#58: Why you should not leave dissertation writing until the end!

Is dissertation or thesis writing a bit of a pain for you? Whether it’s writing a bunch of journal papers or crafting a monograph thesis, it is work that often gets postponed until the end of the project. We propose 5 reasons why it is not a good idea and why it can put your PhD at risk if you push writing to the very end. 

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A third-year PhD student in Chemistry told us recently in one of our online courses: “I haven’t started with the papers for my PhD. I’m not so far yet, but I will start soon, at the moment, I’m not ready for it.”  

“When will you be ready for it then?” we asked.

“When I’m done with my research and got my results in”, we found out.   

Over the last couple of years, we‘ve had conversations like this many times. It almost feels as if it is “the” answer to a supervisor’s question on the progress of the PhD student’s dissertation writing. Since we heard it so often, we sat down after this last online course and talked for a while about the topic of dissertation writing, and particularly about the issue of keeping the writing part until the end. It was a very lively discussion and we will share some of the thoughts we had here. 

But first, we’d love to know from you: Do you also assume it is a good strategy to wait to write your thesis chapters or journal papers until the project is largely completed? Do you also intend to write up everything at the end when your research is done? 

We fully understand that in your PhD project you are very busy with getting your research project organised and getting results in. Nonetheless, we recommend not to wait so long and get started with your dissertation writing earlier. Here are five reasons why it may not be such a brilliant idea to keep it until the end:   

1. Writing is a skill that needs to be developed!  

Whether you’re making music, practicing sports, learning a language – you know, if you want to be good at something – you need to practice! Try running a marathon with only a week of training! Have you ever heard of a concert pianist who only started to rehearse at the very last minute? 

Writing is no different. It is a skill that can be perfected. If you develop the skill, it is a pleasure to conduct it, and the reader will also enjoy the outcome more!

So let’s apply this to your dissertation: If you postpone all your dissertation writing until the end of your project, you have not developed the writing skills to master it properly. Then, it can be a hard and painful writing period for which you have to spend many extra hours to reach your desired result. 

Whereas, if you adopt the idea of approaching writing like learning a skill, like in music or sports, you will get better and better the more you practice. Yes, the start might be hard. Yes, you will probably feel you have hardly anything to write about. Yes, you will have doubts whether writing is the right thing for you. 

BUT, you’ve got to deliver a thesis at the end. This is what a PhD is about! 

So, why not just make it easier for yourself and instead of postponing the work until the end, get started early, develop your writing skills and maybe even surprise yourself how straightforward, fun and rewarding writing the dissertation can become. Give yourself enough time to develop the skill and writing will become so much easier for you. If you need any help in this process, join our free Webinar coming up very soon!     

2. If you don’t like writing now, you won’t like it later either!

Okay, okay, we think we know why some of you postpone writing until later in the project: You probably don’t like writing. You don’t enjoy it. You want to keep it as far away from you as possible, for as long as possible, right?

But will this attitude towards writing change if you wait and postpone doing it? Most likely, not! You might want to suppress the thoughts about your dissertation writing but deep inside it is not forgotten. When you then later have to address it, the discomfort will become even stronger. 

3. Your stress levels will increase and your quality of writing will decrease!  

During the first year of your PhD study you probably think you’ve got all the time in the world to do good research and writing has little or no priority for you at all. In the second year, your project progresses, you’ve done experiments, collected data and probably have first results ready, but there’s absolutely no spare time for writing. In the third year, you realise what you still have to do to get your project completed. You also become aware that you should get started with writing now because the projected timeline of your project is reaching an end. But you’re not finished, you’ve still got so much to do. 

Now you start feeling the stress building up. The amount of work you still want to do is piling up and so far you have not developed any routine for writing your dissertation. But it is the dissertation that you need in order to finish your project successfully. The pressure on you is mounting, the stress level significantly increasing. Writing in this way is painful. 

Even if you come to the conclusion that you should have started earlier, you can’t make up for lost time anymore. Thus, you eventually have to compromise on the quality of your writing. The increased stress level does not help to write a better thesis or better journal papers. You will produce work of lower quality. 

We also learned this lesson the hard way! During our study at Heidelberg University, we wrote a few travel guides. This was even before we’d started our PhD projects but it was a nice side activity for us and a spin-off of the journeys we made. We found a publisher who was keen on publishing our first guide and we got a deadline to deliver the completed manuscript. 

And yes, we started too late with writing. Instead, we enjoyed looking for more and more material that we could include in the book to make it even better, but the deadline came closer and closer. We had to spend many long days (and nights) to get the manuscript ready. The last night before the deadline, we worked all night long to get the guide ready to be submitted the next day to the publisher. It was painful and nothing you would like to experience, believe us. 

We wrote a few more travel guides and for the next ones, we changed our writing approach and started getting the text on paper earlier. It was much easier to cope with this approach and the manuscript was also much better. This way the process was less stressful, resulted in higher quality and we had a whole night of sleep before submission! 

4. You increase the risk of delay and failure of your PhD! 

The biggest risk resulting from postponing your dissertation is the risk that you are substantially delaying your PhD completion or getting in danger of failure. This may sound super dramatic but we met a whole bunch of PhD students who faced exactly these difficulties. 

When you do the writing at the end of your project, you don’t have a lot of wriggle room for mistakes. Everything needs to go smoothly for you to make it on time. But how realistic is it that everything will be plain sailing? 

When you are writing a monograph thesis of all the work you did you often only realise when you put the single chapters on paper that something is missing. You probably need to quickly do another side study or get some more data or results for a chapter that still needs to be looked at. Your supervisor can first have a closer look at your thesis and might have quite a few suggestions for changes. To implement these suggestions will take you additional time. 

When you are writing several journal papers and submit them to international peer-reviewed journals for your dissertation, you have limited influence on the timeline of the editorial and publishing process. Journals will ask you most likely for revisions as well and this can be time-consuming. You also have to take into account the possibility that one of your papers get rejected and you need to rewrite and resubmit. 

Thus, when you keep the dissertation writing until the end you’re risking a serious delay of your PhD completion. You will need extra time for editing, revising and resubmission and if you are really unlucky, your funding or contract comes to an end before you’re done. You risk failing your PhD study. Don’t let it come to this and avoid pushing all writing tasks until the end! 

5. It’s a bad habit

Yes, you could call it a bad habit to push all the writing to the end. Habits steer many of our daily actions and most of them are really helpful, but some habits are negative and they compromise your skills and achievements. Keeping dissertation writing until the end is such a bad habit. 

Does it really make sense to wait with one of the most important outcomes of your PhD until the end? You know of course that you have to produce it and complaining about the fact that you have to write the dissertation doesn’t really help. It is clear from the start that this is part of doing a PhD. Read more about writing habits in our blog post #56 “Breaking these 5 habits will speed up your thesis writing!”There is a way around these bad habits which can make dissertation writing an achievable and rewarding task. 

Conclusion 

It is a myth to assume dissertation writing gets easier if you wait until you are further in your project. A second myth is to suggest you should not start with it before your third year. A third myth is to claim dissertation writing has to be difficult and painful. 

Definitely not! Writing your dissertation is not the annoying add-on to a PhD study but it is one of its key outcomes. Focusing as early as possible on producing this outcome is a smart move. The earlier you start writing your dissertation – the earlier you will be finished. 

We want to empower you to get your writing and your PhD done. If you are looking for more help on how to write your PhD thesis in a smarter way, consider joining our free Webinar  

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