Lessons from writing a thesis

Reading time: Just over 3 minutes

Do you need to learn how to write a thesis? Here’s some advice from someone who’s just finished the job…

I can’t begin to calculate how many words I’ve written in my life. If forced to give a total, I’d say well over a million. But I can tell you the most difficult words I ever had to write. My undergrad thesis, some 36 years ago.

The experience was horrible. Traumatic, even. I’d attended school fulltime while working about 20 hours a week. By 4th year I was tired and burned out and probably should have taken a year-long break. But I didn’t.

Worse, in those days, I had the habit of leaving anything important until the very last minute. (This is feasible with a 1,000-word paper. Not so smart with a longer one.) In the end, I produced the 16,000-word thesis following three days of continuous effort, with no sleep.

Partly because of my own lamentable history, I now enjoy working with students who are trying to write theses. I don’t want anyone else to suffer the way I did. Veronica Bracht, who was a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, has been one of them.

She’d been working on her thesis for seven long years. Seven years! But she was determined to get it done and I admired her spunk. We worked together for about a year and a few weeks ago, I attended her defense. I was thrilled to learn her committee had no quibbles or changes — they simply identified 10 typos for her to correct. Given that her thesis was 120,000 words, I found that remarkable.

I interviewed Veronica last week and asked her to share her advice with you. She focused on three areas:

1) The act of writing a thesis makes most students feel inadequate and inept — even if they’re smart. Here’s what Veronica says: “I had a pretty high global self-confidence and thought of myself as a good writer so I didn’t expect having problems getting words on the page.” And when she did have difficulties, she attributed them to her own shortcomings. “I’m struggling so there’s something wrong with me,” is how she describes the feeling. “The trouble is, that doesn’t give you any options.”

With coaching she was able to recognize that she’d never done a doctoral thesis before and she developed a metaphor: an athlete attempting a new sport. “If I recognize I’m doing a new sport, I expect to struggle and I go for help or read about it or strategize. I wouldn’t get stuck with the idea ‘I just can’t cut it.’”

A specific strategy she used to maintain her confidence was to keep her procrastination in check. What worked for her was to take the thing she wanted to procrastinate with — say, reading a novel — and use it as a reward. “I want to read a novel so I’m going to tuck it under the covers of my bed, set an alarm for an hour, go and work. And when the alarm goes off I can go read.”

2) No one can command ideas to appear. Mindmapping was a concept that worked particularly well for Veronica. Here’s how she puts it — with another metaphor I just love: “ Good ideas want a little romance,” she says. “They don’t offer themselves up just because you want them to. In fact, they often hide behind the bad ideas.”

After our first meeting she covered the wall of her bedroom with an enormous mindmap that provided the rough skeleton for her entire thesis.

What Veronica likes best about mindmapping is the total absence of judgment it involves. This allowed her to sketch out all the ideas for her thesis and hone in on the most useful and productive ones. Interestingly, she hasn’t let go of this habit and still uses it today. “When I walk into a business meeting where I think my ideas might not be heard or respected I mindmap in my notebook because I know the ideas can find a safe place there. It gives me more courage to say them aloud because they’ve already come out.”

3) Thesis writers need to understand the power of doubt. My 2013 column focusing on how to befriend doubt resonated deeply with Veronica. She had so many fears that she believed were true when I could clearly see they were not. “I expected I had nothing to say, that no one was ever going to read the thesis, that I’d never be able to meet the deadlines,” she says. “All of these thoughts seemed real and credible but, in fact, they were all doubt.”

What she discovered became the key to her ultimate success. She needed to plan rather than to hope. “This idea that having a specific plan for when and how much you will write is what allows you to enjoy the rest of your life,” she says. Did I mention that Veronica has a fulltime job and a young child? She was able to manage all these different areas of her life because she had a plan for when she was supposed to be writing. This plan kept both guilt and doubt at bay.

Finishing her thesis has changed Veronica’s life, not just because she’ll be able to add some new letters after her name (officially: EdD). It’s built her confidence. It’s helped her become a more effective planner. Best of all, it’s turned her into a writer. “Splatting out a draft, having a break and then letting the ideas swish around a bit allows you to have a conversation with the ideas,” she says.

“The rhythm of ‘I’m going to write this cold and be done with it,’ sells the writing process short,” she believes. “The beauty of writing and coming back to it later to edit is that new ideas come and you see it in a different way and it gets better.”

If you’re writing a thesis and want some coaching and accountability, consider applying to my Get It Done group. The next session starts in July. (Warning: Group size is strictly limited and it fills up early.)

Have you ever had to write a thesis? What lessons did you absorb? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by April 30/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of How To Write: Advice and Reflections, by Richard Rhodes. Please, scroll down to the comments section, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.