Perfectionism In Your Thesis Writing Is the Enemy of Progress
“I can’t stop doing literature search!” said Claire while we were eating lunch, just a month before her thesis deadline.
“I want to start writing, but I always feel like I need more articles,” she sighed.
The literature review is the most challenging part of the thesis because of the large amount of material that has to be coherently summarized.
Many graduate students struggle with perfectionism, a habit that usually develops as a result of striving for perfect grades in high school and college.
When you are a perfectionist, you might spend weeks reading and not writing anything because you fear that your research is not “good enough”.
Letting go of perfectionism in your thesis does not mean that you stop caring about how it turns out.
The fear of “missing out” on important articles may be paralyzing, and can lead to a vicious cycle of guilt and procrastination.
The requirements for every thesis are different and this can lead to self-doubt such as:
- When you are ready to stop reading and start writing?
- When do you have enough data to start your analysis?
- How do you know when your thesis (or publication, or conference poster) is “good enough”?
There is no recipe to know for sure the answer to any of these questions, but there are a few guidelines that will help you to reduce the anxiety resulting from perfectionism.
5 Tips to Stop Perfectionism from Getting in the Way of Thesis Writing or Research
You may be a perfectionist because you think you have high standards, but think about it…
If you consistently notice perfectionism in your thesis writing, this will lead to procrastination and low quality work.
You may have developed in college when you were striving for perfect grades so you could be accepted into a good graduate program
Unfortunately, perfectionism in graduate school can cost you months or even years of extra work because of the anxiety and fear it creates: fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, or fear of being judged.
But, what if you could replace your fear with a more empowering mindset?
The following 5 steps will help you to produce higher quality work, while eliminating (or at least reducing) perfectionism:
1. Clarify your purpose and the question(s) you need to answer
Can you summarize your manuscript in 1 sentence?
Do you know what question(s) your thesis has to answer?
Everything that you include in your thesis has to contribute to your central argument or the question you need to answer.
What if you don’t have a clear research aim yet?
Start by creating an outline or table of contents and fill in as many of the sections as you can.
Don’t wait until you have “everything ready.”
You can start putting together a structure for your literature review and thesis and alternate writing with reading.
In fact, you will absorb more from your reading if have already written some, and this in turn will make the rest of the writing easier.
2. Replace Fear with a Sense of Contribution
Claire’s perfectionism stemmed from the fear that she was “missing out” on important articles.
This fear held Claire back from writing for months.
The truth is that no matter how many articles you collect, or how many times you revise your thesis, you will discover areas for improvement.
The purpose of going to graduate school is not to create a perfect thesis.
Your goal is to make a unique contribution to your area of research.
You don’t have to cover every article in the literature or have perfect style to satisfy the requirements for your thesis.
Your first draft will have many awkward and repetitive sentences, but your manuscript will improve with each round of corrections.
Commitment to contribution, is the best antidote to the anxiety that results from perfectionism in your thesis writing.
Instead of aiming for a perfect thesis, ask yourself what you need to add to your manuscript to make the most significant contribution to your area of research?
Don’t let word choice, table formatting and other minor details hold you back from completing your thesis.
Instead, focus on whether your main argument comes across clearly.
No matter how many times you revise your thesis, you will notice areas of improvement. Fortunately, if your purpose is clear, the number of corrections will reduce over time.
Once you feel like you are 95% there, your thesis is ready to be handed in.
3. Take frequent breaks to get distance from your work
One of the dangers of perfectionism in thesis writing is that it leads to tunnel vision..
You may blow small details out of proportion or over-analyze details that others would not notice.
Anxiety, burnout, and physical pains are just a few of the consequences of perfectionism.
The fastest way to break this cycle is to get some distance from your work:
a. Take frequent breaks while you work.
Set up a structured writing schedule such as alternating 25 minutes of writing with 5 minute breaks, or 45 minutes of writing with 15 minute breaks.
Be sure to stand up and get away from your desk during the breaks.
Get a drink of water, stretch your back and arms, and go for a short walk.
b. Take longer breaks on the weekend to allow yourself to recharge.
Not many people tell you this, but being kind to yourself is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress.
It is impossible to maintain your productivity if you never take a day off.
Experiencing perfectionism in your thesis writing is usually accompanied by perfectionism in other areas of your life.
Commit at least a few hours day every week to socialize with friends and other positive people who support you.
Establishing a support network is the number one way to reduce anxiety and get the motivation and energy you need to finish your thesis.
Also, make your health your number one priority, by developing a regular exercise routine and eating the highest quality foods available to you.
4. Use similar papers and theses as templates
It is hard to know how much to write if no one gives you guidelines.
How do you know when you have collected enough articles for your literature review?
How thorough does your statistical analyses need to be?
If your supervisor or committee doesn’t give you specific requirements, read recent theses from your department.
Theses from students can serve as templates to give you an idea of the structure that your thesis needs to have such as:
- approximate number of references
- length of the literature review
- types of data and statistical analysis
- details in the results and discussion section.
Most students are relieved when they look at recent theses from their department, because they realize how much of the work they already have in place for a thesis.
Remember that the students who finished before you didn’t write a perfect thesis either, and they still graduated.
If there are no recent theses topics similar to yours, look at review articles in your area.
In a novel field a review article may only have a few key references, while more established fields might have hundreds of references.
Review articles and recent theses may also inspire you with new ideas and point you in the right direction for other articles that you can use.
5. Respect your time by setting specific goals for each time block
Did you ever write “Work on thesis” in your calendar?
Such a vague plan will either lead to a nap or a few minutes of work followed by browsing the internet.
Have a specific result for each block of time such as:
- Complete one figure
- Write a certain number of words
- Review specific sections of your thesis or data analysis.
When you define in advance what you want to accomplish during each block of time, you will find an efficient way of making it happen.
If you fall prey to perfectionism in your thesis writing you might spend days on one section because it never feels good enough.
It is hard to accomplish a goal if you didn’t define it well.
However, if you plan on spending one hour on completing a figure, you will find a way to finish it.
Similarly, you can set goals for a certain number of words that you want to write each day.
When you are focused on the goals you want to achieve each day, you will feel more efficient and less focused.
If you are resistant to planning for fear that you will not follow through, keep in mind that no one is perfect.
Life happens, and most of the time writing, research, and data analysis take a lot longer than planned.
We all have 24 hours in a day and when you use your time with intention, you are much more likely to stay on top of your work and achieve your goals.
To learn more tips to manage your time in graduate school, click here to get on the waiting list for the “Finish Your Thesis Program” and you will receive a free copy of Dora’s guide “Finish Your Thesis Faster”