Grad school started out really well for me.
I was enamored with my thesis topic (yes, really) and I had a great relationship with my thesis supervisor.
During my first year I had lunch with a postdoc, and I told her how well everything was going.
“Just wait,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“One day, you will be so tired of grad school. During my last last few month I couldn’t stand looking at my thesis anymore.”
I didn’t take her comments seriously.
I assumed that the last semester of grad school would be “rough” because there would be a lot of writing, but I didn’t foresee any other challenges.
But the obstacles came sooner (a lot sooner) than I expected.
Towards the end of my first year in grad school I started feeling like I “should” be further along.
I spent so much time studying for my courses that I didn’t make progress on my thesis topic.
Some of my peers had already presented impressive data at the department seminars.
While I spent a few hours at lab every day, I had little show for my time.
Before I realized it, these feelings led to a downward spiral in my emotions.
I was ashamed of myself for disappointing my thesis supervisor and parents.
I lost my motivation and I developed a severe case of writer’s block when I had to write my thesis proposal.
By the beginning of my second year, I seriously started to question myself:
“Will this ever or should I quit grad school?”
At the end of my 5th year I became desperate:
“Why can’t I just get this DONE? Everyone else is finishing up, what’s wrong with me?”
Looking back, I now see that I could have prevented these self-defeating thoughts with just a few changes to my daily habits.
Grad school is meant to challenge you, but it is not meant to keep you captive, ruin your health or isolate you from your friends.
The tough part is that the habits that worked so well in college
(like working all the time until the semester ended)
will just lead to a burnout in grad school.
But, there is hope.
If you really want to get your thesis done, you MUST implement new habits that get you closer to a finished manuscript.
The good news is that hundreds (probably millions) of students worldwide have already finished their thesis.
If they could do it, you can too.
In fact, if you implement the tips below, finishing your thesis will become inevitable – you WILL get it done.
It is impossible to hit a target that you don’t have, yet that is what many grad students try to do.
They plan on graduating in 6 or 12 months, but when I ask them what they need to do to finish their thesis they reply something like:
“I am not entirely sure…” or “I haven’t brought it up with my committee…”
I get it.
I know how intimidating it can be to have the “talk” with your supervisor or stand in front of a committee.
But isn’t the uncertainty of your future even more intimidating?
How can you plan on finishing your thesis if you don’t know what to do?
By definition, research is uncertain, and the requirements for your thesis will change as you collect and analyze data.
However, you can only adjust your trajectory when you are in motion.
You cannot make adjustments if you are standing still.
What if you thesis supervisor or committee is evasive, and you cannot get a clear answer?
Then, go to step 2 below.
It is never too early to get clear on the requirements for your thesis.
I worked with several students who, for financial reasons, had to finish in 4 years in a department where the average time to graduate was 6-7 years.
How could these students finish their thesis so “quickly”?
They weren’t smarter, nor did they work longer hours than their peers.
What set them apart from other students was a sense of urgency, because they had a firm deadline for their thesis.
These students started thinking about the requirements for their thesis in their first year.
They didn’t take “not now” for an answer if their supervisor was too busy to meet with them.
They were persistent starting on day 1, and got clear on the requirements even as they had to make adjustments along the way.
While I did not have a similar sense of urgency, I had to apply this principle in my last semester as well.
I had three very busy professors in my committee and there was literally only 1 hour during the entire month of April when they could all meet for my final committee meeting.
They gave me the green light to defend, but then I needed their signatures on my thesis so I could submit it officially.
It took me several weeks of persistent follow-ups, until I got all three signatures – just a few days before the final deadline!
I couldn’t take “not now” for an answer if they were too busy.
I needed a signature from each one of them so I wouldn’t need to stay in school for an extra semester.
But, keep in mind that it is also in their interest that you do good work and produce publishable research.
Also remember that being persistent does not mean that you have to be rude.
You can be “politely persistent” until they give you the answer, feedback or mentoring you need.
Or, if you already have all the help you need, you are ready for step 3.
I wish there was a nicer way of saying this, but there isn’t.
There is no substitute for taking action daily.
I worked with students who have multiple jobs, and/or a family, yet they found a way to work on their thesis everyday.
They didn’t necessarily work on it for hours, but they made a commitment to work on it at least a little bit every single day.
So, what is a “little bit” of time that you need to commit to your thesis daily?
It depends – the closer you are to finishing it, the more time you need to spend on it.
However, there is something magical about devoting at least 15 minutes a day to your thesis.
No matter how busy you are you can always find 15 minutes somewhere during your day.
It may be first thing in the morning, during your lunch hour at work, or in the evening (instead of TV or social media).
Why 15 minutes?
Fifteen minutes is long enough that if you are focused you can make measurable progress, but it seems doable every day.
Spending only 15 minutes a day on your thesis will probably not get you very far in the long run.
Most students with jobs or families spent at least 15 minutes a day on their thesis during the week, and then a longer block of time on the weekend.
So, what’s the point of these short work sessions during the week (5 x 15 minutes is barely more than 1 hour)?
The point of daily commitment is continuity.
Continuity helps you to pick up where you left off, so that you don’t have to spend 15-30 minutes trying to figure out what you are supposed to be doing.
When you spend at least a little time on your thesis every day, you get more insights that will help you to resolve problems that may have seemed impossible before.
Do you feel like you are being pulled in 47 different directions each week?
Most grad students (and people in general), operate from a to-do list.
They write down all the work and non-related things that “should” do, but they give little thought to the tangible result they want to see.
When you let a “to-do” list run your life, you will always feel exhausted, and playing catch up.
In fact, the more to-do’s you cross off your list, the more to-do’s you realize you need to get done.
As long as you live your life by a to-do list, you can’t win, no matter how efficient you are.
It’s time to try something new.
For example, instead of writing in your calendar “Work on slides for committee meeting”, write “Create an outstanding presentation for committee meeting to show them that my data is solid, and I am ready to move onto the next phase of my research.”
Then, you can list the actions necessary to achieve that result.
An action plan with a well-defined goal is much more motivating than a random list of chores.
With a results-oriented action plan you will be able to take the actions that will help you to make the most progress in your thesis.
After all, you don’t want to become a slave to your to-list – you just want a finished your thesis!
The number one complaint of grad students is that they feel isolated and lost their motivation to do work.
In college there are support groups in the form of study groups, office hours, and the residential community.
In graduate school many student do not have any type of support.
First-year students usually start out with enthusiasm, but due to lack of accountability the fall behind on their milestones.
In contrast, the students who did join a support group thought that being part of a community was one of the best ways to keep themselves motivated.
There is no shame in getting support, whether it is academic or emotional support to help you focus on finishing your thesis.
Don’t take my word for it.
The more people you “worry” with, the more perspectives you get and the smaller your problems seem.
When you live in your own head you can blow a minor issue out of proportion.
Suddenly, taking off two days from work because you didn’t feel well may seem like a huge setback until you hear from others that what you are going through is normal for a graduate student.
There will be times when you feel so burnt out that you will not want to work for weeks.
Or, you may start doubting the point of grad school when you don’t know what you’ll do afterwards.
Without a context, these situations can rob you of your self-confidence and your motivation.
How could you be motivated when you identify yourself as “lazy” and think there is no point in finishing your thesis anyway?
You can sort out these sticky situations by sharing with others, and feel better about your experience in grad school.
So if you are wondering how to get motivated to write a thesis, look no further than support from other graduate students.
Just knowing that you are not the only one going through these tribulations, can already take the pressure off that has been keeping you from being motivated to work on your thesis.
Make a commitment to yourself to get the support you need, because you have what it takes to finish your thesis.
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