Can’t-Miss Tips for Writing a Thesis or Dissertation

Rites of passage are an unavoidable part of life. Sometimes they are pleasant (getting married, having children) and sometimes they border on the traumatic (experiencing puberty, having your heart broken).

When it comes to writing a thesis or dissertation, there's little bliss (wedded or otherwise). But maybe it doesn't have to be this way. Photo by phanlop88.

Graduate student life is full of rites of passage, which can range from presenting at your first conference to leading a class for the first time. One of the most important—and arguably the scariest—is writing a thesis or dissertation, an assignment which inspires dread and foreboding in many students.

But does it have to be this way? Can writing a thesis or dissertation be enjoyable—or, at the very least, a tolerable experience?

Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) students and alumni believe the answer to this question is a resounding “yes!” and in this post they share practical ways to make it through the thesis or dissertation process with one’s sanity intact.

No Time Like the Present

Much like a political campaign, writing a thesis or dissertation can be a long, drawn-out affair. And in either case, whether it’s drumming up support from voters or penning chapter one, it’s imperative that you get started as soon as possible.

The best approach to writing a thesis or dissertation? Think early and think often. Photo by winnond.

“Propose your dissertation idea as early as possible,” said Patricia Allen, a GSAS psychology student whose dissertation is titled Effects of Dietary Creatine on Depression-related Gene Expression and Behavior: Implications for Sex-specific Differences. “You want to make sure you have enough time to meet the committee’s expectations. Also, the meeting is a contract of sorts. Once your committee members agree to your proposal, it would be unreasonable for them to object to anything later on if you fulfill your end of the agreement.”

An early start may also help a student better explain a thesis or dissertation, notes GSAS child development graduate student Jen Agans.

“From the beginning, speak to as many people as you can,” said Agans, who successfully defended her thesis, Trajectories of Participation in Athletics and Positive Youth Development: The Influence of Sport Type, in April 2012. “Talking to friends and family— many of whom are unfamiliar with your topic and the academic jargon you use—will improve how you articulate your topic and ideas; speaking with colleagues and professors will ensure that you’re on the right track and have an appropriate plan for your data analysis.”

Mind Your Data

There are few thesis- or dissertation-related activities more bothersome than searching for the critical information you need. This frustration—and hours of wasted time—can be avoided by knowing, from the outset, how you will organize your research.

Keeping your research well organized will save you time and help you keep your sanity intact. Photo by jscreationzs.

“Keep well organized notes, and use keywords to refer back to the literature,” said Jacqueline Furtado, a GSAS urban and environmental policy and planning graduate student whose thesis is titled Front and Center: Examining Frontline Service Delivery in the Family Self-Sufficiency Program. “Years ago, people used index cards for this. The cards would have key terms and the names of authors written on them so the information would be easy to find. I use Microsoft Word to organize this info; it’s just a simple document with information on all the material I have read for my thesis.”*

There are also a number of software solutions graduate students can and should use.

“Use a reference manager program like Refworks or Endnote,” said GSAS biology graduate alumna Jenny Lenkowski, G10, who is a research fellow in the Raymond Lab at the University of Michigan and whose dissertation was titled Exploring the Effects of the Herbicide Atrazine on Tadpoles in the Model Amphibian Xenopus laevis During Organ Morphogenesis. “Additionally, learn how to use Cite While You Write (which is a feature offered in Endnote) and find out how your word processing program formats things like section breaks and indexing figures; knowing this before you start writing will save you a lot of time when you need to insert references and create a table of contents.”

Have A Plan and Stick With It

It's important to have a well-thought out plan for your thesis or dissertation work. The hard hat is optional. Photo by imagerymajestic.

Graduate students, like many kids, are seriously overscheduled. Along with their coursework and research responsibilities, many students work full- or part-time (as teaching assistants or as employees of outside organizations) and have other responsibilities that demand their attention (spouses or partners, children and families). Because of these demands, finding time to work on a thesis or dissertation can be a challenge, but one that can be addressed with help from a well-developed plan.

“It was helpful to plan out my writing time each week, especially in the beginning when I was transitioning from preparing for my comprehensive exam to beginning my dissertation,” said Nicole Flynn, an English GSAS student whose dissertation is titled Modern Times: Temporality and Genres of Interwar Modernism. “On Sunday nights, I would print out a blank schedule for the week, and black out the times when I was teaching or had appointments. I would then highlight the hours I planned to work on my dissertation. This helped me see how much time I actually had available during a given week.”

Added GSAS drama alumna Jenna Kubly, G10, whose dissertation is titled Vaudeville and the American Experience of the First World War as Seen by Variety.  “Be disciplined. Write even when you do not want to write. Find a routine and force yourself to stick with it. For example, plan to write every day from 9:00am to 3:00pm at a specific spot.”

GSAS psychology student Kristin Dukes, an assistant professor at Simmons College, also cites the merits of having a plan, especially one with achievable goals.

“It’s important to have a concrete timeline with realistic goals,” said Dukes, whose dissertation is titled Afrocentricity and Perceptions of Black Women. “For example, set a goal of writing your introduction or writing chapter one. It’s important to have tangible goals on a weekly and even daily basis. Also, set up a daily writing time, maybe an hour or two hours a day, where you sit down and do something related to your dissertation. But make sure to protect this time like it’s the most precious thing in the world.”

Find Inner Peace…or At Least A Quiet Place to Work

Distractions—from Facebook to the latest episode of Mad Menare everywhere. The pull to send a few tweets or check out the latest videos on YouTube can turn what was supposed to be day of writing into hours of wasted time. Therefore, it’s critical to find the right physical space to work on your thesis or dissertation.

“As much as you love being home with your pets or roommates make sure to get away,” said Patricia Allen. “Otherwise you will procrastinate. Make sure to turn your cell phone off, too, and don’t go on the Internet unless it’s related to your research.”

Added Meron Langsner, a drama GSAS alumnus who graduated in 2011.

“One of the biggest challenges I faced was outside of school,” said Langsner, whose dissertation was titled Impossible Bodies in Motion: The Representation of Martial Arts on the American Stage. “I was living in proximity to some very toxic people during the early stages of my Ph.D. and into the first year of my dissertation. Changing my living situation improved everything about my Tufts experience.”

Also, when it comes to finding the right place to work don’t be afraid to experiment like Jenny Lenkowski did.

“I found it helpful to pick a single topic or section of a chapter that I wanted to write about and then go to a café to work for a few hours; this was the most productive approach for me,” said Lenkowski. “I encourage students to try places like the library, your home, or a park until they find the right combination.”

Help is Closer than You Think

Home field advantage—whether it’s Lambeau Field for the Green Bay Packers or Citizens Bank Park for the Philadelphia Phillies—matters. At times, conditions on the field (during a 2008 playoff game in Green Bay the thermometer read -1 degree at game time) or in the stands (fans of the Phillies are some of the loudest in baseball) can be the difference between hoisting a championship trophy and spending the postseason playing golf.

Graduate students also have a home field advantage, most notably in the different types of support available at their university or college. And while these advantages may not show up in a wins and losses column, they can make a big difference when writing a thesis or dissertation.

“The Tufts Academic Resource Center’s (ARC) Graduate Writing Exchange was great!” said Jen Agans. “It really helped to sit in a room filled with other people who were writing. This forced me to keep going. If I had been at home, I would have gotten up to take a break and would not have been as productive.”

Nicole Flynn agrees, noting that the thesis or dissertation process doesn’t have to be a solitary affair.

“Try to build some support systems for yourself,” said Flynn, who is also a writing consultant at the Academic Resource Center. “Stay in touch with your advisers. Form a writing group with your departmental colleagues to talk about work and to exchange drafts. Also, the ARC will set students up with a personal consultant who will work with students throughout the writing process. Additionally, the ARC offers a Graduate Writing Retreat each winter and summer. It’s easy to feel like you’re alone when you’re writing a thesis or dissertation, but there are many students who are going though the same thing.”

Be Good To Yourself

You probably don't want to go to Steve Perry for fashion advice. But the man behind "Don't Stop Believin'" and "Oh Sherrie" knows what he's talking about when it comes to writing a thesis or dissertation.

It’s a good bet that Steve Perry, former front man of the band Journey, wasn’t thinking of graduate students when he penned the song “Be Good to Yourself.” But he could have been, since much of the song relates to the graduate student experience, including writing a thesis or dissertation.

“Make time for yourself, your friends, and your family,” said Patricia Allen. “Don’t tell them you’re too busy! Exercise often—I do this at least three times a week—and eat your fruits and vegetables every day. Happy and healthy graduate students make for more prolific dissertation and thesis writers.”

Adds Meron Langsner, “Make sure you eat right and exercise. I participated in the Tufts Marathon Challenge, which was great. It also seemed metaphorically appropriate and helped me structure some of my writing and research days.”

Treating yourself well also includes celebrating victories, both big and small.

“Students should take time to celebrate their accomplishments,” said Nicole Flynn. “At every stage of a thesis or dissertation, there’s going to be more work ahead. But if students only focus on this they will always feel like they are behind. Whether a student stayed in front of the computer for hours or sent a chapter draft to his or her professor, these are goals that have been met. Students should mark these occasions, and reward themselves by catching a movie or going out for dinner.”

By Robert Bochnak, G07, senior writer/communications manager, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences

Did we miss any best practices when writing a thesis or dissertation? Are you a graduate student interested in sharing his or her experience? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below

*More information on organizing your research is found in The Craft of Research, 3rd edition” by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams.

The Right Stuff: Graduate Alumni on What it Takes to Get Your Dissertation or Thesis Published

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The First Year in Academia: What to Expect, What to Avoid, and How to Make it Through in One Piece

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36 Responses to Can’t-Miss Tips for Writing a Thesis or Dissertation

  1. Dr. Steve Moysey says:

    One area I found critically important for successful writing projects, such as a dissertation, is understanding how to approach the phenomenon of writers block. I find that when that happens, the worst thing I can do is force the issue. If the Muse is not whispering in my ear, I get up from my desk and walk away.

    Go for a walk with the dogs.

    Watch a movie.

    Mend the lawn tractor.

    Sit and have a beer and watch a movie.

    Just don’t try and force it.

    I know we set ourselves production schedules – so many pages a day is one of my benchmarks – and like trying to get to sleep at night and failing, the harder you try to force it, the worse it gets.

    The Muse will return. The project will get done – we just to have faith in that. Distracting , or even tricking my brain into other activities pays dividends.


  2. One “home field advantage” for Tufts A,S& E graduate students is their subject-specialist research librarians. Tisch Librarians will help in finding that obscure, yet important, last bit of research, get you started with locating information in areas you’re less experienced with, teach you how to organize your research sources using RefWorks or Endnote, get you connected with library services to make your research and writing experience easier, and a whole lot more!

    Who are these librarians and how do you find them…just click here for a list of subject experts

  3. Dave says:

    First bit of advice: read other theses. The quicker you have an understanding of what’s expected of you the quicker you start to move down the path to delivering it. Grounding this abstract notion of a PhD thesis is crucial if you actually want to do one in a reasonable time without pulling your hair out.

    Secondly, you need to manage the process. Nobody else will do it for you. Have you ever managed a big project before? Now’s the time to start. Your thesis is a project – treat it that way. Make a plan, but don’t be scared to regularly revise it, or even rip it up and start again if it’s not fit for purpose or not getting you where you want/need to be.

    Third, find/get/build the tools you need. Use software to manage your notes, your references, and your bibliography. Programs like Endnote and Evernote can save you an enormous amount of time. Be efficient, and be practical.

    Fourth – just write. Really. It’s that simple. It’s much easier to fix imperfect text than it is to produce page after page of perfect paragraphs, and there’s less stress on you too. If you don’t know what to write, write an outline. Work through it, make it more detailed – chapter by chapter, section by section, heading by heading. You’ll go from having a great big “thesis” to do to having lots of small, manageable, focused chunks of work.

    And don’t worry, you can do it. Remember that.

  4. Library resources, such as databases and catalogs, are useful not only for researching a known topic but also for developing one. You can use these resources to identify research trends, “hot topics,” and gaps in the research in particular disciplines. You can locate recent publications not only in journals and books but also in other theses and dissertations. These tools provide search terms and concepts that can help you mine the literature more efficiently. Because many of the databases enable searching on author affiliations, you can use them to identify potential thesis advisers and committee members. Tisch Library provides access to dozens of databases, ranging from broad interdisciplinary indexes such as Web of Knowledge, Scopus, and ProQuest to databases focusing on very specific areas ranging from Islamic Culture or Women Writers to Shock and Vibration Phenomena or Sports. These databases are listed in both the library’s online research guides and in the databases page, where you can screen databases by major subjects.

  5. Pingback: Notes on Writing This Week (weekly) « Steve J. Moore

  6. Do not leave it on the last moment. If necessary lock yourself in a house for two weeks and just do the work. This has worked form me. During winter break, when all my friends left, I focused 100% of my attention on thesis and worked day and night. Once you start rolling, it becomes easier and easier. Although I do remeber I was extremely tired after those two weeks of “vacation” ;p Anyway, it worked and the feeling after finishing the paper was great.

  7. Jerry Dallal says:

    There are few things more devastating than losing a good chunk of your work (data, edits, entire thesis) to a hard disk failure. Keep backups of everything. Used to be by using an external drive, which still works, but today by using Dropbox or Google Drive, which are FREE and will back you up AUTOMATICALLY.

  8. Pingback: Can’t Miss Tips for Writing a Thesis or Dissertation « MSU_GradLife

  9. I have been a dissertation coach at University of Maryland for sometime now and the creator of TA-DA!Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished. If there is one piece of advice I would give to first year students is to use every course to become the expert you want to be. For example, if you want to become an expert in Gender Studies you should use every course where you have to write a paper to explore the topic. If you have to take a required seminar on Demography or Architecture you might consider writing a paper that explores gender differences. Thus by the time you get to write your thesis or dissertation you will have covered much of the literature on gender. In other words, make the courses work for you and your interest. Don’t just take a course just to get an A. Write a paper as if you were going to submit it to a journal.

    The other piece of advice for advanced students is to work on your thesis and dissertation everyday. You should wake up everyday and ask yourself, “what can I do today to move my dissertation forward?” No task is too small. Keep in mind that when writing your dissertation there will be good days and bad days. There will be days when you will be smart, intelligent and productive; those are the good days. In contrast, there will also be more days that you will struggle to put a coherent sentence together. On those days, the trick is to create a list of things that you can do despite the struggle. Break tasks into manageable bite size pieces, that is create tasks that take 12-15 minutes to complete or tasks that can be done while watching television. For example you can:
    1. Create your cover page, acknowledgement page, committee signature page…
    2. Add 5 citations to your bibliography
    3. Write an introduction for each chapter
    4. Download important deadline and put them into your calendar
    5. Download your university’s dissertation or thesis template or create your own with the correct margins, font size, etc.
    6. Create a table and write one paragraph which explains the table
    7. Create a figure and write one paragraph which explains the figure
    8. Outline the chapter, create a Table of Contents
    9. Create a list of figures, or tables…
    10. Download a journal article and summarize it

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  11. jahid_ovi says:

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  15. DLa Rue says:

    I urge students to approach their work in a variety of ways, depending on what they have found to work for them in the past. Some people work from the images they have or have created for themselves, completing a level of work or seeing themselves awarded their degree. Some work from within, finding an element of their work that compels them to move out and give their findings expression. Some work better alone, with just occasional check-ins, others need daily communication and feedback to help them move along the path from start to finish.

    I am very careful in coaching students not to do their work for them, but to help them find the ways to do their work themselves. I also try to find out as much as possible about their advisor’s style and work to complement that.

    If the advisor is more hands-on, the student gets most of what they need in that relationship and I simply help by providing editorial assistance and project-management oversight.

    If the advisor is more difficult to contact, or has to travel a lot, it’s possible to give a bit more support without getting in the way of the student-initiated process of writing and revising the work.

    In all those cases, it’s essential to have a clear statement from the department of the final expectations for formatting, length, style, and content, and to have an approved prospectus from which to begin writing. Those build the foundation for the final work.

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