Friday, August 22, 2014

Thesis Writing Tips for the I-Left-it-to-the-Last-Minute PhD Student

PhD and coffee
Image credit: Daisy Hessenberger
by Julie Gould, Nature Jobs:

Contributor Daisy Hessenberger
Four months ago I, the trepid explorer, started on the last great adventure of my PhD - writing the thesis.

I immediately faced the well-known challenges associated with this journey: too much procrastination and too little motivation.

Sometimes I found it impossible to start writing and when I did, it was hard to maintain the momentum. And although I enjoy writing, I was starting to hate my thesis.

Looking at thesis writing tips only made me feel worse. The number one tip? Start writing earlier in your PhD. It was a bit late for that now. What I needed were thesis-writing tips for the left-it-to-the-last-three-months thesis writer.

Salvation came in the form of a friend. A fellow PhDer asked me whether I would like to start a writing group. In its very basic form a writing group is when PhD students at a similar stage of writing up (and thus sharing similar stress levels) agree to meet up and write together.

My friend got the idea from the University of Cambridge Writing Group. This group provides a platform for graduate students to organize writing group sessions. All that the student in charge has to do is choose a time, book a room, and let the other writers know. There are multiple groups a week, at various times which follow the same basic structure.

The University of Cambridge Writing Group seemed promising but there were two things that made it unsuitable for me.

First, with its rotating members, the writing groups were a bit intimidating. Second, I find libraries stressful (they bring on flashbacks of studying for undergraduate exams). So instead of joining them, my friend and I decided that we would take inspiration from their approach, create our own rules and move to a location that suited us: a café. Thus, the Writing Support Group was born providing two things: companionship and peer pressure.

Writing with friends creates a unique environment of trust, invaluable to our survival and even enjoyment of this process. The feedback you receive on your progress is personal, gentle and yet brazenly true.

Of course it is also good to know that you are not alone with your worries about failing your viva or missing your deadlines. We seem to rotate who is having a slump or writing block and who is having a better day. On the days where someone’s motivation or belief in their thesis flags, the other members feed them theirs (and if that fails they feed them cake).

The peer pressure makes sure I do that one thing that creates a thesis - write. By choosing who is in the writing group and how the work time is formatted you can set your own level of pressure. Too much peer pressure can stress you out and scare you off but too little and you won’t get the work done.

We chose to work with friends and instead of working for hours on end, we based our working schedule on the pomodoro technique, which allows you to divide your time into manageable chunks (which we call tomatoes) and makes sure you plan breaks into your working schedule.

How to work in tomatoes:

Split your time

Find a set amount of time that you and your peers can dedicate to writing, and split it into 45 minute working blocks with 15 minute breaks at the end of each. There are plenty of apps to help you time your sessions (we use the pomodoro timer. The tomato rule is that during the tomato you have to try and do what you said you would - no Facebook or news! And if you do procrastinate it has to be on an aspect of your thesis.

Plan your tomatoes

Before each tomato, we tell each other what we plan to achieve in it. It might just be to write one paragraph, or to think through one issue. Saying out loud what you are planning to do will set a gentle amount of peer pressure to motivate you for 45 minutes. It also forces you to be brutally efficient and prioritize tasks. Fellow group members will let you know if they think you are avoiding a difficult task, caught in a perfectionism loop on a figure or taking on too much for 45 minutes of work. Even big tasks can be broken down into blocks.

Share your results and take a break

After the 45 minutes we let each other know how we’ve done (and remind each other to stand up and stretch). We help each other through roadblocks and give each other the pats on the back that we need. There is no judgement at this stage. If someone only wrote 50 words out of the 300 they were aiming for then we chat about why that happened.

Mix it up

I am an evolutionary biologist writing with a historian and a musicologist. You don’t need other experts to help you write thesis. You are already the expert. But getting non-specialists, who still understand what you need to do to work beside you can be invaluable. If I have an issue, then I am forced to explain it in the simplest of terms, which often helps me find the problem. Plus I get to learn random facts about Indian history and update my video-game music vocabulary.

The Writing Support Group is where I get nearly all of my valuable writing done. After five tomatoes, nearly five intense hours of work, I feel like a normal human being rather than like a zombie. It is because of the Writing Support Group that I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel and my submission date does not seem so scary.

For those of you who are in the same boat as me, what techniques do you use to get your thesis written up? Please share your ideas in the comment section. I find it useful to learn from others and take inspiration from their techniques, as I hope you will from ours.

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