Tips for Finishing that Thesis, Dissertation, or other Manuscript


Tips for Finishing that Thesis, Dissertation, or other Manuscript

—from the Lab Manager's bench

I originally wrote this post to answer the question, "What tips do you have for a student with 6 months left for PhD thesis submission?" However, this version is slightly different from the one I posted on Quora. Many of the tips were also adapted from my Instagram account

Whether you love or hate them writing and editing in some form are probably part of the science communication responsibilities that accompany your research position. When writing journal articles on a collaborative research project, you might be responsible for creating the majority of a manuscript (with co-authors and your PI weighing in) or your PI might write the bulk of it but require your input. But if you're writing a student thesis (undergrad or graduate) the bulk of the writing will come from you.

For a thesis, which is not collaborative in the same way as a journal manuscript, you'll be charged with writing an original work that showcases your research, its relevance, and your understanding of the data you've collected. This doesn't mean that you're on your own for the process--or at least you shouldn't be.

As a graduate student, your PI (and possibly committee members) will hopefully guide you at the beginning so you can start strong, and be ready with constructive comments that are specific enough to help you get unstuck when needed. If you're an undergraduate, you might have several labmates willing to give helpful feedback in-between discussions with your PI. (Tip: you'll probably need to ask specific people in your lab for assistance because although many grad students and postdocs will be happy to help if asked, they won't volunteer.)

There is no doubt that getting those final experiments done and the thesis written, job hunting, scheduling a defense, and coordinating family/spouses/partner's future needs with your graduation date is an incredibly tough challenge. It makes finishing writing your thesis far more complicated than "just stop stressing about it and get it done" which is unhelpful advice that might be offered by a well-meaning but utterly misinformed friend, family member or colleague.

So in this post, I'm passing on some tips that I've used while writing large projects like books or grant proposals. I won't pretend that I'm always motivated to write, but on the days when my muse is nowhere to be found I try these tips first. Hopefully, some will work for you regardless if you're a postdoc trying to get a paper finished or a student writing a thesis with graduation a few months away.

  1. If you were making progress, and now you’re not, you might need a new writing or editing approach. What works well for you when writing the first or second draft, might actually hinder your progress on the third. (Or when navigating the painful comments from your PI or committee members).

    Sometimes, I’m more productive with writing when I’m doing lab work in between drafts. I can even sandwich some quality writing in during incubation steps or when I'm waiting (endlessly it seems) for the autoclave. Other times, not so much.
 When I’m polishing what I hope to be the near-final draft, my productivity (and stress level) benefits if I move away from the bench and give the manuscript the lion’s share of my focus. It’s not necessary if I’m on a first or second draft.

  2. Don't force yourself to write at the end of the day. Because we can’t write about an experiment we didn’t do, sometimes we scientists fall into the trap of thinking of writing as an afterthought--such as "after my real work is done." (I even used to joke that it was my "day off" when I was using the day to write. I no longer do this because I now fully embrace how important and tiring writing can be.)

    If trying to write after spending a long day at the bench leads to more frustration than productivity, don't do it. Instead, write in the morning, or midday--even if that means you put an experiment on hold until you get some words on the screen. You’ll make more progress if you write when your brain is cooperative and you're not exhausted from a full day of work already.

  3. Schedule time on your calendar to work on your thesis. If you're immediate reaction is, "I don't have any time," then full stop. You need to prioritize writing because the Science Gnomes aren’t going to do it for you while you conquer bench work or sleep.

    So ask yourself this: "What is the minimum amount of time I can spare? 20 minutes 3X a week?” and start there. This is about getting something done, mentally establishing the thesis as a priority, and forming a new habit. Then, as you progress, you’ll adjust the time spent writing and editing (upwards likely). If you start your thesis early enough, you don't have to spend the bulk of every day writing--or trying to force yourself to write.

  4. Make that scheduled writing time count. Keep the appointment to work on your thesis. It's so easy for something else to become a new priority--especially if you're not feeling motivated to write. Then use the appointment only for writing, editing, or organizing your thesis materials. This might mean that you'll need to hide in the library, ignore texts, stay off email and social media, or postpone requests from labmates or friends. Or, if you find it helpful, and not a distraction, join a #ShutUpAndWrite Twitter group (or start one with labmates or on your campus). Working on your thesis is a commitment that you make to yourself and your future. You need to prioritize it before it's 30-days before the due date. No one needs an immediate response to their inquiry all the time and frankly they aren’t entitled to it.
  5. If the time you've scheduled to write isn't working for you, then make a change. This might sound obvious but sometimes we try to push through writing like it's a bench procedure. I've done plenty of mind-numbing wet bench procedures where I only needed minimal focus to be safe and successful so making myself get it done worked well.

    But when it comes to writing or editing, if I'm unable to concentrate after 10 minutes, I always find that I'm better off getting up and finding a snack, a little exercise, or doing another small task. Typically, one of these is enough that when I return to the keyboard I'm able to write. But if for whatever reason (I'm too tired, distracted by a personal matter, haven't eaten enough for the day) my ability to focus isn't there I give myself a pass for the day. If happens a few writing sessions in a row, I reevaluate if the time I'm trying to write is actually working for me and what changes I need to make.

  6. Don't pressure yourself by thinking that your introduction should be revered as art, or that every detail must be novel. It needs to be your work, of course, but the introduction will probably include a partial retelling of the work that yours was built upon. Even though the introduction's job is to let readers know what to expect in the rest of the manuscript, most won't spend time analyzing it, and many will skim it.

    Focus on making the introduction clear and relevant--and don't think of it as the thing that will captivate readers. I’ve known graduate students to get hung up on writing introductions for a variety of reasons. I get it—writing introductions is my least favorite part of any manuscript so much so that I almost always write it last. (And after creating an outline, I often start with the acknowledgments section). So, if writing the introduction--or any section--is holding up your progress move to a different part of the manuscript. You can absolutely have writer's block on one section and not another.

  7. When you get stuck write bullet points. I do this whenever I'm stuck on any section of a manuscript, and sometimes when I'm writing a first draft. Writing a few words of what I want a section to cover, or even random thoughts that are connected with the section in some way, often helps me focus on what I'm to get across or makes me realize that I've gotten off track. In these moments, write bullet points to get something on the screen. I know others who rely on their manuscript outlines much in the same way. When they are still excited about writing a manuscript, one colleague writes out a descriptive paragraph under each outline point to refer to in times of creative drought
  8. Write like you're the only one who will read this version of the manuscript. I used to get hung up on early drafts of my manuscripts. I’d worry about stuff like “What if my co-authors think this is the best I can do?” and “OMG, what if this is the best I can do?” That lead me to be overly focused on the writing mechanics early on which was distracting and killed my creativity and motivation.

    Finally, I decided that I was happy to share outlines and have discussions about a manuscript early on but that I didn’t need to share a first draft with others. Of course, you can’t hold on to drafts forever—early feedback can save you a lot of time if you’re off track and you’ll improve your writing if the tips from others are specific and relevant. But know that the final version of your manuscript will have little resemblance to the final one so the first and second drafts—nah it’s never the best that you can do.

If some of this sounds easier said than done, it's because that is the true reality for most of us when writing a manuscript. Moving a large writing project forward is complicated and it's hard work. It’s can be especially daunting when finishing is tied to graduating or getting a job. But hang in there, stay connected with your most supportive committee members, and you will get through it.