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20 Tips to help you finish your dissertation

  i haven’t met many ph.d. students who don’t like to write. some may like writing more than others, but most enjoy writing—or, at least, the satisfaction of having written. wherever you find yourself on the love-for-writing spectrum, a dissertation awaits completion, and you must finish. here are a few tips to help you. 1. write sooner. the….

I haven’t met many Ph.D. students who don’t like to write. Some may like writing more than others, but most enjoy writing—or, at least, the satisfaction of having written. Wherever you find yourself on the love-for-writing spectrum, a dissertation awaits completion, and you must finish. Here are a few tips to help you.

1. Write sooner.  The dissertation writing process can quickly become paralyzing because of its size and importance. It is a project that will be reviewed rigorously by your advisor and your committee, and your graduation depends on your successful completion and defense. Facing these realities can be daunting and tempt you to wait until you can determine that you’ve researched or thought enough about the topic. Yet, the longer you delay writing, the more difficult it will be to actually start the process. The answer to your paralysis is to start writing .  Are you unsure of your argument or not fully convinced you have done the requisite research? You may be right: your argument may not be airtight, and you may need to do more reading; but you will be able to determine to what degree these problems need attention when you start writing. Productivity begets productivity, and you will be amazed at how arguments take shape and the direction of your research is forged as you write.

2. Write continually.  So, don’t stop writing. Of course, you need to continue to read and study and take notes—I will talk about this more in a moment—but it is best if you keep the gears from grinding to a halt. Keep your mind working and your project moving. Your assignment is not to turn in a hundred pages of notes to your supervisor—you must produce a dissertation with complete sentences and paragraphs and chapters.  Keep writing.

3. Write in order to rewrite.  Writing sooner and writing continually can only happen if you aren’t consumed with perfection. Some of us are discouraged from writing because we think our first draft needs to be our final draft. But this is exactly the problem. Get your thoughts on paper and plan to go back and fix awkward sentences, poor word choices, and illogical or unsubstantiated arguments in your subsequent drafts.  Knowing that rewriting is part of the writing process will free you to write persistently, make progress, and look forward to fixing things later.

4. Spend adequate time determining your thesis and methodology.  This probably could fit in the number one slot, but I wanted to emphasize the importance writing right away. Besides, you might find that you modify your thesis and methodology slightly as you write and make progress in developing your overall argument. Nevertheless, the adage is true: form a solid thesis and methodology statement and your dissertation will “write itself.” Plan to spend some time writing and rewriting and rewriting (again) your thesis and methodology statements so that you will know where you are going and where you need to go.

5. If you get stuck, move to another section.  Developing a clear thesis and methodology will allow you to move around in your dissertation when you get stuck. Granted, we should not make a habit of avoiding difficult tasks, but there are times when it will be a more effective use of time to move to sections that will write easy. As you continue to make progress in your project and get words on paper, you will also help mitigate the panic that so often looms over your project when you get stuck and your writing ceases.

6.  Fight the urge to walk away from writing when it gets difficult.  Having encouraged you to move to another section when you get stuck, it is also important to add a balancing comment to encourage you to fight through the tough spots in your project. I don’t mean that you should force writing when it is clear that you may need to make some structural changes or do a little more research on a given topic. But if you find yourself dreading a particular portion of your dissertation because it will require some mind-numbing, head-on-your-desk, prayer-producing rigor, then my advice is to face these tough sections head on and sit in your chair until you make some progress. You will be amazed at how momentum will grow out of your dogged persistence to hammer out these difficult portions of your project.

7.  Strive for excellence but remember that this is not your magnum opus.  A dissertation needs to be of publishable quality and it will need to past the muster of your supervisor and committee. But it is also a graduation requirement. Do the research. Make a contribution. Finish the project. And plan to write your five-volume theology when you have 30-40 more years of study, reflection, and teaching under your belt.

8.  Take careful notes.  Taking careful notes is essential for two reasons. First, keeping a meticulous record of the knowledge you glean from your research will save you time: there will be no need to later revisit your resources and chase bibliographic information, and you will find yourself less prone to the dreaded, “Where did I read that?” Second, and most importantly, you will avoid plagiarism.  If you fail to take good notes and are not careful to accurately copy direct quotes and make proper citations, you will be liable to reproducing material in your dissertation that is not original with you. Pleading that your plagiarism was inadvertent will not help your cause. It is your responsibility to take careful notes and attribute all credit to whom it is due through proper citation.

9.  Know when to read.  Write sooner, write continually, and write in order to rewrite. But you need to know when you are churning an empty barrel. Reading and research should be a stimulus to write and you need to know when that stimulus is needed. Be willing to stop writing for a short period so that you can refresh your mind with new ideas and research.

10. Establish chunks of time to research and write.  While it is important to keep writing and make the most of the time that you have, it is best for writing projects specifically to set aside large portions of time with which to write. Writing requires momentum, and momentum gathers over time. Personally, I have found that I need at least an hour to get things rolling, and that three to four hours is ideal.

Related: Learn more about our Research Doctoral Studies Degrees ( D.Miss., Ed.D., Th.M., Ph.D). See also the Doctoral Studies viewbook .

11.  Get exercise, adequate sleep, and eat well.  Because our minds and bodies are meant to function in harmony, you will probably find that your productivity suffers to the degree that you are not giving attention to your exercise, sleep, and eating habits.  Like it or not, our ability to maintain long periods of sustained concentration, think carefully over our subject matter, and find motivation to complete tasks is dependent in a significant sense upon how we are caring for our bodies.  When we neglect exercise, fail to get adequate sleep, or constantly indulge in an unhealthy diet, we will find it increasingly difficult to muster the energy and clarity with which to complete our dissertation.

12.  Stay on task.  Completing a dissertation, in large measure, is not so much a feat of the intellect as it is the result of discipline. If you are able to set aside large chunks of time with which to research and write, make sure that you are not using that time for other tasks. This means that you must strive against multi-tasking. In truth, studies have shown that multi-tasking is a cognitive impossibility.  Our brains can only concentrate on one thing at a time.  When we think we are multitasking we are actually “switch-tasking;” rather than doing several things at once, our brains are constantly toggling from one task to the other (listening to a song on the radio to reading a book, back to the song, etc.). You will be amazed at how much you can accomplish if you give an undistracted 60-90 minutes to something. Stay on task.

13.  Don’t get stuck on introductions.  This is a basic writing principle, but one that bears repeating here: write the body of a given chapter or section and then return to the introductions. It is usually easier to introduce something that you have already written for the simple fact that you now know what you are introducing. You might be tempted to write the introduction first and labor to capture your reader with a gripping illustration or perfect quote while refusing to enter into the body of your paper until your preliminary remarks are flawless. This is a sure recipe for frustration. Wait until you have completed a particular section or chapter’s content until you write introductions. This practice will save you time and loads of trouble.

14.  Use a legal pad.  There’s nothing magic about a legal pad; my only aim here is to encourage you to push back from the keyboard occasionally and stimulate your mind by sketching your argument and writing your ideas by hand. I have found my way out of many dry spells by closing the laptop for a few minutes and writing on a piece of paper. I might bullet point a few key ideas, diagram my chapter outlines, or sketch the entire dissertation with boxes and arrows and notes scribbled over several pages.

15.  Go on walks.  It has been  said recently that walking promotes creativity . I agree. Whether you like to walk among the trees or besides the small coffee shops along quaint side streets, I recommend that you go on walks and think specifically about your dissertation. You might find that the change of scenery, the stimulus of a bustling community, or the refreshing quiet of a park trail is just the help you need.

16.  Make use of a capture journal.  In order to make the most of your walks, you will need a place to “capture” your ideas. You may prefer to use the voice memo or notepad feature on your smartphone, or, if you’re like me,   a small 2.5”x4” lined journal . Whatever your preference, find a method that allows you to store your ideas as they come to you during your walks or as you fall to sleep at night. I wonder how many useful ideas many of us have lost because we failed to write them down? Don’t let this happen to you. Resolve to be a good steward of your thinking time and seize those thoughts.

17.  Talk about your ideas with others.  When you are writing your dissertation, you might be tempted to lock away your ideas and avoid discussing them with others. This is unwise. Talking with others about your ideas helps you to refine and stimulate your thinking; it also creates opportunities for you to learn of important resources and how your contribution will affect other branches of scholarship. Also, as people ask questions about your project, you will begin to see where your argument is unclear or unsubstantiated.

18.  Learn how to read.  Writing a dissertation requires a massive amount of reading. You must become familiar with the arguments of several hundred resources—books, articles, reviews, and other dissertations. What will you do? You must learn how to read. Effective reading does not require that you read every book word-for-word, cover-to-cover. Indeed, sometimes very close reading of a given volume may actually impede your understanding of the author’s argument. In order to save time and cultivate a more effective approach to knowledge acquisition, you must learn how to use your resources. This means knowing when to read a book or article closely, and knowing when to skim. It means knowing how to read large books within a matter of an hour by carefully reviewing the table of contents, reading and rereading key chapters and paragraphs, and using the subject index. If you want to finish your dissertation, learn how to read.

19.  Set deadlines.  Depending on your project, you may have built in deadlines that force you to produce material at a steady clip. If you do not have built in deadlines, you must impose them on yourself.  Deadlines produce results, and results lead to completed writing projects.  Set realistic deadlines and stick to them.  You will find that you are able to accomplish much more than you anticipated if you set and stick to deadlines.

20.  Take productive breaks.  Instead of turning to aimless entertainment to fill your break times, try doing something that will indirectly serve your writing process. We need breaks: they refresh us and help us stay on task. In fact, studies have shown that overall productivity diminishes if employees are not allowed to take regular, brief pauses from their work during the day. What is not often mentioned, however, is that a break does not necessarily have to be unrelated to our work in order to be refreshing; it needs only to be different from what we were just doing. So, for example, if you have been writing for 90 minutes, instead of turning on YouTube to watch another mountain biking video, you could get up, stretch, and pull that book off the shelf you’ve been wanting to read, or that article that has been sitting in  Pocket  for the past six weeks. Maybe reorganizing your desk or taking a walk (see above) around the library with your capture journal would be helpful. Whatever you choose, try to make your breaks productive.

Derek J. Brown  is an M.Div and Ph.D graduate of Southern Seminary and is currently serving as pastoral assistant at  Grace Bible Fellowship  of Silicon Valley overseeing their young adult ministry,  Grace Campus Ministries , mid-week Bible studies, website, and social media.  He is also an adjunct professor of Christian Theology at Southern Seminary. This article was originally published on his blog  www.derekjamesbrown.com . Follow Derek on twitter at  @DerekBrown24 .

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Ten things I wish I'd known before starting my dissertation

The sun is shining but many students won't see the daylight. Because it's that time of year again – dissertation time.

Luckily for me, my D-Day (dissertation hand-in day) has already been and gone. But I remember it well.

The 10,000-word spiral-bound paper squatted on my desk in various forms of completion was my Allied forces; the history department in-tray was my Normandy. And when Eisenhower talked about a "great crusade toward which we have striven these many months", he was bang on.

I remember first encountering the Undergraduate Dissertation Handbook, feeling my heart sink at how long the massive file took to download, and began to think about possible (but in hindsight, wildly over-ambitious) topics. Here's what I've learned since, and wish I'd known back then…

1 ) If your dissertation supervisor isn't right, change. Mine was brilliant. If you don't feel like they're giving you the right advice, request to swap to someone else – providing it's early on and your reason is valid, your department shouldn't have a problem with it. In my experience, it doesn't matter too much whether they're an expert on your topic. What counts is whether they're approachable, reliable, reassuring, give detailed feedback and don't mind the odd panicked email. They are your lifeline and your best chance of success.

2 ) If you mention working on your dissertation to family, friends or near-strangers, they will ask you what it's about, and they will be expecting a more impressive answer than you can give. So prepare for looks of confusion and disappointment. People anticipate grandeur in history dissertation topics – war, genocide, the formation of modern society. They don't think much of researching an obscure piece of 1970s disability legislation. But they're not the ones marking it.

3 ) If they ask follow-up questions, they're probably just being polite.

4 ) Do not ask friends how much work they've done. You'll end up paranoid – or they will. Either way, you don't have time for it.

5 ) There will be one day during the process when you will freak out, doubt your entire thesis and decide to start again from scratch. You might even come up with a new question and start working on it, depending on how long the breakdown lasts. You will at some point run out of steam and collapse in an exhausted, tear-stained heap. But unless there are serious flaws in your work (unlikely) and your supervisor recommends starting again (highly unlikely), don't do it. It's just panic, it'll pass.

6 ) A lot of the work you do will not make it into your dissertation. The first few days in archives, I felt like everything I was unearthing was a gem, and when I sat down to write, it seemed as if it was all gold. But a brutal editing down to the word count has left much of that early material at the wayside.

7 ) You will print like you have never printed before. If you're using a university or library printer, it will start to affect your weekly budget in a big way. If you're printing from your room, "paper jam" will come to be the most dreaded two words in the English language.

8 ) Your dissertation will interfere with whatever else you have going on – a social life, sporting commitments, societies, other essay demands. Don't even try and give up biscuits for Lent, they'll basically become their own food group when you're too busy to cook and desperate for sugar.

9 ) Your time is not your own. Even if you're super-organised, plan your time down to the last hour and don't have a single moment of deadline panic, you'll still find that thoughts of your dissertation will creep up on you when you least expect it. You'll fall asleep thinking about it, dream about it and wake up thinking about. You'll feel guilty when you're not working on it, and mired in self-doubt when you are.

10 ) Finishing it will be one of the best things you've ever done. It's worth the hard work to know you've completed what's likely to be your biggest, most important, single piece of work. Be proud of it.

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Finish Your Thesis

Finish Your Thesis

Get a PhD and Finish Your Thesis 12 Months Sooner

You Can’t Avoid Finishing Your Thesis If You Follow These Steps

October 10, 2021 by Dora Farkas, PhD 8 Comments

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Finishing Your Thesis When You Believe You Can’t

When it comes to finishing your thesis, the last couple of months (or years) are a mental challenge of persistence and commitment:

“How do I force myself to write, when I can’t stand looking at my thesis anymore?”

“I feel so guilty dragging my whole family down with this thesis writing, and I don’t even know when I’ll be done.”

“No matter how much I do, there is always more. Will this EVER end?”

I have seen this cycle hundreds of times.

You start working on your thesis, pick up momentum, make progress, and then you hit a dead-end, or open a can of worms.

Something that was supposed to take 2 days, takes 2 weeks or 1 month.

You feel guilty, maybe even ashamed.

“Why can’t I just get this DONE? Everyone else is finishing up, what’s wrong with me?”

You want to give up, but you are too far along to throw all this time and money away.

So you sit down and start working, and you feel like you are on track until (for one reason or another), you fall off the wagon.

This cycle can happen 10, 20 or 50 times

The bad news is that each time you go through the cycle you get more frustrated, angry, bitter, resentful, and doubtful that will ever graduate.

After repeated disappointments, you really start believing that you will never finish your thesis.

You can’t even imagine what your life would be like without worrying about your thesis.

So, what’s the good news?

The good news is that you have what it takes to finish your thesis.

Once you recognize that you are in this cycle you can break the habits that feed the cycle.

I have seen hundreds of desperate grad students make slight changes to their daily habits and finish your thesis more quickly than they had expected – without working longer hours.

You can be one of these students too.

The only thing standing between you and finishing your thesis is your self-confidence.

That’s right: it’s not just about your time or your thesis supervisor or your thesis committee.

When you have self-confidence and know beyond the shadow of any doubt that you have what it takes to finish your thesis, you can leap over  obstacles. 

“But, how I can be confident when I am way behind?,” you may be asking.

Here is something you may not have known:

Your self-confidence has nothing to do with how successful you are.

You would be surprised at how many over-achieving students, who have published extensively, have very little self-confidence.

They may think that they just got “lucky” when their papers were accepted, and they tremble at the thought of presenting their work at their next committee meeting.

On the other hand, there are students who have encountered every obstacle you can think of: dead-end projects, change of supervisor (if their previous supervisor moved), limited funding, family commitments, personal challenges, but they are still confident that they will find a way to finish their thesis.

Who decides how confident you are?

Self-confidence is the antidote to the stress, anxiety, and writer’s block that are holding you back now.

You can be confident no matter what.

Your self-confidence does not have to be shaken up after realizing that you messed up (again) or that you just lost 6 months of work.

I know, because this happened to me.

I was supervising an undergraduate student, and after we had been collecting data for 6 months we realized that the labels on bottles used in the experiments had been switched.

Six months of work…literally down the drain.

I expected my supervisor to be very disappointed in me for not noticing this earlier, and wasting so many lab resources.

Instead, he put his hand on my shoulder and said:

“Dora, have you seen the sign on my door that says: Crisis = Danger + Opportunity? Now you know why it’s there. You just learned one of the most valuable lessons about mentoring others.”

On a scale of 0 to 10, my self-confidence went from a 0 to a 20 in that instant.

There was no way to save the data we had generated previously, but I could change the way I mentored students.

Needless to day, my undergrad student felt very guilty too, but we rewrote the protocol to minimize the chances of mistakes in the future.

In fact, after this experience, we developed a deeper level of trust, which helped us to turn the data we generated later on into one of the chapters in my thesis (and a publication).

Your self-confidence is your most important asset in grad school.

Without it, you will feel like a victim.

With it, you will become unstoppable, and you thesis will be DONE too.

can't finish my thesis

5 Steps that Will Inevitably Lead to Finishing Your Thesis

Step #1: get a crystal clear vision of what is expected from you.

It is impossible to hit a target that you don’t have, yet that is what many grad students try to do.

They plan on graduating in 6 or 12 months, but when I ask them what they need to do to finish their thesis they reply something like:

“I am not entirely sure…” or “I haven’t brought it up with my committee…”

I know how intimidating it can be to have the “talk” with your supervisor or stand in front of a committee.

But isn’t the uncertainty of your future more intimidating?

How can you plan on finishing your thesis if you don’t know what to do?

By definition, research is uncertain, and the requirements for your thesis will change as you collect and analyze data.

However, you can only adjust your trajectory when you are in motion.

You cannot make adjustments if you are standing still.

You need a vision, a starting point, that will help you to pick up momentum in your thesis.

What if you thesis supervisor or committee is evasive, and you cannot get a clear answer?

Then, go to step 2 below.

Step #2: Don’t take “not now” for an answer from your thesis supervisor or committee

It is never too early to get clear on the requirements for finishing your thesis.

I worked with several students who, for personal or financial reasons, had to finish their thesis in 4 years in a department where the average time to graduate was 6-7 years.

How could these students finish their thesis  so “quickly”?

They weren’t smarter, nor did they work longer hours than their peers.

What set them apart from other students was a sense of urgency, because they had a firm deadline for their thesis.

These students started thinking about the requirements for their thesis in their first year.

They didn’t take “not now” for an answer if their supervisor was too busy to meet with them.

They were persistent starting on day 1, and got clear on the requirements even as they had to make adjustments along the way.

While I did not have a similar sense of urgency, I had to apply this principle in my last semester as well.

I had three very busy professors in my committee and  there was literally only 1 hour during the entire month of April when they could all meet for my final committee meeting. 

They gave me the green light to defend, but then I needed their signatures on my thesis so I could submit it officially.

It took me several weeks of persistent follow-ups (by email, phone, and in person), until I got all three signatures – just a few days before the final deadline!

I couldn’t take “not now” for an answer if they were too busy.

I needed a signature from each one of them so I wouldn’t need to stay in school for an extra semester.

You may feel guilty about taking up your professor’s time, especially if you need to “hunt them down.”

But, keep in mind that it is also in their interest that you do good work and produce publishable research.

Also remember that being persistent does not mean that you have to be rude.

You can be “politely persistent” until they give you the answer, feedback or mentoring you need.

Or, if you already have all the help you need, you are ready for step 3.

Step #3: rise and grind daily.

I wish there was a nicer way of saying this, but there isn’t.

There is no substitute for taking action daily.

If you working full-time or if you have a family, then working on your thesis daily may seem impossible.

It isn’t.

I work with students who have multiple jobs, or several kids, yet they found a way to work on their thesis everyday.

They didn’t necessarily work on it for hours, but they made a commitment to work on it at least a little bit every single day.

So, what is a “little bit” of time that you need to commit to your thesis daily?

It depends – the closer you are to finishing it, the more time you need to spend on it.

However, there is something magical about devoting at least 15 minutes a day to your thesis.

No matter how busy you are you can always find 15 minutes somewhere during your day.

It may be first thing in the morning, during your lunch hour at work, or in the evening (instead of TV or social media).

Why 15 minutes?

Fifteen minutes is long enough that if you are focused you can make measurable progress (write several paragraphs), but it is a short amount of time,  so it seems doable every day.

Spending only 15 minutes a day on your thesis will probably not get you very far in the long run.

Most students with jobs or families spent at least 15 minutes a day on their thesis during the week, and then a longer block of time on the weekend.

So, what’s the point of these short work sessions during the week (5 x 15 minutes is barely more than 1 hour)?

The point of daily commitment is continuity.

Continuity helps you to pick up where you left off, so that you don’t have to spend 15-30 minutes trying to figure out what you are supposed to be doing.

When you spend at least a little time on your thesis every day, you get more creative, more ideas, and more insights that will help you to resolve problems that may have seemed impossible before.

Step #4  Focus on results, no “to-do”s

Do you feel like you are being pulled in 47 different directions each week?

Most grad students (and people in general), operate from a to-do list.

They write down all the work and non-related things that “should” do, but they give little thought to the tangible result they want to see.

When you let a “to-do” list run your life, you will always feel exhausted, and playing catch up.

In fact, the more to-do’s you cross off your list, the more to-do’s you realize you need to get done.

As long as you live your life by a to-do list, you can’t win, no matter how efficient you are.

It’s time to try something new.

Instead of following a to-do list and cramming as much as possible into each day, write down what is the end result that you want.

For example, instead of writing in your calendar “Work on slides for committee meeting”, write “Create an outstanding presentation for committee meeting to show them that my data is solid, and I am ready to move onto the next phase  of my research.”

Then, you can list the actions necessary to achieve that result.

An action plan with a well-defined goal for finishing your thesis is much more motivating than a random list of chores.

With a results-oriented action plan you will be able to prioritize better and take the actions that will help you to make the most progress in your thesis.

After all, you don’t want to become a slave to your to-list – you just want a finished your thesis!

Step #5 Soak up the energy you need from a support group

The number one complaint of grad students is that they feel isolated and lost their motivation to do work.

In college there are support groups in the form of study groups, office hours, and the residential community.

In graduate school many student do not have any type of support.

First-year students usually start out with enthusiasm, but due to lack of accountability they lose track of time and fall behind on their milestones.

In contrast, the students who did join a support group thought that being part of a community was one of the best ways to  keep themselves motivated.

There is no shame in getting support, whether it is academic or emotional support to help you focus on finishing your thesis.

Don’t take my word for it.

The #1 advice from PhDs for graduate students for finishing your thesis is to join a support group.

The more people you “worry” with, the more perspectives you get and the smaller your problems seem.

When you live in your own head you can blow a minor issue out of proportion.

Suddenly, taking off two days from work because you didn’t feel well may seem like a huge setback until you hear from others that what you are going through is normal for a graduate student.

There will be times when you feel so burnt out that you will not want to work for weeks.

Or, you may start doubting the point of grad school when you don’t know what you’ll do afterwards.

Without a context, these situations can rob you of your self-confidence and your motivation.

How could you be motivated when you identify yourself as “lazy” and think there is no point in finishing your thesis anyway?

You can sort out these sticky situations by sharing with others, especially graduate students who are going through similar experiences, and feel better about your experience in grad school.

So if you are wondering how to get motivated to write a thesis, when you would rather do anything else, a support group with  other graduate students is one of the best resources.

Just knowing that you are not the only one going through these tribulations, can already take most of the pressure off that has been keeping you from being motivated to work on your thesis.

No one writes their thesis alone. Get support. You have what it takes.

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Beating the Procrastination Demon: How to write that thesis

can't 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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Haven’t been able to finish your thesis yet? You’re not the only one

by Bastis Consultores | Nov 1, 2021 | Gestión del Tiempo , Personal Fulfillment , Thesis Advice | 0 comments

can't finish my thesis

It is easy to be intimidated by the prospect of writing a thesis, a project that is the culmination of studies and an achievement that reflects enormous effort, creativity and experience. The process of finding a tutor to guide you, asking the right questions, coming up with a thesis topic, doing the research, and putting all of this in writing can be overwhelming. Let’s explain why students should be brave and embrace this experience.

What should you know about finishing your thesis?

Your tutor is there to guide you.

He will be happy to help you. Your thesis will allow you to forge a close and meaningful relationship with a mentor, a person who not only guides the thesis writing process, but can also direct you to other opportunities such as conference presentations, graduate programs, prestigious scholarships, or employment connections (and can also provide you with a great letter of recommendation).

Try to choose a tutor who has a research experience that matches the topic of your thesis. If you want to write a thesis on corporate social responsibility and communication, try to find a professor who has experience in corporate social responsibility. If you’re not sure who to ask, talk to your faculty director.

It’s a great opportunity to develop transferable skills for graduate and your career as a professional.

Not only is the thesis a great opportunity to prepare for graduate school, but it prepares you for a career as a professional. Writing a thesis is a transformative experience that allows students to become mini-experts in their chosen field. The process sharpens students’ written and oral communication skills and develops students’ critical thinking, synthesis, and analysis skills.

The thesis is the student’s way of demonstrating to employers that they have the motivation and determination to complete an important project, as well as the practical skills that employers want from their employees.

Researching should be fun

By researching you are expanding on what you have learned in the classroom. You will be able to explore the topics that interest you and become a mini-expert in your field. If you’re having trouble finding a topic, see if something piques your interest in the class.

If you don’t come up with a topic, you shouldn’t be distressed

This is probably the biggest concern expressed by undergraduate students: the fear of having nothing to investigate. Talk to your professors, review some academic articles in your discipline, meet with professors in your discipline who regularly mentor students’ research projects, and meet with the principal or assistant principal. This is supposed to be a challenge. Don’t be discouraged.

You can work on your thesis for two semesters

Most students work on their thesis throughout their senior year, giving them more time to explore their topic, collect data, and build a relationship with their tutor. The distribution of the workload makes the process much less intimidating.

How should I get started?

Have a very clear vision of what is expected of you.

It’s impossible to reach a goal you don’t have, and yet that’s what many graduate students try to do. They plan to graduate in 6 or 12 months, but are asked what they have to do to finish their thesis they answer something like: “I’m not entirely sure…” or “I haven’t raised it with my committee…” We know how intimidating it can be to have the “talk” with your tutor or get in front of a committee. How can you plan the completion of your thesis if you don’t know what to do?

By definition, research is uncertain, and the requirements of your thesis will change as you collect and analyze the data. However, you can only adjust your trajectory when you are on the move. It can’t make adjustments if you’re standing. You need a vision, a starting point, to help you gain momentum in your thesis, but what if your thesis tutor or committee is evasive and you don’t get a clear answer?

Don’t accept a “not now” as an answer from your thesis tutor or committee

It is never too early to be clear about the requirements to finish the thesis. You may feel guilty about taking time away from a teacher, especially if they are very busy. But keep in mind that they are also interested in you doing a good job and producing publishable research. You can be “politely persistent” until you get the answer, opinion, or mentorship you need.

There is no substitute for daily action. If you work full-time or if you have a family, working on your thesis on a daily basis may seem impossible. But it’s not. So what is a “little” of time you need to devote to your thesis on a daily basis? It depends: the closer you are to finishing it, the more time you should devote to it. However, there is something magical about dedicating at least 15 minutes a day to your thesis. No matter how busy you are, you can always find 15 minutes at some point in the day. It can be first thing in the morning, during lunchtime at work, or in the evening (rather than TV or social media).

Fifteen minutes is long enough that, if you’re focused, you can make measurable progress (write several paragraphs), but it’s a short amount of time, so it seems feasible each day. The goal of daily commitment is continuity. Continuity helps you pick up where you left off, so you don’t have to spend 15-30 minutes trying to figure out what you need to do. When you dedicate at least a little time to your thesis every day, you get to be more creative, have more ideas and more knowledge that will help you solve problems that previously seemed impossible.

Focus on results, not to-dos

Most students, and people in general, operate from a to-do list. They write down all the work and unrelated things they should do, but they think little about the tangible outcome they want to see. When you let a “to do” list run your life, you’ll always feel exhausted and playing catch-up. In fact, the more things you cross off your list, the more things you realize you have to do.

As long as you live your life according to a to-do list, you won’t be able to earn, no matter how efficient you are. It’s time to try something new. Instead of following a to-do list and gorging each day as much as possible, write down what the end result you want is. For example: instead of writing on your calendar “Work on the slides for the jury meeting” write “Create an outstanding presentation for the jury meeting to show them that my data is solid and that I am prepared to move on to the next phase of my research.” Below, you can list the actions needed to achieve that result.

An action plan with a well-defined goal to finish your thesis is much more motivating than a random to-do list. With a results-oriented action plan you can prioritize better and perform the actions that most help you advance your thesis.

Soak up the energy you need from a support group

Students’ number one complaint is that they feel isolated and lose motivation to do the job. At the university there are support groups in the form of study groups, office hours and the community at large.

Freshmen usually start with enthusiasm, but due to lack of responsibility they lose track of time and fall behind in their milestones. Instead, students who did join a support group thought that being part of a community was one of the best ways to stay motivated. There is no shame in receiving support, whether academic or emotional, to focus on finishing the thesis. The more people who care about you, the more perspectives you’ll have and the smaller your problems will seem. When you live in your own head you can exaggerate a minor problem.

Suddenly, missing two days of work because you’re not feeling well can seem like a big setback until you hear from others that what you’re going through is normal for a student. There will be times when you feel so exhausted that you won’t want to work for weeks. Or you may start to doubt the point of college when you don’t know what you’ll do next. Without context, these situations can rob you of self-confidence and motivation. How are you going to be motivated when you identify as “irresponsible” and think that it doesn’t make sense to finish the thesis anyway?

What if I lose important information?

The fear of missing important articles or blibliography can be crippling, and can lead to a vicious cycle of guilt and procrastination. The requirements of each thesis are different and this can lead to doubts such as:

When are you ready to stop reading and start writing?

When do you have enough data to start your analysis?

How do you know when the thesis is “good enough”?

There is no recipe for knowing for sure the answer to any of these questions, but there are some guidelines that will help you reduce the anxiety resulting from perfectionism. If you constantly notice perfectionism in the writing of your thesis, this will lead you to procrastinate and perform low-quality work. Unfortunately, perfectionism can cost you months or even years of extra work because of the anxiety and fear it generates: fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, or fear of being judged. But what if you could substitute your fear for a more empowering mindset?

Producing higher quality work and reducing perfectionism in your thesis

The following 5 steps will help you produce higher quality work, while eliminating (or at least reducing) perfectionism:

Clarify your purpose and the question(s) you need to answer

Can you summarize your manuscript in one sentence? Do you know which question or questions your thesis should answer? If you are not clear about the purpose of your thesis, your work and your time will be lost.

Everything you include in your thesis has to contribute to your central argument or the question you need to answer. What if you don’t have a clear research goal yet? Start by creating a schema or index and fill in as many sections as you can.

Don’t wait until you have everything ready

Ideas are born through writing, and to enter the creative flow you have to allow yourself to make mistakes. You can start creating a structure for your literature review and thesis and alternate writing with reading. In fact, you’ll absorb more of your readings if you’ve already written some, and this in turn will make the rest of the writing easier.

Replacing fear with a sense of contribution

The truth is, no matter how many articles you gather, or how many times you review your thesis, you’ll always discover areas for improvement. The goal of going to college is not to create a perfect thesis. Your goal is to make a unique contribution to your area of research. You don’t have to cover all the articles in the literature or have a perfect style to meet the requirements of your thesis. Your first draft will have many repetitive phrases, but your manuscript will improve with each round of corrections.

Commitment to contribution is the best antidote to the anxiety that results from perfectionism in writing your thesis. Instead of aspiring to a perfect thesis, ask yourself what you need to add to your manuscript to make the most meaningful contribution to your area of research. Don’t let word choice, table formatting, and other details stop you from completing your thesis. Instead, focus on whether your main argument is clearly conveyed. You can always add more details and embellish your thesis to support your main argument.

No matter how many times you review your thesis, you will always notice areas for improvement. Fortunately, if your purpose is clear, the number of corrections will decrease over time. Once you feel you are at 95%, your thesis will be ready to be delivered.

Take frequent breaks to distance yourself from your job

One of the dangers of perfectionism in thesis writing is that it leads to tunnel vision. You may exaggerate the small details or overanalyze details that others wouldn’t notice. Anxiety, exhaustion and physical pains are just some of the consequences of perfectionism. The fastest way to break this cycle is to take a distance from your work:

Take frequent breaks while you work.

Set a structured writing schedule, such as alternating 25 minutes of writing with 5-minute breaks or 45 minutes of writing with 15-minute breaks.

Be sure to get up and walk away from your desk during breaks.

Drink water, stretch your back and arms and take a short walk.

Take longer breaks over the weekend so you can recharge.

There won’t be many people telling you this, but being kind to yourself is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress. It’s impossible to maintain your productivity if you never take a day off. Experiencing perfectionism in thesis writing is often accompanied by perfectionism in other areas of your life. Perfectionism can develop from years of self-doubt in ultra-competitive environments.

Spend at least a few hours a day each week socializing with friends and other positive people who support you. Establishing a support network is the number one way to reduce anxiety and get the motivation and energy you need to finish your thesis. Also, make your health your number one priority, developing a regular exercise routine and eating the highest quality foods available to you.

Use similar works and theses as templates

It’s hard to know how much to write if no one gives you guidelines. How do you know when you’ve collected enough articles for your literature review? How exhaustive do your statistical analyses have to be? If your tutor or jury doesn’t give you specific requirements, read their department’s recent theses. Students’ theses can serve as templates to give you an idea of the structure that your thesis should have, such as:

Approximate number of references

Length of the literature review

Data types and statistical analysis

Details of the results and discussion section.

Most students are relieved when they look at their faculty’s recent theses, because they realize how much work they already have prepared for a thesis. If there are no recent thesis topics similar to yours, look for review articles in your area. In a novel field, a review article may have only a few key references, while more established fields may have hundreds of references. Review articles and recent theses can also inspire you with new ideas and point you in the right direction for other articles you can use.

Respect your time by setting specific goals for each block of time

Have you ever written “Working on the thesis” on your calendar? Such a vague plan will lead you to take a nap or spend a few minutes at work and then surf the Internet. The best way to stay focused without falling into the trap of perfectionism in writing your thesis is to be very intentional with your time. Have a specific result for each block of time, such as:

Complete a figure

Type a certain number of words

Review specific sections of your thesis or data analysis.

Define in advance what to achieve

When you define in advance what you want to achieve during each block of time, you will find an efficient way to make it happen. If you fall prey to perfectionism in writing your thesis, you may spend days in a section because it never seems good enough. It’s hard to meet a goal if you haven’t defined it well. However, if you plan to spend an hour completing a figure, you’ll find a way to finish it. Similarly, you can set goals for a certain number of words you want to write each day.

If you focus on the goals you want to achieve each day, you’ll feel more efficient and less focused. If you resist planning for fear of not complying, keep in mind that no one is perfect. Life goes by and most of the time writing, researching and analyzing data takes much longer than anticipated.

Do you feel alone and looking for a community and responsibility to finish writing your Thesis? Our specialists wait for you to contact them through the quote form or direct chat. We also have confidential communication channels such as WhatsApp and Messenger. And if you want to be aware of our innovative services and the different advantages of hiring us, follow us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

If this article was to your liking, do not forget to share it on your social networks.

Sources Consulted

Yuan, Yanyue (2014). ‘Thesis-phobia’ and ‘Thesis-mania’. In: https://selenayuan.wordpress.com/2014/06/16/thesis-phobia-and-thesis-mania/

Thesis-phobia: Why Fear Shouldn’t Stop You from Getting Your Master’s Degree. In: https://www.worldwidelearn.com/articles/masters-thesis-fear/

Write the Thesis/Dissertation with Less Stress and Anxiety. In: https://www.cultivatethewriter.com/post/write-the-thesis-dissertation-with-less-stress-and-anxiety

You might also be interested in: Dafne Diaz’s thesis on antibiotic resistance in poultry

Haven't been able to finish your thesis yet? You're not the only one

Haven’t been able to finish your thesis yet? You’re not the only one. Photo: Unsplash. Credits: Jeswin Thomas

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    Assuming you do decide to finish (maybe in spite of your supervisor), and sort your draft conclusions out to achieve, then to get finished in a finite time, you could do what the same friend did: made a deal with himself that if he wrote a page of his thesis in a day, he could go boozing that evening.

  17. [P] Can't finish my master's thesis. What to do?

    Add X,Y,Z and send it back within 48 hours. Do this over, and over, until you graduate. If someone ever makes the X/Y/X = "success", and all that is left is "success" you can go to the campus ombudsperson and say "This person / company / group is holding my research and degree hostage for results". This is not allowed.

  18. Can't finish my thesis

    I finished the work on my PhD over a year ago, but left the uni I was in to start a job before handing in a thesis (probably my first mistake). The original deadline was Oct 09 (4 years after I started) which came and went. I managed to get an extension as there were some extenuating circumstances to do with my dad until Oct 10, this month.

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    Improve this question. I said to my supervisor that I would like to finish my PhD very quickly. He said that formally I can submit my thesis 2 years after starting my degree at earliest, but that I am doing very well and it should be possible. I verified the institutional requirements and indeed I cannot submit my PhD thesis in less than 2 years.

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