Does Writing a Thesis Have to Be Painful?
“Writing a thesis is probably so stressful,” said the kind doctor at the emergency room, as he examined my elbows throbbing with pain.
“You may be able to avoid surgery because you are young”, I heard him say, “but if I were you I would strongly consider it.”
He diagnosed me with “tennis elbow,”a condition common among tennis and golf players due to the repetitive motions in these sports.
However, it also affects people who use computers or work in the laboratory for extended periods of time.
“That would be me,” I said.
“I am a graduate students, writing a thesis, working 60-70 hours a week.”
He nodded in sympathy.
Since I was in so much pain, he injected cortisone into both of my elbows to reduce the inflammation.
While the injections hurt, hearing the recommended course of treatment over the next few weeks (or months) was more painful.
First, I had to stop working out and go to physical therapy instead.
Second, I had to take off two weeks from work, and restrict my work hours afterwards.
I was scheduled to present my research to our sponsors in a month.
I could not imagine what PI was going to say when I told him that I could not work for two weeks.
Would I lose funding from our sponsors, and be kicked out from grad school?
I felt more stuck than ever before.
I could not imagine how I would ever graduate with such limited work hours.
But, what I learned during my time off from work literally took my breath away.
It wasn’t the amount of work that led to my painful condition.
I had been sabotaging my own progress, without realizing it, for years before my physical pain gave me a wake-up call.
My physical pain was a result of working to the point of burnout for years, always feeling like my work wasn’t “good enough.”
If I wanted to finish writing a thesis, I had to embrace and appreciate any progress I was making.
The idea of not beating myself up (when everyone else around me was beating themselves up), seemed heretic.
If you keep beating yourself up, is it any wonder that eventually writing a thesis becomes a painful experience?
But, the scariest part of writing a thesis is not that you need to let go of your expectations of being best.
The really scary part is confronting everyday all the things you don’t understand about your thesis, and then writing anyway.
Once you can do that (and I know how terrifying it feels), that’s when you will start to believe that despite everything you had to overcome until now, you WILL finish your thesis.
How I Became More Productive When I Reduced My Work Hours
After a two week break due to my injury, I was allowed to return to work, but with very short work hours.
I could only type for 15 minutes at a time, followed by 5-10 minutes of stretching.
Depending on my pain, the total time of typing could not exceed 1-4 hours a day.
I would spend these short blocks of time on things that seemed like a high priority for my thesis.
I no longer had to option of working to the point of burnout.
Instead, I started noticing the progress, and I realized how much time I had spent in the past “thinking that I was working.”
I also had a lot of “free” time, and I had to fill it with something, and I took several walks a day.
These daily disciplines helped me to structure my day and prioritize very deliberately, so I actually completed all the important tasks by the deadlines
I remember how grateful I felt during my doctoral hooding ceremony.
I could hardly believe that after years of pain, I actually finished writing a thesis, and I had 3 first-author papers in progress.
The best part, however, was that I did not need surgery, and I was able to recover 100% from my injury within a year.
5 Mistakes That Will Sabotage Your Progress While Writing A Thesis
I thought I was doing all the right things while writing a thesis.
I spent a lot of time at work.
On weekends I caught up with reading journal articles so I would learn all the things I thought “I should know.”
I kept myself busy for years, thinking that all this busyness would eventually lead to a thesis.
But, I was actually sabotaging my own progress, without realizing.
Every time I experienced any level of success, I was immediately fearful whether I would live up to the expectations others had of me.
I worked harder.
And, when things didn’t turn out the way I planned, I beat myself up.
I was in a vicious cycle of guilt and burnout for years, with no idea of what I was doing wrong.
If this pattern sounds even remotely familiar, you’re not alone.
So, what’s the solution?
Below are the 5 common mistakes that sabotages students while writing a thesis.
But, you can avoid them if you make a conscious effort.
Mistake #1: Putting Yourself (and Your Work) Down
Anti-dote: Feel proud yourself as a researcher (…say what?)
If you grew up in a family where the expectations were high (and the bar kept getting higher), this mistake may be second nature to you.
“I got a lot of work done in the morning, but then I felt guilty about not working in the afternoon,” is a phrase I hear too often from my students when they become more productive.
How many times have you heard someone say: “I got a lot of work done in the morning, and I felt so proud of myself”?
My guess is, probably not a lot of times.
While I encourage you to be ambitious, if you never value the progress you have made while writing a thesis, you feel frustrated (and possibly hopeless) most of the time.
You don’t have to brag about your success to others, but do take a moment everyday to appreciate how far you have come.
Mistake #2: Apologize for your mistakes
Anti-dote: Own your mistakes and move on
The reality is that nobody cares why you made a mistake.
Unless the mistake is very costly to them (i.e. they lost a lot of time or other resources), others will soon forget that you made a mistake.
What people do care about is how you handle your mistakes.
Do you make up creative excuses?
Or, do you learn from your mistakes, and do things differently moving forward?
While “learning” and “looking smart” may sound similar, they are actually opposites.
If you are preoccupied with looking smart (and try to avoid or deny your mistakes), you are getting in the way of your learning process.
However, when your focus is on “learning”, mistakes become opportunities for growth and creating better relationships at work.
To build trust and respect, have the confidence to own that you made a mistake, and then show how you have learned from it to improve your work in the future.
Mistake #3: Not writing because you feel like you don’t know enough (or have too many notes)
Anti-dote: Write anyway, and trust that you will figure things out as you write
When I was working on my first literature review (which was also my first publication) I agonized for weeks not knowing where to start.
I read over 100 papers, but I didn’t feel like I understood them well enough to start the “real” writing.
So, I kept reading and typing up my notes on the articles.
After I amassed over 40 pages of notes, I felt completely overwhelmed, and I didn’t know how to incorporate them into a coherent literature review.
I thought that I just got lucky when my supervisor sent me positive feedback on my paper.
But as I wrote more literature reviews (on topics I had almost no experience with), I realized this is how most papers are written.
In fact, it is one of the most practical strategies if you want to speed up your progress while writing a thesis.
You just start somewhere, keep writing, and figure things out along the way.
Mistake #4: Trying to “make up” for not writing the day (or week) before
Anti-dote: Start every day fresh and focus on “today”
Does this pattern sound familiar?
You get motivated and start writing a little bit every day.
Then something happens (you get sick, you computer dies etc.) and suddenly you realize you haven’t written anything for a week.
At this point you may try to figure how to “make up” for all the lost days of writing by doubling the amount of time you will work daily for the next week.
Instead, take a breath of think of how to “reprioritize” your work.
What can you do today to make the most progress on your thesis?
Is there any way to simplify what you need to do so you can get it done quicker?
Progress is not linear, and if you create a sustainable daily work schedule, that will allow you to make consistent progress without burning out.
Mistake #5: Thinking that you have to do everything by yourself (or that you are alone in this)
Anti-dote: Get accountability and inspiration from a support group
Did you know that feeling isolated is the #1 reason that students drop out of grad school?
In retrospect, thinking about my own experience in grad school, this isn’t surprising.
Due to the unstructured nature of grad school it is easy to think that you haven’t been making progress or that you’re not as smart as everyone else.
In fact, joining a support group is the #1 advice that PhD’s give to current graduate students.
While first-year students usually start out enthusiastically, their motivation usually wanes as the years go on.
You may even be tempted to put your thesis off until “things calm down” or you feel ready to write.
The longer your thesis is on the back-burner, the tougher it will be to get motivated again to work on it.
But it doesn’t have to be this way for you.
If you join a support group, you can get accountability to keep writing, and strategies to overcome the challenges you’re facing.
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 finishing your thesis.
What is the #1 challenge that you face when it comes to writing your thesis?
Leave a comment below and I will respond to you directly 🙂