afford to write more sporadically (as long as you don’t procrastinate). A good word of advice is to set a daily word target, something small, like 300 – 900 words. If you do the average of this target, like 600 words a day over 6 months, that’s 72,000 words, not including weekends. Of course, some days you’ll write less, some days you’ll write more – but having a daily word goal helps massively and can remove some of that ‘guilt’ you feel about not writing enough. All in all, try to take a calculated and strategic approach to writing your PhD thesis.

One final word of guidance when writing your PhD thesis is to reflect on the process throughout. Especially if you plan to leave academia after and don’t want to pursue a post-doc. It can be an amazing exercise to work out what you enjoyed throughout your PhD and what parts of your PhD thesis writing you get satisfaction from. You might find that you actually love the writing process and putting your findings down on paper, or you might dabble a bit more in your analysis (if you work with data) because you enjoy that part more. Either way, it can help you identify the skills you’ve deployed and harnessed throughout your PhD which ultimately act as the compass to guide you when trying to identify a post-PhD career path that you enjoy!


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