10 Tips for PhD Students writing their PhD Thesis

I would not provide the usual academic tips from Profs (have a plan, have a schedule, put your papers in your thesis to avoid writer’s block …).
I would try to do it in a more pragmatic way, as I’ve been through it not so long ago. Writing was a bit boring, frustrating at some point, but overall, it went quite smoothly and, I still have a good feeling when talking about this period. So without further ado.

There are two things a PhD Student has to survive. (1) the PhD thesis itself, it lasts for a good 2 years (2 years and half), perhaps a bit more depending where you are doing your PhD thesis. In this part of your life, you have to read, be creative, develop, read, write, be creative, read, submit papers, travel, read, present your work. Nothing new under the sun. (2) Writing the thesis document itself, which is like leaving for a crusade, an adventure, a hunger game, taking the black, becoming a Jedi, etc. Something really tough that people not having a PhD cannot have a single tiny intuition about. Something really crazy that only happens once or twice in a life (if you are crazy enough to go for an habilitation in the French system). Despite all of this, it’s not that bad and, at the end, you’ll become the super hero of the day for your family. 🙂

First, a few words to just set up the global picture for my own (and unique experience).
Classical way. We discussed the plan and the schedule of the thesis something around end of March 2013. The objective was to have a deadline around end of September and a defense in December 2013.

Finally, I started for real in July, due to a portion of laziness, opportunity to write an unrelated, yet funny, paper (see ASE2013), and a trip to Norway for a project. At that moment I had only a couple of pages written without a consistent storyline. I won’t go to any further details but only to the end of the story. I submitted my thesis on the 30th of September (a Monday) but it was finished on the Thursday or something like this before. I just let the week-end over to look for typos and so on. So these are the lessons I learnt from this 3 months period of my life 🙂

  1. Don’t do it on your own. You may have friends, or colleagues in the same situation. Talk and exchange, they could provide insights and tips on how to draw a figure,  to have a good storyline for a given subsection. You can friendly compete or encourage your group to see how much you have done. You can spend your week-ends with them in the lab instead of being lonely at home …
  2. If you’re screwed with one section, switch to another one, you’ll come back later with fresh ideas. It may sounds trivial but you may sometimes stick too much to the schedule and hinder your productivity. It happened to me at the end of July, I was screwed on the state of the art section (the most boring one) and I just needed this simple OBVIOUS advice to go ahead.
  3. Send whatever you have to send, even if it’s not finished. You just need to explain your supervisor what to read and what to avoid. What you want for sure,  is not to waste your supervisor’s time or piss him with early draft. However, it can help in finding the right directions or to put things in order.
  4. Be prepared to spend an horrible last month. No matter how well you will be prepared, how good writer you are, how fast you are, how advanced you are. The last month will just be hell. Anticipate the fact that you will be pissed of almost everything during the last weeks. Warn your friends in advance 😉 so that your bad mood will be easier to forgive 😉
  5. Prepare a playlist of your favorite (but not depressive) music. No trash/death metal, or only for quick breaks (It is not good for point 4). Original soundtracks are the best way to concentrate but also to lose the sense of time. For the rest, just do accordingly to your preferences. Personally I went with different periods listening to OSTs, jazz, electronic, progressive, world, chill-out ambiances but also rock from time to time) 😉
  6. Have a break in the middle (a good week). Just go away when you still have time (basically, 2 months before sending it to the reviewers, it is still quite good). It is also a way to mitigate point 4.
  7. Keep practicing sport and/or your usual hobbies. It’s the best way to empty and refresh your mind and have a sustainable writing activity. Even at the end, though you may prioritize writing, just leave some room for escape 🙂
  8. Find some unrelated readings for the night (science-fiction, fantasy, comic strips, history, whatever). It’s a continuation of the previous point about sport and hobbies. It helps to keep a good sleep instead of still being under pressure, thinking about how things should be written or something alike. I woke up a couple of times during nights, having a flash idea during a dream and trying to put things together quickly in order not to forget. Usually, they were finally not that good in the end. To avoid this, even if it was only for 5-10 minutes at 1AM or 2AM, just leave some rooms for this.
  9. Remember that people, supervisors, colleagues, friends, family when asking you about your thesis are NOT doing it to puzzle or harass you. They want you to succeed! Let’s turn it into positive vibrations (learnt from tips from TED Coaches).
  10. Try to keep smiling (that’s why I use so much :)) and find your own way out … as everybody did (that’s the creative way to say the list is not exhaustive).

1 Response to 10 Tips for PhD Students writing their PhD Thesis

  1. The best way I think to be successful when writing a thesis is to mitigate stress as much as possible. The PhD thesis is one of the hardest tasks in an academic career, and it is important to lessen the anxiety of it all. If you ever need more assistance, I have found a few other posts which give more tips on how to best go about writing a thesis:


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