Writing up a PhD thesis

At some point in the journey to the PhD, it is time to stop experimentation, stop data collection, stop fieldwork, and consider how to convert this huge pile of data into a PhD. It’s not easy. No one said it would be easy. But it is achievable. Here are some coping strategies that I used when I was writing up – and still use today – that might be useful to anyone contemplating a large writing project, be that undergraduate or masters’ dissertation or a PhD.

Small manageable chunks

Feeling nervous pre-race with my racing partner
Feeling nervous pre-race with my racing partner

In another life, I was a marathon kayaker and did some very long kayaking marathons. A PhD thesis is a little like a marathon. If you look at it as a whole, it is a huge, unachievable behemoth. There is so much to do. Where to start? All these ideas fizz around your head, keeping you awake at night and preventing you from working effectively during the day.

So, the first thing, is: Stop. If I sat at the start line of a kayaking marathon race and thought, ‘jeeze, I’ve got so many miles to go, I can’t paddle that far!’, I’d never get started. Instead, I only ever thought as far as the next lock or portage. It’s the same in writing. Just focus on one achievable goal at a time. Concentrate on just finishing that chapter. It’s only 5000 words or so. You can do that. You’ve written that much lots of times – for undergraduate dissertations, essays, reports and such like. Don’t think about writing the whole of the thesis. Think about writing that chapter. You’ll get there in the end – one chapter at a time.

Ready to go on the start line of Waterside A
Ready to go on the start line of Waterside A kayak marathon. I was writing up at the time.

Get into good writing habits

There are a number of things you can do to make writing up a PhD thesis easier and more achievable. Here are my top tips.

Try and write 500 words a day. That’s easy, anyone can write 500 words a day. That’s just one page. Make them good words, and write every day. 500 words every day.

Staring at a blank screen can be hard. The cursor blinks at you as you freeze, hands poised over the keyboard, not knowing where to begin. You wrack your brains for a fabulous opening line. You just don’t know where to start. STOP. Again, break it down into manageable chunks. Write the title: Chapter Four: Results. Write some subheadings: Introduction, Methods, Discussion, whatever. Under each heading, write a few keywords, one for each paragraph you plan to put into that section. Before you know it, you have a working document that you can start editing and adding to with ease. Getting started is the main thing – once you have a start, it often begins to flow.

Try the 30 Minute Focus. You can’t concentrate for much longer than 30 minutes, and we’re constantly distracted by emails, phone calls, texts, ‘Mentions’ on Twitter. Turn it off. Turn it all off. Close those emails – yes, close them – and put your phone away. Now work solidly for 30 minutes without distraction. Then you can open your emails, check your phone, get a coffee, whatever you want to do. Take 10 to 20 minutes, then do it all again.

Reward yourself. Don’t become a hermit who can only think and talk about The Thesis. Once you’ve written your 500 words, take a break, go for a walk or to the gym, get outside or go and meet a friend for coffee. You’ve earned it.

Hopefully not! From PhD comics
Hopefully not! From PhD comics

Staying healthy

Take time off for doing things you enjoy. I like to walk outdoors and spot wildlife, or go mountain biking.
Take time off for doing things you enjoy. I like to walk outdoors and spot wildlife, like this Kaka in New Zealand, or go mountain biking.

The stress of writing up a PhD thesis can take its toll on your physical and mental health. It’s not uncommon to put on a little weight writing up. Everyone knows it’s hard, and it’s tempting for those little ‘rewards’ to be sugary chocolate or a frothy milky coffee. Don’t worry too much about it – you can go on a health bend after you’ve submitted! But in the meantime, a healthy body is a healthy mind. Limit your working hours. Don’t work too late at night, and make sure you take at least one, preferably two days off at the weekend. Keep fit and healthy with regular exercise, which will boost your brain power and give you feel-good endorphins.

Take time off to do things you enjoy. Whether that’s making things, art, physical exercise, walking the dog, time with friends, going to the cinema or art gallery, whatever you enjoy, take time to do it.

Start early, work steadily

The best way to write a PhD thesis is to start early, and to not leave it all to the last year. Even in your first year you probably need to write a literature review or report. Work hard at it, and you’ll be able to use it later on. Talk to your supervisors about writing up papers as you go along. This is excellent career advice and wonderful writing training. This is a marathon, after all, not a sprint – just keep going, slow and steady, from the word go, chipping away at that thesis.

Talk it out

Try not to withdraw and become a recluse during your writing up period. Talk to your friends. It’s also important to keep up with old, non-PhD friends, who’ll discuss their cat or their antics at the weekend, and keep you grounded in the real world. If you’re stressed, talk to your supervisors, who should be able to help. That’s what they’re there for. If you start to feel crushed or overwhelmed, talk to a professional or to your doctor, who may also be able to help.

Stay positive

Remember to celebrate the small things, not just the big achievements
Remember to celebrate the small things, not just the big achievements

Remember that you’ll get there in the end! You can do it! You’ve done some great work already. If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be where you are now. Celebrate the small successes as well as the big ones. Got an abstract accepted for a conference? Pat yourself on the back! Paper submitted? Champagne! It’s important to remember to celebrate the small things.

Some people keep a ‘Feel Good’ file. Every time you get a nice email, every time you have something accepted, every time you do something you’re proud of, print it off and put it in your Feel Good file. You’ll have tangible, physical evidence of your achievements that you can open up and look through when things feel a little tough.

The sun always rises

No matter how bad things can seem, the sun always comes up in the morning. You never blow it all in one go. If you feel things are getting out of hand, it’s very important to talk to someone – friends, supervisors, a doctor, your parents. Writing up is tough, but you can get through it. One small, 500-word, chapter-sized step at a time.

Sunrise at the Moeraki Boulders, South Island, New Zealand
Sunrise at the Moeraki Boulders, South Island, New Zealand

6 thoughts on “Writing up a PhD thesis”

  1. I am very pleased to read tips for ph.D thesis. I have same problem where to start. I am student of Economics and my topic is Money demand, exchange rate and Remittance.So hope to be guided properly.

  2. Thanks very much Bethan for this great post. I really enjoyed reading your insightful tips and will share them in my Facebook group.
    Cheers, Omar

  3. Your nurturing words of advice are just what I needed this morning as I sit at my First Year PhD Desk, wondering if I’ve got what it takes today, to produce anything worthwhile! There’s nothing as good as wisdom from someone who can still remember what it was like and take the trouble to share it with those of us who need it. Thanks!

  4. This is the second time I’ve read this blog entry now, and I predict I will read it once a month for the next 6 months whilst I’m writing up! Thanks for the words of wisdom Bethan!

  5. I love the symbiotic relationship between your adventurous interest in marathon kayaking and your PhD. It speaks to me because I am very focused on adventurous pursuits and have included my love of bright spot dive tourism in my PhD. Write up is tough! It is a marathon. I’ve never faced so many doubts. I focus on publishing at the top of the marine science. Just increases the pressure. Thank God, I’ve already won an award at that level, so that keeps me going through the darkness of cobbling together theoretical frameworks to put a lens over my data analysis. Good to know I’m not alone in what seems like the ultimate in loneliness; writing up my research results into a PhD. ?

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