Word to the “Still writing”

If you have enrolled in an Honours course during the second semester of last year, then you are probably writing your thesis as we speak. Possibly with the threat of submission looming over your shoulder. Let’s talk about that today, shall we?

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What you want, but know will never be, the process of writing your thesis. Please don’t use a typewriter to write your thesis. It doesn’t come with sensible autocorrect or table settings. But then again neither does MS Word and we still use that so…

“Don’t wait for your deadline to knock on your door. Open the door first.” – My wise Honours Co-ordinator

Your deadline is never truly far away, it is already here. So write as though it is clawing at your hands. And plan like you are a general leading the troops into battle. Be ruthless and pragmatic with your time and effort.

The battle plan

Ideally you should start putting together this plan at least three months ahead of the deadline. It may seem earlier than expected, but that time will pass you by quicker than you think.  Your timeline should include parts of the thesis you aim to finish by a given date, experiments you are still running or will run. Then, send that timeline to your supervisor so that they can help you make it realistic. Keep a few days here and there for breaks. Remember, you are running a marathon, not a sprint.

Vision Boards: Thesis Edition

This is the part where I tell you index cards are your new best friends. Grab an A4/A3 sheet and write down the different parts of your thesis. Now under each part, place an index card with the topic that will take the centre stage in that section. You most likely will have more than one topic that will fit this description. Write all the other related things you want to write about around them. As you write each section, you can take a look at this “vision board” for your thesis and remember how you wanted to frame them. My thesis had a lot of “what if’s” in it, so if yours is similar, then this is a good way to keep track of all the conjectures and possible links you want to mention. A mind map you can keep at hand also works as well. I just really like index cards.

Telling the story

I find that writing the methods and material section is the easiest of part of the thesis to tackle. Start with this section. It helps to jog your memory of all the things you have done so far. After that, you can go in order or out-of-order. For my thesis, I took the results-discussion-introduction-conclusion-future works route. And my reasoning behind it was that, I had to completely rewrite my introduction. While my literature review was good, it no longer fit in with the rest of my thesis. Partially because, I wrote the review on an at best tangentially related topic. Don’t do this. Really, don’t. Unless you enjoy coming up with an entirely new, but highly relevant, introduction.

Now, there will be plenty of back and forth between sections, simply because you will have to take into account all the draft versions per section. Depending on the method of feedback (paper or electronic), you will be swimming in drafts. So be prepared to keep track of them all. Sticky notes and highlighters are your other best friends. Remember, until the very end, your thesis will likely exist in pieces. That is completely okay.

Sharing is caring… I think?

Get other people to read your complete draft of the thesis. They can be your best friend to check if your thesis is entirely jargon, or the kind seniors in your lab who will give you valuable feedback. Ask them if they want to read it first and be prepared for them to say no. And if they do read it, treat them to good food. They are grad students. They must be fed.

Caring for yourself is also caring

There is something else that is just as important in being able to finish your thesis on time, and that is your wellbeing. If you are unwell and of poor mental health, then your work suffers. So, take care of yourself. Schedule in some me time, take an afternoon nap, go eat meals with some of your friends from time to time. Go easy on the caffeine and eat properly. Simple things, but when we overlook them we end up suffering from burnout for the next few months (yours truly).

At the end of the day, what your thesis should be is a story in context to other stories. It probably won’t answer all the questions in that field and that is not the goal of your thesis anyway. As long as it can rationally answer the question you posed, then that is enough.

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