How do you write a thesis? What exactly is required? What content do you need, and how should it it be structured?
Well that’s just the problem, there is no exact formula to follow. Everybody’s research is different, and each individual supervisor has their own preferences.
There’s another problem too, rooted in the difference between a PhD and everything you’ve done before.
As an undergraduate (and throughout your education before then), you probably had clear instructions as to what to do to pass… learn all this stuff, do an exam, and the number of correct answers you get determines your grade.
In many ways, originality and creativity are stifled in the education system. Because the reward system is based on reproducing the right answer and mistakes are penalised, there is very little incentive to take any kind of risk.
But when you reach PhD level, you are pushing up against the edge of knowledge in your chosen field. Nobody else has done the research you have done. Nobody knows the answer, so it’s up to you to have a go at explaining your findings.
To be a good academic, you have to take risks. You have to put yourself in a position where you’re going to be judged, and where people might disagree with you.
This, I think, is one of the biggest causes of thesis writer’s block, because the system isn’t well designed to prepare you for this.
What is required?
A thesis is just an exam, albeit an unusual one, so it helps to know what you’re being assessed on.
On the surface, the examiner is looking at the quality of the research, the structure of your argument, the quality, relevance and depth of your references… but essentially it boils down to one thing:
Are you capable of discussing your work on a professional academic level?
The thesis is your opportunity to set the terms of that discussion. You set the context, you decide the aims, you decide what to include and what to leave out, you interpret the results and discuss their implications. There is no right answer, no list of references you must include, no exact number of pages.
What is required is the confidence to make those decisions and stand by them in the defence of your thesis.
Naturally, some parts of your research will be stronger than others. So what many people do is spend a long time trying to strengthen the weak bits, anticipating that these will be what the examiner focuses on.
Unfortunately, this can put you in a very defensive (sometimes almost ap0logetic) frame of mind when you write. The sections become long and rambling without any clear conclusion (because you don’t have one).
So it makes much more sense to spend more time and effort writing about the stronger parts of your work, and making clear, confident statements wherever possible to emphasize your best results.
The same goes for writing about the background theory; write about the areas you know best and are most confident in, because you’re setting the content for your own exam.
Supervisors have varying preferences in terms of writing style, and aren’t always good at explaining what they expect from you. So a good way to start is by reading some of your supervisor’s work, so you can get a sense of their style.
Beyond that, a good rule of thumb is to keep the style simple and be aware of the rhythm of your writing.
Big, dense blocks of text take more effort to read. So it’s good to break up long paragraphs, and also to mix up long and short sentences. Usually, sentences come out quite long because you’re thinking as you write. Therefore it’s good practice to edit immediately (while the idea is still clear in your head) to trim the sentence and make it more concise.
(Check out these posts: Balance; how to write a thesis the examiner will want to read, and How to write like Carl Sagan)
Clarity is king. As I’ve said before, the examiner can disagree with you, but they should never misunderstand you.
When you write and edit, your first consideration should be whether there’s any ambiguity in the statements you’re making. If there is, then either rewrite, or spend a little time thinking of a nice, clear, confident statement to summarize what you just said.
Getting it done
Writing requires solid blocks of uninterrupted time, especially when you are writing about complex ideas. If you are interrupted or distracted, it can feel like the ideas are impossible to grab hold of. So it’s essential to create a protected time and space to write, no matter how many other demands on your time you have.
It’s also vital to narrow your focus onto one task, idea or sub-section at a time. You might have 1000 ideas in your head, but like a crowd trying to get through a narrow doorway, they can’t all come out at once! Pick one topic and give it the time and attention it deserves.
Finally, whatever you’re working on, see it through to completion. Too often, things are left “70% done”, with the intention of coming back to finish it later. But then you can end up never finishing anything, circling around the finish line rather than stepping over it.
The number of things you have left to do has to decrease if you ever want to finish, so that means getting things complete and ready to submit one-by-one until there’s nothing left to do. The alternative is a mad scramble during the last two weeks trying to go back and fill in all the gaps (= guaranteed stress).
When I wrote my thesis, I used a lot of deliberate tactics to help me write fast (see How I wrote a PhD thesis in 3 months).
But there were psychological factors too. I was happy and relaxed, felt in control of the process, and though I took pride in the work, honestly didn’t care too much if I failed. So I was able to write and enjoy the process without worrying about the end result too much, or worrying about what failure would mean about me.
If you can put that worry aside, you can concentrate on getting the job done, and maybe, just maybe, you might enjoy it.