Theses and dissertations can seem like overwhelming projects when viewed from the starting point, but Carol M. Roberts, author of “The Dissertation Journey”, argues that the challenge of writing them can be deeply rewarding and even fun. The following tips are intended to put the process into perspective and offer some tactics for making the most of the experience.
Choosing a Thesis Topic
First and foremost, students should seriously consider their reasons for writing a thesis or dissertation in the first place. Gordon Davis and Clyde Parker, authors of “Writing the Doctoral Dissertation” suggest a number of pertinent questions, among them: Is there a gap in the literature on a subject? Is there a research problem that needs to be addressed? Do existing studies omit or overlook key information? Are there new ways of looking at an old problem that really illuminate it in interesting ways? These questions circulate around a more critical one, albeit one that can cause some anxiety: what makes the project valuable, necessary, and interesting?
The thesis writing process is one in which energy and enthusiasm tend to ebb and flow, and sometimes revisiting the reasons for undertaking the challenge in the first place can really help to rekindle interest in the subject. A clearly-stated, workable topic provides navigation on the voyage.
Making the Thesis Manageable
The thought of writing a whole book can be understandably intimidating, but Sonja K. Foss and William Waters argue in “Destination Dissertation” that graduate students already have the essential skills for the task. Years of academic experience have required the preparation of essays, reports, conference papers, and various other projects that form the critical components of thesis writing, depending on the field of study. Students who have written one essay can easily write seven essays. Mentally breaking down the project into discrete units can really help to make it seem more surmountable.
The other key to success is maintaining a steady but manageable approach to the work. It may seem self-evident, but the best way for students to complete a project of this magnitude is to stick to the habits that produced the best results during their undergraduate degrees. Sometimes insecurity — and especially an impression that other graduate students are somehow doing more — can tempt students to try to overhaul all of their work habits completely. By all means, make an effort to develop a better work ethic, but don’t expect to suddenly transform into someone who spends 16-hour days at the library. Productive work habits are highly individual, and performing someone else’s version of a “good” student is counterproductive.
Dealing With Obstacles in the Writing Process
An aggravating truth about thesis writing is that it can be easy to take a wrong turn. Sometimes a student’s brilliant, original idea turns out to already exist in an as-yet undiscovered book. Another student will spend days constructing a careful, nuanced argument, only to discover a contradictory piece of information that unravels everything. Sometimes thesis supervisors and conference attendees react in unexpected ways that change the focus or direction of the research. Ultimately this means that not every piece of writing will end up in the final draft of the work, and that’s okay. The writing process has value in and of itself, and sometimes it takes a misstep to really put the work into perspective. Be willing to adapt, and to see the thesis as a living, mutable document. Even after it has been printed and bound, the ideas at its core will grow and change; as Foss and Waters point out, academics often revisit their thesis topics over the course of an entire career.
Also realize that rough patches are normal — there will even be days when quitting graduate studies altogether seems like the only sane option. These feelings are part of the process, and everyone experiences them from time to time. Revisit the overarching goals of the project, take a breather, and make a plan to get back on track. As Joan Bolker points out, “the best dissertation is a done dissertation”; sometimes getting the thesis done is just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other until things are progressing more smoothly. A solid visualization of the book all printed and bound, or of strutting across the stage at convocation can’t hurt either!
Thesis and Dissertation Writing Requires Perseverance
Ultimately the key to writing a successful thesis is to realize the process is a marathon rather than a sprint. Long periods of procrastination followed by frantic spells of writing are not likely to produce high-quality work. Even students who complete the work comparatively quickly are likely to finish in several months, if not several years. This is a process that requires achievable goals, reasonable deadlines, and steady, sustained work towards the final product. It is also a process that demands self-care, a day of rest here and there, and a celebration of important milestones as they are achieved.