How to speed up thesis writing

#56: Breaking these 5 habits will speed up your thesis writing!

Does writing your thesis feel like a never-ending story? Are you afraid of making too little progress? Is the thought of writing the dissertation sending shivers down your spine? When you have thesis writing on your agenda but haven’t started or made much headway with it over the last couple of weeks or months, then it probably stems from 5 common bad habits that you might have developed. These habits stop you and make you feel miserable because they make thesis writing seem like an overwhelming and hardly achievable task.  

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What are habits? 

Habits are routines and practices that we carry out automatically to get our life done. They are mostly unconscious actions allowing our brain to use its capacity for other activities instead. We all have habits. We all need to have them. They help us get through the day without having to stop and make a decision at every turn, thus they save energy and help us remain productive. 

But not always! While many routines that we’ve developed help us to get ahead and do a lot of good for us, some are less helpful and productive. Even if we recognise them as bad habits, we might still follow them. They were created over weeks, months, and years. They run automatically and it feels more convenient not to challenge them – but we should. They limit us far more than they benefit us. Changing these habits will result in changing our life for the better, but it can be challenging to overcome them. 

Habits in the thesis writing process

Since habits are developed when activities are repeated often in our life, it’s likely that you have also developed some specific habits for writing. At the moment, you might be busy with writing your dissertation or the several papers for your thesis, but this is not the first time you’ve dealt with larger writing jobs. In your academic pathway to your PhD study, you had to write many articles, theses, essays, applications and more. 

Some of us enjoy the writing process a lot and, therefore, adopt some very helpful writing habits that result in supporting our production of well-written texts. For some of us, writing is not our favourite activity among the many tasks in a researcher’s everyday life, so we might have built some habits to keep the writing away from us as much as possible. For some of us, the writing of something like a thesis feels almost like it poses a threat and we have built up habits to protect us from it. 

But to complete your PhD, you will have to deliver a written thesis or a collection of papers.   If you want to end the feeling of pain, struggle and seemingly endless hours without getting anywhere, if you want to move your degree forward and just get the writing done, then you should identify these negative habits and break with them. In this post, we list 5 common habits that hinder your writing. Overcoming these habits will speed up your thesis writing substantially!  

Habit #1: Prioritising your research instead of the outcome

Naturally, you cannot write about your research if you haven’t done any. But if you prioritise your research far above everything else, if you spend all your energy and time only on your research, you’ll probably never get the writing done either. 

We understand that your research is important and that it is the main motivation to do the job that you are doing. You like doing research, finding out things and contributing to solving problems. You probably didn’t get into research to become a writer. Maybe you even feel like writing is the burdensome part of your job? 

Yet, you might have learned that the writing also will bring many benefits with it. First, it will enable you to share your research with others. How will peers know about the good work you are doing if you don’t publish it? Second, if you publish regularly, it boosts your career in science. Why? Because academic jobs, career progression and other academic benefits are granted to those applicants who are producing quality outcomes, and publications are one of the key measurable outcomes in research (see our blog post #13:Writing journal papers: Pros and cons). 

A vital step to move your thesis writing along is to prioritise it more throughout the process, rather than only before your production of outcome. Your PhD will be judged on its written thesis or the papers you produce. This outcome doesn’t come automatically; you need to give it some time. Increase the amount of energy you spend on writing at the expense of doing a bit less research and other activities, because if you do, you will make substantial progress with getting your thesis done. 

Habit #2: Saying YES to every request

As a PhD student you are probably one of the newer and younger faculty members. You want to avoid making mistakes in your new position and you want your colleagues to think well of you. It is natural that some of your colleagues will approach you with requests. They might be looking for somebody to supervise a group of students, to help them with a lecture series, to contribute to a departmental service, or to sit on an institute board. They’ll probably also ask you to join another project as it might be related to yours, or offer you the opportunity to develop a side-project alongside theirs. These can be all engaging activities where you can connect with your colleagues and have important experiences. But they cost time. 

Time is a valuable resource that needs to be allocated meaningfully when doing a PhD. Do all these side-activities help bring your research, your PhD project, along? Some of these requests may even come from your supervisor and you probably feel obliged to say ‘yes’ to them. If you say ‘yes’ you will have to cut down some other activities. The time that you cut will very likely come off your writing time because writing time for many PhD students is loosely defined and hardly scheduled. As a consequence, the writing is pushed into the evening hours and the weekend, when you actually have time off. 

Be very selective in responding to requests from your supervisor and colleagues. Will you really benefit from them? Check our blog post #22 “Asked to join a side-project? Think twice” to find out when to say ‘yes’ and why it is often a better strategy to say ‘no’ and use the time to bring your thesis writing forward.  

Habit #3: Waiting for input from co-authors and supervisors before continuing to write 

You have probably just completed a chapter of your thesis or a section of your paper and sent it to co-authors or your supervisor for comments. You are in the middle of the writing flow and proud of what you achieved but also a bit nervous to hear what your colleagues will say. Ideally, you would get their input by next week so that you could continue writing but you fear it will take longer. 

While waiting for the feedback, you put your writing on hold and get started with something else. When you then finally get the feedback you were waiting for, both writing flow and mood might have gone. On top of that you got many comments back that take you ages to implement in your manuscript. Or even worse, weeks have passed and you have not even received any feedback at all. 

Contact your supervisor and make clear how important it is to you to receive timely feedback. They probably have just forgotten your request. On silent and passive co-authors, check our blog post #23 “What to do if my co-authors don’t contribute?” to learn how you can get better and faster feedback. In every case, don’t put your writing on hold while you wait for feedback. Continue with other parts of your manuscript and if you don’t hear any feedback from co-authors or supervisors then move ahead with your publication as you had planned. 

Habit #4: Assuming your research is not ready to be published yet 

You probably think that your research is not ripe enough to be published. You would rather like to continue with another set of experiments, interviews, surveys or another round of data collection. You want to be sure about your research before you publish it. And yes, you should be – but when will you be 100% certain that whatever you did in your research was fully accurate? Will you ever reach this stage? 

Assuming that your research is not in publishable shape can easily become a habit that prevents you from getting started with the writing process. In fact, even when your research is still going on, you can start on some essential parts of your thesis or your paper: the literature review, the introduction, the theory and probably even the method section can all be drafted before your work is 100% watertight. 

Don’t let your desire for perfection stop you in producing outcomes that will help you to get closer to the finish line of getting your PhD degree. Your research doesn’t have to be perfect before you get started writing. The writing process will eventually even help you to get a better understanding of your own research and will therefore help you to complete your research. 

Habit #5: Avoiding asking for help when you need it 

Perhaps you are not sure how to describe a certain methodological step, or whether a certain experiment should be mentioned in your thesis at all. Maybe you have difficulties with the presentation of your results and you wonder whether a reader will understand your presentation style. You avoid disturbing your supervisor or contacting your co-authors because of these doubts. You probably think they would get a bad impression of your expertise if you cannot solve these problems on your own. 

For many PhD students that we met in our courses “Completing your PhD successfully on time” and “How to publish in peer-reviewed journals”, the writing of the thesis and the papers is a big challenge and they feel left alone with it. Don’t let this happen to you. You have a supervisor, you have co-authors and you have other colleagues around you that have been through this before. Ask for advice if you need it – your problems could be solved quickly so you can continue with your thesis writing in confidence. 

Conclusion

When it comes down to thesis writing we often follow our long-established habits. They do not always serve us well. You have a goal ahead of you: you want to complete your PhD, and for this you need your thesis or your papers completed. To get this done, overcome the habits that we outlined above if they apply to you. 

We are not suggesting that you should skip your research activity now and only do your writing. We are not advising you shouldn’t be a kind person and not help your colleagues if they need it. We also are not saying that you should ignore advice of co-authors and supervisors. Of course you should make sure that your research is of high quality and accuracy if you want to publish it, and you also want to show that you can work independently. But all of these behaviors can too easily be used as an excuse as to why you make no progress with your thesis writing. 

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

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