Getting a PhD: Writing 'The Thesis'

Apparently, it is perfectly normal for research writing to be a slow process. These authors expressed it so well:

"In graduate school, you will be immersing yourself in a life of reading and writing, neither of which will be fun. For most people, writing of any kind requires effort, and writing well requires more, but academic writing is especially difficult. It is difficult because it is (rightfully) subject to scrutiny, and therefore every substantive factual assertion that you make in your writing will have to be based upon evidence that must be cited meticulously. You will seldom write a paragraph that lacks a citation, meaning that you will rarely have the opportunity to indulge in an enjoyable, free-flowing production of words unimpeded by constant pauses to consult sources and record attributions. Academic writing can be agonizingly slow." From this blog.


"As key words are jotted down under headings, as reminder notes are made to look up references, as dot-points are added all over the document, the writer can see how much remains to be done. It is a process of going over and over the same ground, gradually filling in the story without reaching an obvious endpoint.And even when the sections and chapters appear to be written up in full, they will still require a lengthy process of reworking draft after draft. Indeed, it is precisely this iteration and reiteration that Anthony ParĂ© identifies as a crucial difference between undergraduate and doctoral writing. The final neat, smooth product we see in the completed thesis or published article doesn’t reveal anything of this arduous intellectual work. This is, of course, the same with any form of design that has been through multiple versions before settling on one final form: it looks obvious now that its shape has been revealed." From this blog.

So, how to proceed?

1. As thesis writing can be unbelievably slow, it is often advised to begin writing as soon as possible, perhaps from the Results sections as these tend to take the most time to write.
2. Accept that writing up is not going to be easy but is totally doable. In my department, the average number of pages is about 250 including references. So don't be surprised if you develop varying degrees of anxiety*. To prevent yourself from getting overwhelmed, try to: (a) break the dissertation down to manageable portions and tackle these portions regularly, (b) invest some time in producing good quality figures, because good-looking figures not only make you feel better about your research, they can also give you ideas to write about. 

3. Taking short breaks from writing can refresh the mind and improve the quality of the thesis. Just keep telling yourself this to quieten your guilt over not giving the thesis your attention 24/7 :-) Some students run or do other forms of exercise to de-stress, for example. 

4. Speaking from a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) perspective, by the end of the third or fourth year of research you'd have most certainly acquired many transferable skills and learnt some tips/"hacks". You therefore get awesome opportunities to share some of your knowledge/'best practices' with new students. As rewarding these experiences are though, at some point you would need to focus solely on your own work. 
5. It is useful to signpost throughout your dissertation. This makes the lives of the readers (i.e. the examiners, your supervisors) easier as they will have a clear idea of what to expect in each section.

*If you begin to feel really overwhelmed/depressed, please reach out to someone you trust, or to student counselling services. Try to keep things in perspective too; I usually tell myself that my research is not likely to solve world hunger. There's also useful information addressing thesis writing anxiety here.

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