Why I Had to Unlearn Everything From the 7th Grade to Finish Writing My Thesis
Writing my thesis challenged everything I had learned about proper English writing.
My first real writing assignment in 7th grade was to write a report about my favorite book that I read during the summer.
Our teacher, Ms. P, was a no-nonsense person, and she handed out a detailed template for the report.
In capital roman numerals she listed the major sections which included information about the book, characters, main plot, and my opinion of the book.
Within each section there were subsections with details about each character, place of story, and how the problem was solved.
Up to that point this was the longest piece of writing I had to produce.
I am not a native English speaker (I was born in Hungary), and I had only been in the Unites States for only one year at that time.
Yet, I was determined to get an A+.
My parents had to make sacrifices for us to be able to move to the US and I wanted to make them proud of me.
I listened to Ms. P’s words very carefully and followed the outline verbatim.
As she suggested, I went through the different sections in the order they were listed.
The result was a boring and straight-forward paper.
I did not get an A+, just an A, but this was enough to convince me that Ms. P’s outline was the recipe for writing good papers.
I applied this process all throughout middle school, high school, and college.
While I did not enjoy writing at the time, Ms. P’s orderly method served me well enough to get A’s on most of my essays and term papers.
My second year in graduate school put me to the test…
I had 2 months to write my thesis proposal for my PhD and I struggled for weeks.
For some reason, every time I sat down to write, my brain froze.
Ms. P’s method was not working.
Previously, in English and History classes in college, I had been given a clearly-defined assignments.
There was a title, and a list of questions that I had to answer within my report.
The writing of my thesis proposal presented a completely different set of challenges.
I only had a very vaguely defined topic and nearly a hundred journal articles to go through.
This was the first time that I had to come up with both the topic of the paper and the paper itself.
In addition, I had defend it in front of my committee and convince them that this was an original contribution to my field of research.
This was daunting given that I had only 1 year of experience in the lab (and that was part-time, as I was taking classes as well).
How could I possibly come up with a research topic, let alone put together an outline, and write each section in an orderly fashion?
After weeks of struggling and staring blankly at my computer screen, I was very close to deciding to give up and leave graduate school altogether.
One evening, my friends invited me to dinner to celebrate our colleague’s birthday.
During the dinner I began talking with one of the postdocs about the struggles I was having with my thesis proposal.
She just shook her head and said:
“Are you trying to write your proposal from beginning to end?
We always leave writing of the abstract and the introduction to the end.
Just start with your methods section and your preliminary data.
That’s what the committee will pay the most attention to anyway.”
I began writing that very night, and my process went against everything Ms. P taught me.
Instead of writing everything from beginning to end, I just summarized all the data that I collected and my methods.
I felt so liberated, that I disregarded grammar and style.
I just wrote as much as I could in 2 hours so I could get home by a reasonable time.
With this push in momentum, I was able to finish my thesis proposal by the deadline (with all the grammar and style corrected in the final draft) and defend it in front of my committee.
Tossing out Ms. P’s orderly process was the first step in learning academic writing (or any creative writing for that matter).
During the next few years I learned even more strategies that were essential to help me to complete my thesis by the deadline.
7 Rules You Must Violate to Finish Writing Your Thesis & Get Your PhD
1. Writing the sections of your thesis in order
Since research is a journey of discovery it is impossible to write your thesis from beginning to end.
Most researchers write the abstract last.
It varies from student to student which section is easiest.
In the experimental science the methods sections is usually easiest to begin with, followed by the results sections.
I have coached students in the humanities and social sciences as well, and they usually don’t write all the chapters in order either.
Sometimes the introduction (literature search) is the toughest, and many students leave it until the end.
Start with whichever chapter is easiest for you so you can pick up momentum in your writing.
2 Write for a set number hours a day
While it is great if you have blocked out time in your calendar every day for writing, it is more important to focus on the results than the time you spend writing.
Without well-defined goals, writing your thesis for 2 hours can produce absolutely nothing.
Instead, try to write a certain number of pages, or complete a clear and realistic goal such as creating a table or making a figure.
3. If you skip a day, make it up the next day by writing twice as much
We are all great planners – or at least we try to be.
We make a plan, and a week later we discover that we did not really follow through.
So, the following week we try even harder to “make up” for all the lost time.
This is a mistake, and it can lead to burnout and poor quality writing.
To produce high quality writing, focus on today’s writing only.
Forget the guilt of not writing enough yesterday.
Put aside any worries about how you will meet your writing goals tomorrow.
Make the best of every day by setting realistic goals for that day – this will help you to keep up your momentum.
4. Make yourself resist distractions
If I could have a dollar for every graduate graduate student who asked me: “How can I resist distractions”? I would have a small fortune.
Try to “not think of a white elephant” .
Do you see the white elephant?
I do too.
Your mind is quite stubborn.
Once it comes up with an idea, such as “I must email XYZ to ask about….” it will not leave you alone until you do something about it.
But that something does not have to be writing the email and getting distracted by all the messages in your inbox.
The simplest solutions is to write every thought down.
If it is out of your head and on a piece of paper there is a good chance your mind will leave you alone.
(Notebooks and notepads work better than post-its).
Then, take care of these items once you finish writing your thesis for the day.
There are many ways to “resist” social media (disconnect from the Internet while writing).
But, if social media is important for your work (e.g. Linkedin for job searching), you need to set reasonable boundaries.
A good solution is to go on social media only at predefined times of day – and preferably late in the day after you got your work done.
5. Follow rules of grammar and style while you write
Remember the spelling tests from second and third grade?
Many schools today place a smaller emphasis on spelling, and focus more helping students to develop their creative writing skills.
The reason is that teachers realized that students were afraid to express their ideas if they did not know how to spell certain words.
Many students try to get the grammar, style, and even formatting of their thesis perfect even before they have all their ideas down.
Remember that it is much easier to correct your grammar and spelling than to write creatively.
Use your writing time for putting as many ideas on paper as you can.
Leave the editing and styling for the later stages after you have all your arguments in order.
6. Write when you feel inspired
This rule is tricky.
Yes, if you feel inspired it is a good idea to write down any ideas you have.
If you can carry around a small notebook to capture your impromptu thoughts, it could save you from staring at the computer screen blankly for hours.
The problem with this rule is that it leads students to believe that inspiration will come someday, and then they can start to write.
To finish writing your thesis you also have to write when you are not inspired.
In fact, 95% of the time when you write you will not feel any inspiration at all when you sit down at the computer.
Skilled writers know how to write when they have no inspiration at all, and they would rather be doing anything else (including cleaning the bathroom), than to write.
There is no secret.
When you have a deadline to meet, and you have no ideas, you need to write anyway.
If you feel stuck, do some free writing.
You can even write about why you cannot write about your thesis.
After 10 pages of free writing, there is a very good chance that you will have some ideas that can go into your thesis or paper.
The good news is that if you write when you do not have any inspiration, the inspiration will come as you write.
This is a very rewarding process.
7. Grandma’s law: You have to eat your zucchini (or spinach, lima beans, broccoli etc.) before you can have dessert
This law works to some extent when applied during dinner time, but it can lead to having an aversion to foods that are actually good for you.
In graduate school this law can lead to self-deprivation for years, which can result in loss of motivation and focus.
Many graduate students have no publishable results until their final year.
Does this mean that you should not reward yourself until your thesis is approved and bound in a shiny black cover?
Rewarding yourself for your effort consistently (whether you get good results or not), will actually lead to increased self-confidence and better quality work.
Celebrate each small success – and definitely do not wait until your graduation party to have dessert!
When I was a 1st year student a postdoc told me that he felt empty inside after he defended his thesis successfully.
He was not proud of himself at all.
While he was relieved, he did not feel like celebrating.
I had a similar experience.
My hooding ceremony was a day just like any other.
I did not feel ecstatic, and it actually surprised me how ordinary the day was after so many years of anticipation.
Don’t wait for others or external results to give you a sense of accomplishment.
You need to give yourself the feeling of confidence, whether your work goes well or not.
Celebrate each small victory and every small step you take in the right direction.
Whether you celebrate with dessert, a movie, or a night out with friends, your creative mind will thank you for taking care of it on a regular basis.