How to write a thesis (including how not to write a thesis)

Introduction

At this stage, I don’t know if I’m going to pass or fail my MPhil. I’ve written around 120,000 words in total over the past half a decade, and submitted 60,000 of those prior to my viva. Of those, 30,000 were utter rubbish and needed rewriting. I’m going through that rewriting process now — things are definitely better, but whether they’re good enough I don’t know, but I have learnt how to write a thesis with all the wry wisdom of hindsight, and much self-flagellation.

Here are some tips for not being in my situation.

Things that will ruin your thesis from the start

  • Assuming you can wing it because you think you’re smart.
  • Thinking you can just start writing and it will be great.
  • Being too ambitious with your goals.
  • Relying on the internet for all of your sources.
  • Treating postgraduate studies as a bit of a holiday.
  • Having any other big projects.
  • Leaving everything until the last minute.
  • Acting as if your supervisor is superhuman. They will need longer than a week to respond to things they send you, and you will not be getting them spot on first time.

If you can avoid these pretty stupid mistakes and you can then I have some obvious positive actions. Obvious, but totally necessary.

Things that will help you

  • A detailed and current chapter list. Once you have your basic argument, each chapter needs an introduction, a body, and a conclusion that leads clearly into the next chapter’s introduction. This will help with your introductory chapter, your concluding chapter, your abstract, and more importantly, if you can summarise the work in twenty or so bullet points early on, you will have focus.
  • A structured schedule. Once you have the flow of the argument laid out, you can start to set yourself realistic timings. You might have 3-5 years for this. Don’t let the first 2 disappear like I did.

The world is fun outside the library. How do you stay sane and still work?

  • Make lists of films and TV you want to watch. Don’t keep these lists in your todo list. You have all your life to catch up.
  • Socialise with people who know your subject. If the chat turns to academia, it’s win/win.
  • Sleep well, eat well, exercise. Do these things with other people.
  • Don’t party until you’ve reached a milestone, and even then, know when to stop. Never say “I’ll work tomorrow because I’m going out tonight”, say “I’ll work today, so I can go out tonight”, and stick to it.
  • Never go a whole day without doing something, even if it’s just ordering a book, reviewing next actions.

You will question why you are doing it and tear your hair out. How do you cope?

I personally asked all of the following questions at some point. I stopped short of dropping out, because I felt I had a debt to myself, my family, my friends and my tutor after years of being carried, being a waster and sapping their energies. I also kicked into gear so very late that it made no sense to jack it in.

Why am I doing this?

Either you couldn’t think of anything better to do, you once really wanted to do this, someone has put you up to it, or you have accidentally enrolled and only just realised. However you got here, you can’t do any good if you fail. It might not matter if you fail, but you might as well try and pass. This is 3+ years of your life you are not getting back, so unless you do something else remarkable whilst your course runs down, you had better finish. Also, your thesis may represent some awesome addition to the body of human knowledge, who knows?

How can I possibly do this?

You can. But if it really feels that bad, talk to your supervisor as early as possible. Get things planned out, talk to other postgrads for advice, talk to people who passed. Don’t forget that extensions and extenuating circumstances exist. They want you to pass too!

Is this really what I want to do?

Ah. That’s different. Chat to the academic staff, perhaps take some time out, try to remember why it was that you applied for this course. At some point you loved this subject. Maybe now you don’t, maybe there are other priorities. If it’s a PhD maybe you can downgrade, there could be other options. It could be that you really made a bad decision — if that’s the clear, honest answer, then ask friends and family for advice before you abandon your thesis, and make sure you have a plan to pick life back up when you do so you don’t end up feeling stupid.

What comes after your thesis is complete?

Pass or not, you will have some decisions to make. Is there a job waiting for you (either because of your studies or not)? Do you need some time out? Will you carry on an interest in your chosen subject or are you plain sick of it?

Personally, I’m so busy due to my complacency early on that I haven’t thought about what I’ll do with all the free time. I already have a full-time job, so that’s not up for debate (unless something goes wrong in the next few months).

Maybe it’s best not to have any rigid plans; I was talking to a colleague who put it this way:

“You know when you finish school for the summer, and you have all the holidays to do whatever you want? Well your free time is going to be like that, except you never have to go back to school.”

Whether you spend the rest of your free time with extra things on your CV and letters after your name is up to you… between you and me do the hard work now — the worry I might have wasted all those years isn’t a good feeling.

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