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Finishing your PhD thesis: 15 top tips from those in the know

Trying to complete a PhD thesis in time for the October deadline? We share some advice on getting over that final hurdle

  • The key to a successful PhD thesis? Write in your own voice

Many PhD students are now in the final throes of writing their thesis. Turning years of research into a single, coherent piece of work can be tough, so we asked for tips from supervisors and recent PhD graduates. We were inundated with tweets and emails – and @AcademiaObscura helpfully created a Storify of the tweets. Below is a selection of the best tips.

1) Make sure you meet the PhD requirements for your institution “PhD students and their supervisors often presume things without checking. One supervisor told his student that a PhD was about 300 pages long so he wrote 300 pages. Unfortunately the supervisor had meant double-spaced, and the student had written single-spaced. Getting rid of 40,000 extra words with two weeks to go is not recommended.” ( Hannah Farrimond, lecturer in medical sociology, Exeter University)

2) Keep perspective “Everyone wants their thesis to be amazing, their magnum opus. But your most important work will come later. Think of your PhD as an apprenticeship. Your peers are unlikely to read your thesis and judge you on it. They are more likely to read any papers (articles, chapters, books) that result from it.” ( Dean D’Souza, PhD in cognitive neuroscience, Birkbeck, University of London)

3) Write the introduction last “Writing the introduction and conclusion together will help to tie up the thesis together, so save it for the end.” ( Ashish Jaiswal, PhD in business education, University of Oxford)

4) Use apps “ Trello is a project management tool (available as a smartphone app) which allows you to create ‘boards’ on which to pin all of your outstanding tasks, deadlines, and ideas. It allows you to make checklists too so you know that all of your important stuff is listed and to-hand, meaning you can focus on one thing at a time. It’s satisfying to move notes into the ‘done’ column too.” ( Lucy Irving, PhD in psychology, Middlesex University)

5) Address the unanswered questions “There will always be unanswered questions – don’t try to ignore or, even worse, obfuscate them. On the contrary, actively draw attention to them; identify them in your conclusion as areas for further investigation. Your PhD viva will go badly if you’ve attempted to disregard or evade the unresolved issues that your thesis has inevitably opened up.” ( Michael Perfect, PhD in English literature, University of Cambridge)

6) Buy your own laser printer “A basic monochrome laser printer that can print duplex (two-sided) can be bought online for less than £100, with off-brand replacement toners available for about £30 a pop. Repeatedly reprinting and editing draft thesis chapters has two very helpful functions. Firstly, it takes your work off the screen and onto paper, which is usually easier to proof. Secondly, it gives you a legitimate excuse to get away from your desk.” ( James Brown, PhD in architectural education, Queen’s University Belfast)

7) Checking is important “On days when your brain is too tired to write, check quotations, bibliography etc so you’re still making progress.” ( Julia Wright, professor of English at Dalhousie University, Canada)

8) Get feedback on the whole thesis “We often get feedback on individual chapters but plan to get feedback from your supervisor on the PhD as a whole to make sure it all hangs together nicely.” ( Mel Rohse, PhD in peace studies, University of Bradford)

9) Make sure you know when it will end “Sometimes supervisors use optimistic words such as ‘You are nearly there!’ Ask them to be specific. Are you three months away, or do you have six months’ worth of work? Or is it just a month’s load?” ( Rifat Mahbub, PhD in women’s studies, University of York)

10) Prepare for the viva “Don’t just focus on the thesis – the viva is very important too and examiners’ opinions can change following a successful viva. Remember that you are the expert in your specific field, not the examiners, and ask your supervisor to arrange a mock viva if practically possible.” ( Christine Jones , head of school of Welsh and bilingual studies, University of Wales Trinity St David)

11) Develop your own style “Take into account everything your supervisor has said, attend to their suggestions about revisions to your work but also be true to your own style of writing. What I found constructive was paying attention to the work of novelists I enjoy reading. It may seem that their style has nothing to do with your own field of research, but this does not matter. You can still absorb something of how they write and what makes it effective, compelling and believable.” ( Sarah Skyrme, PhD in sociology, Newcastle University)

12) Remember that more is not always better “A PhD thesis is not a race to the highest page count; don’t waste time padding.” ( Francis Woodhouse, PhD in mathematical biology, University of Cambridge)

13) Get a buddy “Find a colleague, your partner, a friend who is willing to support you. Share with them your milestones and goals, and agree to be accountable to them. This doesn’t mean they get to hassle or nag you, it just means someone else knows what you’re up to, and can help to check if your planning is realistic and achievable.” ( Cassandra Steer, PhD in criminology, University of Amsterdam)

14) Don’t pursue perfectionism “Remember that a PhD doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. Nothing more self-crippling than perfectionism.” ( Nathan Waddell, lecturer in modernist literature, Nottingham University )

15) Look after yourself “Go outside. Work outside if you can. Fresh air, trees and sunshine do wonders for what’s left of your sanity.” ( Helen Coverdale, PhD in law, LSE)

Do you have any tips to add? Share your advice in the comments below.

Join the higher education network for more comment, analysis and job opportunities , direct to your inbox. Follow us on Twitter @gdnhighered.

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struggling to finish my thesis

17 Things to do If You can’t Finish Your Dissertation On Time

struggling to finish my thesis

There are several reasons students may find themselves with stalled progress on their dissertation. Some may have lost interest in their project, some may have been faced with unforeseen obstacles or time-consuming illnesses, and some students find that they need to do more research before they can even start writing.

Whatever your reason for not finishing your dissertation on time, there are many steps you can take to get back on track. This guide from MyEssayGeek will provide you with some steps you should take to get back on track and finish your dissertation.

1. Don’t panic

struggling to finish my thesis

Other students have found themselves in the same boat as you have, and if they were able to get back on track, so are you. To make sure your dissertation is finished on time, it is important to keep a level head and avoid panicking. Prioritize and evaluate your options before making any hasty decisions.

2. Look at your time management skills

You may find that one of the reasons you are having problems finishing your dissertation on time is poor time management or a complete lack of it. If this is the case, try to implement some helpful time management techniques to ensure you’re making the most of your day.

Schedule Time to Write. If you’re trying to finish your dissertation, you need to schedule a time to write. Whether this means setting aside 2 hours a day or scheduling times in the night when you can write, you must take the time to get everything done. Even if it’s just for 15 minutes at a time, make sure that you’re writing every day so that things don’t fall behind even more.

3. Talk to your dissertation supervisor

struggling to finish my thesis

You may find that you do not see eye to eye with your supervisor and that this is why you’re having problems finishing your dissertation on time. If this is the case, it’s essential to talk through any disagreements you have with your supervisor before they develop into a full-blown crisis.

4. Look at other ways of writing your dissertation

If you’re having problems finishing your dissertation, it may be worth looking at other options. There are several different ways to complete your dissertation, including using a ghostwriter or even an online writing service.

5. Don’t give up!

struggling to finish my thesis

If you’ve taken all the steps we’ve listed above, and you still aren’t able to finish your dissertation on time, it’s important to keep trying. There are multiple reasons you might not be able to finish your dissertation on time, and they don’t all have the same solution. Keep trying until you find one that works for you, and don’t give up until you do.

6. Talk to professionals

If all else fails, it’s important to seek professional help. Several organizations offer dissertation writing support, including friendly tutors who can help with dissertation planning.

It might seem like a tough thing to do, but if you’re struggling with finishing your dissertation, you need to find help. Try talking with a tutor , or try looking for other dissertation writing services that can help you take care of this before it’s too late. If you can’t find help, it might be time to call the dissertation advisors and speak with them about what’s going on.

7. Stop working on your dissertation

struggling to finish my thesis

Well, sort of. Many students find that they can work better without the constant pressure of finishing their dissertation looming over them, so taking a temporary break from working on your dissertation can actually help you get it finished in double-quick time.

8. Try Something New

If you’re struggling to finish your dissertation, try something new that you’ve never done before. Whether this means speaking with a tutor or trying a new approach to writing your paper, you should do something that will help you stay focused in the long term. Just remember that this isn’t an excuse to procrastinate if you’re behind on your dissertation. It’s just about trying something new and getting a change of pace.

9. Take up a hobby or an interest

struggling to finish my thesis

You may find that you’re being distracted by things unrelated to your dissertation, and this is delaying the process even more. Try to reduce the amount of time you spend on these activities, and instead take up a new hobby that will help you clear your mind and focus on finishing your dissertation on time.

10. Think about what else you can do

If all else fails in your quest to finish your dissertation on time, there may be other ways of completing the project. For example, you could always suggest doing a Ph.D. or even changing subjects.

11. Get Organized

struggling to finish my thesis

You might think that being disorganized is normal, but this isn’t true. If you’re struggling with finishing your dissertation, you should find a way to get organized. The first step for writing an organized dissertation is to create an outline of what will be included in the paper and a detailed plan for how everything will be presented.

12. Stop Being Lonely

Sometimes, the stress of writing your dissertation can be overwhelming, especially if you’re struggling with any other aspects of life. Because of this, you must stop being lonely if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Ensure that you find people who can help you through these tough times so that nothing gets out of hand.

13. Find a Place to Write

struggling to finish my thesis

It can be hard to work on your dissertation when your home or dorm room is distracting. Because of this, you must find a place to write where you can focus on what’s going on. Whether this means working at the library or finding a nice quiet restaurant to write, make sure that you do this is if it will give you the time and space to finish your paper.

14. Take Breaks Every Day

Taking breaks every day is important for your mental health, and it will help keep your mind fresh and ready to go about writing. Because of this, you must take time every day to write something else or enjoy a little bit of downtime. Ensure that you take the time for yourself, even if it means skipping one writing session.

15. Eat Healthily

struggling to finish my thesis

Eating healthy can help with your mental health and keep your body active while writing your dissertation. You must eat healthy meals every day to ensure that you’re getting the right nutrition for what you’re trying to accomplish. Just make sure that you’re eating healthy snacks and meals regularly so that you’re writing is as good as it can be.

16. Sleep on the problem

Sometimes, the best way to solve a big problem is to sleep on it. Because of this, if you’re feeling stuck about something in your dissertation, try letting the problem rest for a few hours overnight and then starting fresh with your writing tomorrow.

17. Reconnect with why you started the dissertation process in the first place

struggling to finish my thesis

Many students lose sight of why they started writing the dissertation in the first place, and taking a few minutes every day to think about this can help keep you on track. If you can remember why you started writing your dissertation, this will help keep you motivated and remind you why it’s essential to finish your dissertation on time.

Remember, there are several reasons why you could be struggling to finish your dissertation. If you have tried the steps we have listed but are still having trouble, seeking help from an outside source is important.

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Beating the Procrastination Demon: How to write that thesis

struggling to finish my thesis

Procrastination refers to the act of delaying or postponing tasks or actions, often to the point of experiencing negative consequences. It is a common behavior that can result from a variety of factors, including lack of motivation, fear of failure, and poor time management skills. Procrastination can take many forms, such as engaging in distractions, constantly checking social media or email, or simply avoiding tasks altogether. It can lead to decreased productivity, increased stress, and missed deadlines, negatively impacting one's personal and professional life. Understanding the underlying causes of procrastination and developing effective strategies can be vital to achieving success and reaching goals.

It’s not uncommon for students to procrastinate. In fact, as many as 90% admit to doing it. A Google search for “I can’t write my thesis,” “thesis writer’s block,” or “how to stop procrastinating” returns scores of social media threads of desperate students asking if it’s possible to write 80 pages in a month or a week. 

So to understand how to avoid procrastinating, it’s key to understand why we do it in the first place. Because while, of course, the newest show on Netflix or another weekend of drinking Marg towers with friends sounds more fun than writing your dissertation, procrastination brings a feeling of guilt and dread. It’s hard to fully enjoy yourself when your thesis hangs over your head like a sword of Damocles. 

So why do we procrastinate, and how can we stop?

Why Do We Procrastinate?

There are many reasons people procrastinate, but for students, the two main causes are fear of failure and waiting to be motivated. Many people who fear failure are actually perfectionists. Some signs you might be a perfectionist include:

  • You can’t start a task until you are sure you can execute it flawlessly
  • You take much longer than usual to complete a task
  • You focus on the final product instead of the process of creating it
  • You don’t consider a task finished until it’s perfect in your eyes

Fear of failure can make it impossible to begin a task. If you don’t try, you can’t fail. Right? So instead of just getting started and writing a less-than-perfect thesis, many perfectionists find reasons to delay starting it. This fear causes perfectionism-induced procrastination, and it’s one reason many struggles with dissertation writing.

But perfectionism isn’t the only reason we procrastinate. It’s also easy to overestimate how motivated you will feel later. Maybe right now you are tired, hungry, or have other things to do, but you’re sure that tomorrow you’ll feel like writing that paper! You will not. You will find another reason not to write. Writing, especially a thesis, takes practice and should be done regularly, no matter how you feel. If you wait to feel inspired, you might never start writing. 

Overcoming Procrastination

So how do you overcome the desire to procrastinate? The drive behind your procrastination will slightly impact what techniques work best for you, but here are several that work pretty well regardless of why you’re finding it impossible to sit down at the computer and start writing. 

  • Minimize Distractions

Distractions come in many forms, as any procrastinator knows. By minimizing your distractions, you can make it easier to focus. For example, some people find it easier to concentrate at home, while others prefer the library or cafe. 

Figure out what works for you and carve out a regular period each day to go there and work. To avoid online distractions that are present no matter where you work, consider temporarily blocking the websites most likely to distract you (social media, blogs, news, etc.) 

Similarly, leave your phone in another room while you work, or turn it on silent and place it face down where you can’t see it. 

  • Break It Down

A significant driver of procrastination is the feeling that a task is simply insurmountable. However, b breaking down your thesis into small steps, you can make each part of writing into an achievable daily goal. 

Make a schedule for yourself, then follow that as strictly as you can. Your calendar shouldn’t just say, “work on the thesis.” Instead, break it down into manageable chunks like “write three pages of the literature review” or “create two data tables for the methods section.” Then, just focus on the task you’ve been assigned today, and feel free to stop working for the day when you finish.

  • Use Productivity and Writing Tools

Productivity tools are very popular— because many struggle with time management, not just thesis writers! A timer system like Kanban or Pomodoro blocks out time segments to be productive and then schedules breaks. 

Source management products like Endnote are also helpful for students who need assistance organizing their research and sources. Finally, AI grammar checkers and online editing services can offer a shortcut for improved writing and fast editing when you don’t have the time or energy to expend.

  • Get Feedback

Obviously, your advisor will provide you with feedback periodically, but it can help you move forward when you’re stuck on getting another pair of eyes on your work. You can ask a peer or colleague to review some of your work to hear some feedback and get a fresh perspective. 

You can also use an editing service that provides substantive editing to see what suggestions they have for your work. Specialized academic editing services for thesis writing are particularly useful for this type of feedback. Online forums and social media can be another good way to find like-minded students researching and working on a dissertation. You can commiserate and share ideas.

Don’t Let Your Thesis Take Over Your Life

One of the most impactful things my (very frustrated) advisor said to me as I sat in his office for the thirtieth time, giving an excuse for why I didn’t have a draft, was, “this isn’t actually that important.” Honestly, I went home and cried after he said that to me. 

I was spending hours researching and thousands of dollars a semester on tuition. So how could my thesis, the culmination of all of these efforts, be insignificant? But after I dried my tears, I realized what he meant. 

A thesis is just a paper; you’ll probably write others, and the world will go on regardless. Two weeks later, I finally handed in my first draft. His words were the reality check I needed to get over the hump of perfectionism-induced procrastination. 

Regardless of your technique, remember that you’re not alone in struggling to start, write, or finish your dissertation. Writing a thesis is a monumental task, which is one reason students must complete it in the first place to prove they have acquired the skills to succeed at a higher level. But others have done it, I did it, and so can you!

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struggling to finish my thesis

An Insider’s Guide On How To Write A Thesis When You’re Short On Time

struggling to finish my thesis

Written by Dora Farkas, PhD

I thought about quitting graduate school in the beginning of my 6th year.

I was almost certain that there was no way that I could graduate that year, or ever for that matter.

I started several dead-end projects, and most of my data was inconsistent and did not support any of my hypotheses.

I felt stuck and trapped in my own life.

The irony was that I actually created this life for myself because I thought that getting a PhD degree was the road to a better life and a career that I would be passionate about.

I finally summoned the courage to have “the talk” with my supervisor and clarify once and for all what I needed to do to graduate.

As I had expected, I could only use a very small portion of the data I had collected up to that point in my thesis.

My supervisor assigned me a new project, and I had to learn how to use three new instruments that I had no prior experience with.

If I wanted to graduate in a year, I had to make that project work.

In order to meet this ambitious deadline I decided to extend my 10-12 hour days to 15-hour days and learn the methods I needed for the new project.

After 5 months, I was finally able to generate some reproducible data with my new experimental setup.

I still had to run hundreds of samples through my system, but I finally had hope that I might be able to graduate that semester.

The problem was the thesis deadline was only 3 months away and I had no idea where to start.

Which section should I write first?

How should I organize my data?

When should I write?

struggling to finish my thesis

7 Helpful Guidelines To Writing A Proper Thesis

My 15-hour days turned into 18-hour days fueled by junk food and soda.

Still, I wasn’t getting anywhere.

No one had taught me how to write a thesis.

To make matters worse, I was a perfectionist.

I spent countless hours writing and rewriting paragraphs and jumping back and forth between different chapters because none of the sections ever felt “good enough.”

Eventually, just as I was burning out and spinning into a dark cycle of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness, I finished my thesis.

As I turned the document into my thesis committee, I remember thinking…

There has to be a better way.

Over the next few years after finishing my thesis, I started studying the process and creating a more effective system for writing a thesis .

Since then, I’ve trained hundreds of PhD students on how to write their theses.

Here are 7 tips on how to write a strong thesis I’ve learned and continue to teach to other PhDs students…

1. Know What Questions You’re Asking

You always need to know what your hypothesis is or what questions your thesis is asking.

This may seem obvious, but so many graduate students fail to define their overall hypothesis before beginning their thesis.

You must be able to summarize your thesis in one sentence such as: “The purpose of this thesis is to….”

If you don’t know what your thesis question or hypothesis is, meet with your supervisor (See #3 below).

Over the years, I’ve encountered a few exceptions to this rule.

For example…

Some PhD students spent 8 or 9 years (full-time) in graduate school working on many small projects because no one project was viable enough for an entire thesis.

These students had what I call a “hodge-podge” thesis.

The only reason their thesis committees let these students graduate is because the students had been in school for so long.

While it is possible to pull a group of small projects together into one thesis, you don’t want to be at the mercy of your thesis committee.

It’s best to always know what question you are asking.

Your question will probably evolve over time, but the more clarity you have about the purpose of your thesis, the more efficient your research will be.

2. Break Your Thesis Into Defined Stages

Thesis writing is a process with well-defined stages

The details of each stage will vary slightly depending on your field, but for most thesis writers the stages are, first, idea collection, second, editing and data analysis, and third, polishing.

Perfectionists (like me) will particularly benefit from dividing their writing into discrete stages.

The purpose of the first stage of writing is to get as many ideas as possible on paper, without judging, editing or formatting your document.

By allowing yourself to collect your ideas without criticism, you can spark your creativity and overcome the fear of imperfection that may be holding you back from starting to write your thesis.

It is during the second stage, editing and data analysis phase, that you need to be rigorous with your writing and editing.

At the end of the second phase your goal is to produce a manuscript that has a clear structure and a logical flow of arguments so that you can submit it to your supervisor for review.

In the final polishing phase, you need address the feedback from your committee and fill in any gaps in the logic.

Polish, polish, polish, and polish some more until your document is ready to be handed in to your university’s library.

3. Don’t Rely On Your Academic Advisor

Your academic advisor will not give you all the answers.

Some advisors are either too busy to mentor you properly or are micro-managers who want daily updates on your progress.

Other academic advisors are simply bad mentors who don’t want you to graduate in the first place.

Either way, you shouldn’t rely on your mentor to give you all the answers.

You also shouldn’t rely on your advisor for a second reason…

Writing your thesis is your job and your job only.

The role of your advisor is to mentor you so you learn how to be an independent researcher, not to hold your hand for the rest of your life.

Your advisor may or may not be a good mentor, but you need to be in agreement regarding the direction of your research because you need their approval to graduate.

If you have disagreements with your advisor, or you have a dead-end project, it may take several meetings to determine the overall direction of your thesis.

The most effective way to meet with your advisor is to schedule meetings far in advance and come to every meeting with a clear agenda.

Students who plan proactively before talking with their supervisors have much more efficient meetings than those who don’t plan.

If your advisor is a difficult person, continue to be proactive about planning meetings and developing solutions to your problems.

Keep a record of every meeting you have or every meeting he or she refuses to have with you.

Finally, reframe your situation into a learning experience for your career.

4. Realize You Will Never Feel Like Writing

You will never feel like writing your thesis.

Even the most famous and prolific authors in history had daily battles with writer’s block.

You won’t be any different. There will be times when you sit down to write when you feel like you’re dying.

That’s okay—just start typing gibberish. Type sentence fragments. Type anything. Just get something down on paper.

Don’t wait to be inspired to write. Instead, go out and look for inspiration.

Listen to music that puts you in the mood to write. Watch a short video that motivates you to take action. Visualize all the things you will do once your thesis is done.

Warming up your “writing muscles” and seeking out inspiration are the only cures for writer’s block.

Once you’re warmed up and inspired, words will start to flow more naturally. They may even start to form cohesive sentences and paragraphs.

Overtime, your warm-up period will get shorter and shorter until clicking into writing gear becomes an automatic habit.

5. Don’t Write Your Thesis Chapters In Order

When I started writing my thesis, I thought I had to begin with the abstract, then the introduction, then an in-depth literature search, then chapter one, chapter two, on and on all the way to the conclusion.

This is the worst way to write your thesis.

Writing your thesis in order can lead to several months of agonizing writer’s block.

Don’t start writing your thesis by writing the abstract first.

Instead, the abstract of your thesis should be the last section you write

By definition, the abstract is a summary of the highlights of your thesis, and therefore you should only be able to write a quality abstract once you finish all of your chapters.

Don’t start writing your thesis by diving into the most difficult chapter either.

If you do, you will inevitably face writer’s block.

Starting your thesis by writing the most difficult chapter first is like trying to deadlift a 500-pound weight without any prior training.

You’ll keep trying to lift the heavy weight unsuccessfully until you’re completely exhausted. Eventually, you’ll give up entirely and label yourself as simply not good enough to do the exercise.

Instead, start writing your thesis by writing the easiest section first—the methods section.

The methods section is the easiest section to get started and the quickest to finish. Start here to get a few pages under your belt and boost your confidence before you try any heavy lifting.

6. Never Write “work on thesis” In Your Calendar

“Work on thesis” is too vague.

If you put this phrase in your calendar it will either lead to you taking a nap, surfing the web, or staring at a blank computer screen.

Even if you do manage to put some words on paper or analyze some data, you’ll do so randomly.

Instead, you need to turn your work hours into measurable progress.

You need to be very deliberate with how you allocate your time.

Once you decide on the order in which you will write your chapters, continue breaking them down into smaller chunks.

This will allow you to set up specific goals for every block of time you have.

Instead of inserting “work on thesis” into your calendar, insert measurable goals like “finish Figure 1” or “write two pages of Chapter 2.”

7. Write In Very Short Bursts

Writing in several short bursts is more efficient than writing in a few, long extended periods of time.

If you ever tried to write for several hours in a row, you may have noticed that your concentration becomes weaker after about 45-60 minutes.

Writing requires creativity, and it is difficult to sustain your focus for several hours in a row over the course of months (or even years) until you finish your thesis.

If you have a 3-4-hour block of time in your calendar, resist the temptation to glue yourself to the chair for the entire period.

You’re only fooling yourself if you think that more hours of writing leads to more progress.

Instead, break up your writing time into short blocks with rest periods in between.

I suggest alternating 45 minutes of writing with 15 minutes of rest.

These rest periods are crucial. Many students get sudden insights when they are away from their desks and they become more efficient when they return to work.

Turn off your email and phone alerts when you’re writing.

Don’t be tempted to check these updates during the rest periods. It’s far too easy for an update to distract you from your work and derail your next writing period.

Bad writing habits are tough to break. If you try to eliminate your bad habits overnight, your brain and body might rebel against you. A better strategy is to change your habits slowly and one at a time. Don’t take on all 7 of the above thesis writing guidelines at once . Instead, take on one, complete it or master it, and then move on to the next tip. The toughest part of writing is the beginning. The sooner you start writing your thesis, the easier writing it becomes . A good writer is not someone who never struggles, but someone who keeps writing even when they’re struggling.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists.  Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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ABOUT DORA FARKAS, PHD

Dora Farkas received her Ph.D. from MIT in the Department of Biological Engineering and worked for several years in the pharmaceutical industry as a Senior Scientist. Dora is a thesis and career coach and the founder of the online Finish Your Thesis Program & Community, which has helped hundreds of graduate students finish their thesis.

Dora Farkas, PhD

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Finish Your Thesis

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I Was Stressed and Burned Out…but, this is How I Finished My Thesis by Working Fewer Hours

November 20, 2021 by Dora Farkas, PhD 13 Comments

“The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.” – Oprah Winfrey  

Why did I have to reduce my work hours to finish my thesis?

I cut down on the number of hours I worked in the beginning of my sixth (and last) year of graduate school.

I had piles of data, but no cohesive story.

I was burned-out from long hours at work, and there was little hope I could finish my thesis by the end of the school year.

So, why did I decide to work less? It was actually not a deliberate decision.

I had to cut down on my work hours per my doctor’s orders.

In my fourth year of graduate school I developed excruciating pain in my elbows from excessive typing and labwork.

For two years I was able to manage my condition through physical therapy and pain relievers.

So, I could still put in the 10-12 hours days which I thought were necessary to finish a doctoral thesis. 

Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, but by the beginning of my sixth year my condition worsened to the point that just 15 minutes of typing flared up the pain.

Simple tasks such as writing a check (not many, just one) or holding a book led to sharp aches in my arms and wrists.

Managing my pain through Western and alternative therapies nearly became a full-time job, which consumed most of my time and graduate student stipend.

I had to make a change – whether or not I was going to finish my doctoral thesis, I had to do something differently so I could regain my health.

struggling to finish my thesis

First, I had to take two weeks off completely with no computer use at all! I actually asked my husband to read and reply to my emails for me.

That’s when I learned that in 15 minutes a day I could get most of my emailing done.

When I went back to work, I started with just 15 minutes of typing at a time and then I took a 1-2 hour break.

The goal was to prevent the pain before it started.

I slowly increased the number of hours I worked by reducing the length of my breaks (5-15 minutes instead of 1-2 hours), but I continued to only type for only 15 minutes at a time for the remainder of the school year.

It took a HUGE leap of faith to believe that I could finish my thesis (which was in bits and pieces) at this pace in the next few months.

How did fewer work hours speed up my progress?

As I reduced the time I spent in front of my computer, something interesting happened.

First, I spent more time outdoors.

As I began my recovery I walked for 1-2 hour along the Charles River every day, and as I increased my work hours I took 5-10 minute strolls on the MIT Campus.

Walking can have an amazing effect on your mind, especially when you are trying to piece together inconclusive data and design a new experimental setup.

After every walk I had a new insight – perhaps a new reference paper to look up or a different way of plotting my data.

In fact, whenever I was confused by my data or hit a roadblock, I decided to just let it go for the moment and let my creative mind take care of it during my next walk.

And most of the time, my new perspective during my walks did point me in the right direction.

Ever so slowly, I started making progress in developing a new experimental setup that would “save” my thesis and lead to an exciting publication.

By January of my sixth year, I had optimized my method (champagne please!) and was ready to collect the real data that I needed to wrap up my thesis.

Besides spending more time outdoors, I spent more time reading the literature, thinking about new strategies for my research, and optimizing my time-management.

I realized that I had wasted so much time previously (working 12 hours days) by running experiments or analyzing data without digging into the literature or having the big picture view of how my research contributed to my field.

In other words, my injury forced me to stop and REALLY think about my research.

And, that made all the difference in developing a novel method that helped us to gain a better understanding of the cells we were working with and an exciting publication.

What can you do to reduce your work hours and still be productive?

The most important step for me in finishing my thesis despite my reduced work hours was letting go of the belief that working longer hours means more progress.

I thought the more experiments I crammed into the day and the more hours I put into data analysis, the faster I would finish my thesis.

Clearly, this strategy did not work as by the beginning of my sixth year I had little to show for all my efforts.

At the same time, I knew some classmates who finished their theses in four years.

Some of my peers had challenging topics or difficult advisors, yet they still managed to get a doctoral thesis done in four years.

While I did not know how they did it, at least I knew it was possible.

Once you let go of the belief that more hours lead to more progress, you can actually begin to implement habits that will help you to make the most out of the hours that you do work.

For me the key elements in making tangible progress daily were:

  • Spend time outdoors – Take a 20 minute walk if you can, or even a 5-10 minute breather during lunch hour. I heard a funny saying once: “Only smokers get fresh air during the day.” While I do not encourage smoking at all, one lesson I learned from coworkers who were smokers was that they always found a way to take several 10 minute breaks during the day – and they were still productive and published papers!
  • Take frequent breaks from work. Alternating 45 minutes of work with 15 minutes of rest is ideal. Your creative mind works best when you are away from your desk. Ever wonder why you get your best ideas while working out or in the shower?
  • Daily exercise – If a 20 minute walk is all you can fit in, then stick with that. If you can do any other exercise (taking the stairs instead of the levator, a quick jog in your lunch hour, 20 minutes of yoga in the morning), it can do wonders for your physical and mental health. You will find that the endorphins that your body releases during and after exercise make you happier and more focused.
  • H av e a very clear idea at the beginning of the day of what you want to accomplish – Do you come to work knowing what you want to get done, or do you just let your day unfold depending on emails and other people’s agendas? That’s how I started graduate school, but by my sixth year, this strategy did not work. To reduce my pain, I eliminated all recreational computer use, and focused only on the tasks would move my thesis forward. Of course, some recreational computer use if OK (and even necessary to keep up with friends), but make your work a priority. Email and social media will still be there later in the day.
  • Celebrate your success at the end of every week. One of the best decision I made as a freshman in college, was that NO MATTER WHAT I would take every Friday evening off and do something FUN: No studying and no time at the computer. Even as a young student fresh out of high school, I knew that celebrating once a week was essential for my health. It was easy to celebrate as an undergraduate – deadlines were short and I received constant feedback on my performance. In graduate school my deadlines were on the order of months, and sometimes weeks went by without any progress. Most of the time in graduate school I did feel like celebrating. 

As I was recovering from my injury, I started celebrating every 15 minutes that I worked.

After all, just a few weeks earlier I could not even write a check without debilitating pain.

Start celebrating any small step you take – in fact, I encourage you to blow it out of proportion!

If you write 2 paragraphs of your proposal, give yourself the luxury of a nice dinner instead of Ramen noodles.

Oprah Winfrey’s wonderful quote at the beginning of this article, “The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate,” literally changed my life.

More celebration leads to more confidence, motivation and, most importantly, productivity. 

What if there is no way you can reduce your work hours?

I hear this a lot: “I am already spread so thin, with so many classes and responsibilities that there is no way I could work less and make time for myself.”

The reason that I smile when I hear this is that I’ve been there.

I worked for several years in the pharmaceutical industry, had a 1 hour commute in each direction, 2 young children, a household with lots of laundry, and I coached graduate students part-time.

Weekdays were busy with work, and weekends were even busier with grocery shopping, catching up with laundry, and chauffeuring 2 kids to 2 different sets of extracurriculars and birthday parties.

With so many responsibilities, how could I take time for myself?

The reality was that because I had to show up for so many people, I had to take care of my physical and mental health.

Is there a way to create extra time for exercise from thin air?

No, there isn’t, but if you are creative and proactive, you will find a way to take a break for yourself.

If you cannot make time for a formal exercise class or the gym, there are still opportunities to get breathers throughout the day. Here are a few of the things that I did to preserve my sanity:

  • Took a walk during my lunch break – some of my coworkers chatted in the lunchroom, others ate their lunch in front of their computers while checking email.  Neither option was refreshing for me. I usually ate my lunch in 15 minutes and walked for 15-20 minutes outside, even if it rained or snowed (after all, this is New England). The great thing about walking, was that when I got back to my desk and took a fresh look at my work, I found ways to make my reports or experiments better.
  • Kept my gym bag in the car at all times – my company had a gym, and I also belonged to a local gym. Sometimes I took a 20 minute jog during lunch hour before eating. Other times, if a meeting was cancelled and I had the opportunity to leave early, I went to the gym.
  • On days that were super-packed with meetings, I still took a 5-10 minute breather before driving home.  If I didn’t have the opportunity to do that either (because I had to rush home to pick up my kids), I spent a few minutes on my back porch in silence before going to sleep.
  • I planned refreshing activities to do with my kids. Sometimes I had to bring home work for the weekend. On those days, I woke up early to get it out of the way, and then I took my kids to the park or movies. (Yes, I saw kids movies in 3-D!).
  • Simplified my life as much as possible to save time – I am very health conscious, and I used to think that I had to prepare home-made foods for dinner every night. Clearly this was not possible given my schedule. In fact, my carefully prepared “healthy” meals were usually not appreciated by my kids, and ended up being my lunch for the rest of the week. So, I simplified the types of foods I prepared, using some pre-made meals, and ordered out once in a while. I also started ordering everything online, including shoes and clothes and it worked out great. So, instead of spending hours at the mall, I had everything mailed to my house, which made it possible for me to have time for exercise on the weekends. 

As I wrote earlier, the toughest part about becoming more productive is letting go of the belief that more hours at work means more progress.

Once you let go of this belief, you will notice opportunities all around you for recreation and exercise.

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COMMENTS

  1. How to Finish Your Dissertation

    If you have only one way to finish your dissertation (write it) and you know the three challenges you need to overcome to do the writing (isolation, perfectionism and procrastination), then the key question is: How can you create an environment and support systems this year that will enable you to write on a regular basis?

  2. Stuck completing master's thesis, how to overcome poor choice of topic

    5 I'm in the second year of a master's program, working on a thesis. I am not getting enough help from my supervisor because he has a different methodological background from me. I am also not finding enough evidence to complete the thesis, and the topic has been very difficult to research because almost nothing is written about it.

  3. 11 quick fixes to get your thesis back on track

    Try flipping your thesis statement on its head and see it as a question; what is a thesis statement but a question that has been turned into a declaration? So just to recap, the first step in the early stages of your dissertation really should be identifying a research question. In fact, for some advisors this is the first thing they want to see.

  4. Are You Struggling to Finish Your Dissertation or Thesis?

    Are You Struggling to Finish Your Dissertation or Thesis? Two steps to help gain confidence and overcome the writing obstacles faced by everybody in higher education Jeffrey Keefer, Ph.D. ·...

  5. How to Write A Thesis When You Can't Even Look At It Anymore

    If you're struggling to start or finish your thesis, you're likely feeling some type of fear. Fear is often the underlying emotion behind procrastination, not "laziness" or lack of motivation. The good news is that once you identify your fear (even if you don't have a solution), your writer's block will start to dissolve.

  6. Advice for how to get (and stay) motivated to write your dissertation

    Start with one line or page. One is better than zero, and the lines, as well as pages, will accumulate over time if you keep it going regularly. Breaking down the work in more manageable chunks will get you writing and help you push through your writer's block. Obsessing is not progressing. This is for all the perfectionists out there.

  7. Surviving the Dissertation: Tips from Someone Who Mostly Has

    Next time someone asks you to go for a beer, close your computer and say yes. Carve out little bits of writing time. As I mentioned in my previous post, dissertation writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Writing often happens in little bits spread out over time. No matter how busy you are, take the time to write for half an hour a day.

  8. How to help struggling graduate students finish their thesis

    1. Provide them with a thesis completion roadmap. Sometimes the steps required to finish are not entirely clear to students (or faculty!). Create a 1-pager that shows all the steps involved in...

  9. 3 Thesis Struggles and How to Overcome Them

    Here are three thesis struggles you might run into along the way, as well as strategies to overcome them: 1. Unclear claim A strong thesis relies on a clearly written and understood line of argument. To come up with your central claim, look for patterns that emerge across all of your data.

  10. Finishing your PhD thesis: 15 top tips from those in the know

    8) Get feedback on the whole thesis. "We often get feedback on individual chapters but plan to get feedback from your supervisor on the PhD as a whole to make sure it all hangs together nicely ...

  11. Perfectionism in Your Thesis Writing Is What's Keeping You Stuck

    1. Clarify your purpose and the question (s) you need to answer Can you summarize your manuscript in 1 sentence? Do you know what question (s) your thesis has to answer? Without clarity about the purpose of your thesis, your work and time will go to waste.

  12. 17 Things to do If You can't Finish Your Dissertation On Time

    1. Don't panic Source: freepik.com Other students have found themselves in the same boat as you have, and if they were able to get back on track, so are you. To make sure your dissertation is finished on time, it is important to keep a level head and avoid panicking. Prioritize and evaluate your options before making any hasty decisions. 2.

  13. How to stay focused on your thesis and finish grad school

    Making a list of your "stressors" gives you power. You cannot take action (at least not effectively) unless you know exactly what you have committed to. As long as the commitments are inside your head, it will not be clear what you need to do about them and how much time each commitment will take.

  14. Struggling to finish my thesis : r/GradSchool

    Struggling to finish my thesis : r/GradSchool by [deleted] Struggling to finish my thesis Just hoping for some advice or encouragement. I am in the final revisions for my masters thesis. I'll probably have to submit one more full draft with revisions before it's done. But I feel like I have hit a wall and don't want to do this anymore.

  15. Stuck without progress working on thesis

    Who to ask for help regarding my thesis and topic. I am constantly worried about what if i fail. What will happen. Should I have to go back to India without completing my Master's. Update 28.09.2020: Thanks a lot. I have passed my Thesis as well as my masters with satisfactory Noten (Grade).

  16. Beating the Procrastination Demon: How to Write that Thesis

    Regardless of your technique, remember that you're not alone in struggling to start, write, or finish your dissertation. Writing a thesis is a monumental task, which is one reason students must complete it in the first place to prove they have acquired the skills to succeed at a higher level. But others have done it, I did it, and so can you!

  17. PDF Destigmatizing Struggle: My Thesis Story

    Virtually none of my friends knew the extent of my thesis struggles and that I didn't have it finished at that time (the university lets you walk even if you have an outstanding degree requirement like the thesis or if you are course deficit).

  18. Insider's Guide: Writing A Thesis When You're Short On Time

    1. Know What Questions You're Asking You always need to know what your hypothesis is or what questions your thesis is asking. This may seem obvious, but so many graduate students fail to define their overall hypothesis before beginning their thesis.

  19. This is how I finished my thesis by working fewer hours

    The goal was to prevent the pain before it started. I slowly increased the number of hours I worked by reducing the length of my breaks (5-15 minutes instead of 1-2 hours), but I continued to only type for only 15 minutes at a time for the remainder of the school year. It took a HUGE leap of faith to believe that I could finish my thesis (which ...

  20. Procrastinated and now I have 1 month to write my thesis

    I work full-time as a project manager at the university as well and struggle to find the energy and interest to write after working in academia all day. I have 2 hours marked off in my calendar each evening and an ongoing list of tasks in a Google doc I can access from any device. ... Literally trying to finish my thesis this week and make my ...

  21. Need advice: Regret topic for master thesis and struggling with

    I'm struggling to finish my master thesis (started it about a year ago but have worked fulltime for half of this time and part-time for the rest so I haven't been able to focus 100% on the thesis) and I'm not sure how to deal with the situation. The reasons why I'm struggling are several: I haven't been able to find a relevant theory for my ...

  22. Some motivation to finish your thesis (send this to a friend ...

    Whether you are writing your bachelor's, master's or even your PhD thesis (or dissertation or capstone), we all sometimes get into a slump that we don't seem...

  23. Struggling to finish my thesis. : r/psychologystudents

    Struggling to finish my thesis. Advice/Career I have two weeks left before I need to submit. My supervisor has suggested a few big changes to my analysis and conclusion sections. I am really struggling to just sit down and focus on writing even one sentence. Everything I write seems so stupid and like I'm not at the level I should be.