- Keeping motivated
- Time management
- Peer support
- Working with your supervisor and thesis committee
- Writing – how to
Am I up to it? Everyone asks themselves this question. Yes YOU CAN DO THIS! You don’t have to be brilliant to write a Ph.D. Thorough and careful work, with the goals and outcomes of a thesis in mind (The first unit of TiM ) will get you there.
Will it take time? – yes, a lot of time – and likely some sacrifices. Those whom you care about may not get to spend the time with you that you or they would like – and you may struggle with guilt and prioritizing your precious time– but YOU DESERVE THIS! – You have come a long way to this point and you owe it to yourself and to them to finish it. They will usually understand this if you help them do so. And they will be proud to refer to you as “Dr”.
Do I have the confidence to join this august and prestigious community of academic scholars? Keep in mind that, although this feels like to magnum opus – the major achievement – of your work to date, it isn’t. It is an entry requirement for you to step into academia. After your thesis you may well go on to write much more and better work. It’s a huge undertaking! Yes – This may be the longest paper you have ever written, but it will not be the most brilliant and prestigious paper you ever write – those can follow. This one is a starting point- it is your best work at this stage in your career – not your ultimate achievement. So by definition, you can do it! It must be clearly laid out, convincing because of the evidence you present, and honest – valid, supported by sources -, and your own work. This will indeed mark the threshold of a new career – and it may change your life. But this won’t happen instantly. It’s part of an ongoing process that you will savour.
If you have self doubt, you share it with many others. No matter what field you enter in your career, or what stage you reach, you will meet people who are more knowledgeable and competent and successful than you. But it doesn’t follow that you have failed. These are your role models. This is a life’s work as you gain the confidence and expertise to emulate them.
Making your topic your own. This is your contribution to your field – it is unique to you. When you go to defend it you will know more about this topic than anyone else in the room – really!! Even your supervisor will not have the depth of reading and understanding that you have. I know this because I’m proud of what my graduates have taught me!
Read, read, read. Preparing the context for your study is like throwing a stone (your study) into a large pond. The pond is all the literature that is your field. As the ripples of where the stone hit the water enlarge and move out, you encounter related literature, the history of your field, and the key researchers and writers who have made significant contributions to your ‘pond’. You will know when you touch the edges of your pond; you will have become familiar with not only your topic and its antecedents, but also related and peripheral studies. In short you will gave grasped how your study fits into the larger field, and how and why it makes a contribution to it. Then you will be able to go back to where you threw in the stone in the first place because you will be able to locate your study precisely in its larger context.
Have a system for keeping track of what you read. See Unit 6 for a more in depth discussion. One of my previous students recently told me that this was the most valuable piece if advice I gave her. (I hope there were others!!). Your system could be a set of index cards, an electronic file (with lots of back up), a file cabinet of offprints with a fully annotated list, a mixture with a master index. It depends on how you work and annotate material, but it needs to be systematic.
What should be in your system? For each article you read, at least:
– Key words for retrieving it later. You may develop a classificatory system as you begin to write, and add your readings to various sections of each topic – often to more than one. It’s hard to start with a classificatory system, and you will revise it as the topics emerge, so keep it simple
– The main points, – what each article or source says that might be useful, complete with quotes and page numbers etc.
– Other authors cited in that article, what they are purported to have written that you will want to check – and for whom you may create a new file later
– The full citation of the source, its date, title, full author list, publication, page numbers and date of electronic retrieval. Be OCD – don’t skip the detail. (Oh, how much time you waste when you are writing up and you didn’t save the source and have to go back to find it!!)
Here is an excellent (and YouTube fast access) resources to help you:
Professor Simon Peyton Jones, Microsoft Research,
“How to write a great research paper” – this contains some excellent advice
He has an interesting take on writing to do research and not researching to write.
He offers seven simple suggestions: don’t wait – write, identify your key idea, tell a story, nail your contributions, put related work at the end, put your readers first, listen to your readers.
The main point here is that you have to exercise self discipline. There isn’t another way to get your work done except to schedule it. And it needs to be sacrosanct – no interruptions and no social media etc. Turn off your cell phone and focus on your computer’s thesis tab. Just you, your research materials and your computer, good lighting, a well structured desk and chair, and perhaps something nice to sip.
The scheduling is up to you. It could be the allocation of one or more hours per day; with or without weekends off. One of my students rose at 5 am to spend two hours with her thesis before her kids and husband got up, after which she prepared them and herself for a full work day. Another allocated three hours every night after her work day when her children were in bed. She told me that some nights she would stare at her computer for the full three hours without being able to move forward – but she would not let herself off the hook. In retrospect she thinks this might have been thinking time, when her material incubated and began to take shape in her mind. Other nights the writing flowed, often after a spell of thinking about it. She deserves a medal – and the doctorate she earned – for her self discipline.
Instead of an allocation of time, you can also set yourself a daily goal of number words written. It could be 1000 or more or less. One student had a slogan on her computer that read “If I write today I will feel good”. She still has that post-it. Another student confesses that he is a perfectionist; he cannot write and leave what he has written, but must keep revising it. As a result, he is preventing himself from moving forward, and may keep losing sight of his larger topic and goals. So another good rule at least in the early stages of writing is to try to write everyday, writing anything that comes to mind associated with your thesis, and without too much editing. Aim to get the ideas out there, and to polish them later when you incorporate them into your larger document. Quality doesn’t matter initially – just get the thinking down.
Look after yourself – get your sleep. Don’t wear yourself down to the point that you are risking your health. Did you know that research studies show that those who study for an exam then get a full night’s sleep do far better on the exam the next day than those who study all night? The brain does some important organizing during sleep – make sure that the incubation process is helping you too.
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ulterior-motives/201611/how-sleep-enhances-studying (Retrieved June 26 2017)
There are some tips from a YouTube video that addresses the subject of giving yourself a daily writing goal:
Christopher Elphick PhD Writing advice #1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O57Ydj-m-6E
Peers and critical friends. Writing a thesis can be a long and lonely process. You may have completed your course and examination requirements and find yourself less or even not connected with the academy and with peers. You may have returned to a job or to a location away from your supervisor and your support systems. You may feel alone and that you are undertaking a journey that none of your family and friends fully appreciates. So what are some of the things that you can do to help yourself?
Staying connected is paramount. Is there a group of fellow students who are undertaking a similar path, and with whom you can connect?
Some of the mechanisms for this include:
A virtual or an actual weekly meeting with a group of peers. This could entail each person setting a goal for the week then checking in with the group at the end of the week to receive a virtual or an actual pat on the back.
A blog site. There are several on-line blogs that assist thesis writers to engage with others for advice and support. The obvious candidate is this one, Thesis in Motion; https://thesisinmotion.com/ where we hope you will join the blog spot and interact with peers.
Two other excellent ones are:
The Explorations of Style website contains a blog in which participants discuss the challenges of academic writing. Convened by Professor Rachel Cayley at the University of Toronto
https://thesiswhisperer.com/ The Thesis Whisperer is convened by Dr. Inger Mewburn at the Australian National University.
A writing group. Most universities have a student support service that offers, among other things, writing groups or ‘boot camps’ to which you bring your laptop and materials. You write, uninterrupted, for the day. In some groups you start by setting a (realistic) goal for what you want to achieve by day’s end, and finish by reporting how far you came. Some groups prohibit cell phones and social media.
Your local university student support centre. Check to see what resources it has to support students – graduate student peers who will read and respond to your drafts, assistance with English as a second language, seminars on research design, data analysis, Write-ins etc.
A critical friend. If you have a friend or a co-worker who is aware of the challenges of writing a thesis, enlist his or her help. This person can do any number of tasks to help you proceed; monitor your writing schedule, read and comment on drafts, provide you with a fresh perspective on a paragraph or topic, help you frame an argument, praise you for staying with it, supply coffee!
Establish a way to work with your supervisor.
Proper guidance is essential, usually with one professor who is the supervisor. In the university setting where I work, typically a committee is brought together for the first time only after you submit a first full draft. The committee may be formed and registered on paper but the actual committee work begins when your supervisor deems your work to be close to completion. This may depends on how the supervisor works – so ask. What are the supervisor’s expectations? How available does she or he try to be for you and other thesis students – e.g. during conferences, research and projects away, during the summer or non-teaching time? During sabbatical? How much lead time would he/she need to read and comment on a draft – i.e. What is a likely turn around time? How will it work? – do you go ahead with your supervisor and involve the committee only when the supervisor deems it ready? – what is his/her preferred style of working with you?
As you develop your drafts, the topic may arise of who will be asked to serve as an external examiner. The external examiner, if your university requires one, will be asked to read and evaluate your work. He or she must usually be arm’s length from you and your program. So until the final defense of the thesis, you will not be able to hear from this examiner, and you cannot expect feedback on your work until the defense itself. Your supervisor usually has the responsibility of identifying and recommending the external examiner, and there are institutional procedures for doing this. Ultimately, this is you “reader” (see TiM guide 1), the person to whom all your work has been directed. You may discuss with your supervisor strategies for identifying potential external thesis examiners, including checking what relevant articles they have published, what kind of orientation they hold to your topic, and whether they are available on the dates and times you plan to defend.
Prepare for meetings with your thesis supervisor and committee.
- Meet regularly if possible. Take notes – bring a note pad or lap top. I often encourage students to audio-record our meeting so that they are able to make post meeting notes in detail. If in doubt about anything in your notes and memory of the meeting, check with your supervisor.
- Send a draft ahead of a meeting. Or a couple of paragraphs about what you are doing Don’t expect to describe your ideas, initial topic, etc without a draft. It could be part of a paper you have written, or an outline – but give your supervisor some idea of what you are reading, and what you would like the meeting to be about.
- Don’t cancel a meeting with your supervisor even if you don’t think you’ve written enough – describe where you are stalled and ask for suggestions to help you move ahead.
- Find ways to be with your supervisor – travel with him or her on way to research site; hang out in coffee breaks; ask for appointments; drop in – (please don’t ask “Have you got a minute?” but rather “Is there a time today when I could have a minute of your time?” The response may well be – “I have a minute now”).
The first full draft –
Before sending it to your supervisor and committee, make sure it has
– a table of contents, including where to find the list of references and appendices with contents. It is frustrating for a reader (aka professor) to read a lengthy chapter that does not have signposts in the form of headings that relate to a Table of Contents
– Page numbers so the reader can reference comments back to you, and can make notes of what to discuss with you.
– An introduction that says where you will be going
– Headings and side headings
– A brief summary of what you have tried to accomplish
Professor James Arvanitakis talks to us about 5 common mistakes that PhD candidates make during their study. The last three of these relate to meetings with your supervisor.
Some people write well, others struggle. Be assured however that good writing is not something that is embedded in your genes! It is something you learn to do with practice. A great deal could be said on the subject of how to write, but instead, here are some resources for you to read or watch, and then just get writing! If you don’t already write well you will by the end of your thesis – it is one of the challenges that you encounter on the way through.
One tip – writing for academic purposes does not have to be complex, with multiple embedded clauses and qualifying statements, in attenuated, multi-syllabic sentences that focus on the passive voice and mystify the reader as to who is claiming what – see what I mean? Academic writing, like all good writing, is simple and to the point. Examine what you have written and turn passive statements into active declarative sentences whenever possible. Break out complex embedded clauses into extra sentences. Help the reader to read from left to right and to understand your points without having to re-read and dismantle your sentences.
If you really struggle with writing and it is holding you back, you may need to co-opt or hire an editor. Pay close attention to how your work has been edited so that you learn for the next drafts. That’s how I learned – from the detailed notes of my supervisor and fellow readers.
Before you start to write, find out what is the recommended style for your thesis. In the social sciences it is usually the Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA). In other disciplines it could be Turabian or another source. The differences include how you cite your literature sources, and whether you use footnotes or appendices. Dry as it may sound, the APA Manual is an excellent resource for how to write. If this is your preferred style guide, it will be worth your time to buy and read it and to flag your copy with the sections relevant to your work. The first sections of the Manual are about writing style; from how to write concisely and clearly to the organization of a manuscript (applicable also to a thesis). The remaining chapters tell you everything you will need to know about use of language, spelling and grammar, the correct citation of published sources, referencing, how to submit and produce a manuscript for publication. If it’s in the APA Manual, it is applicable to your thesis.
APA Manual of Style 6th ed. 2009
The American Psychological Association also offers on-line courses and a wealth of resources to help you to apply APA style while you write. There are now algorithms to keep track of the references you cite and to produce them in the correct format for your reference section.:
Silvia, P. (2007 ) How to Write a lot: A practical guide to academic writing. American Psychological Association: APA Lifetools: Books
Other useful sources are the following:
National Centre for Faculty Development and Diversity
Despite its title, this site offers resources for graduate students, post docs as well as faculty on how to succeed in writing, publishing etc. It includes a 12 week program for writing/dissertation preparation. Also a blog space
As mentioned earlier, Rachel Cayley at the University of Toronto convenes a blog in which participants discuss the challenges of academic writing. Her site lets you look at previous blogs organized topically.
Helpful books include:
Belcher, W. L. (2009). Writing your journal article in 12 weeks: A guide to academic writing success. New York: Sage Publications
Bolker J. (1998). Write your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day: A guide to starting, writing and finishing your doctoral thesis New York: Owl Books
Goodson, P. (2016). Becoming an academic writer: 50 exercises for paced, productive and powerful writing. New York: Sage
Graff, G. and Birkenstein, C. (2014). They say / I say: The moves that matter in academic writing. W.W. Norton and Co.
This is not an exhaustive resource list. Indeed there are many resources, both on-line and in print, and more are coming available daily.