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

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?

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.

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.

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.

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Thesis and Dissertation Guide

Please see the sample thesis or dissertation pages throughout and at the end of this document for illustrations. The following order is required for components of your thesis or dissertation:

  1. Title Page
  2. Copyright Page
  3. Abstract
  4. Dedication, Acknowledgements, and Preface (each optional)
  5. Table of Contents, with page numbers
  6. List of Tables, List of Figures, or List of Illustrations, with titles and page numbers (if applicable)
  7. List of Abbreviations (if applicable)
  8. List of Symbols (if applicable)
  9. Chapters, including:
    • Introduction, if any
    • Main body, with consistent subheadings as appropriate
  10. Appendices (if applicable)
  11. Endnotes (if applicable)
  12. References (see section on References for options)

Many of the components following the title and copyright pages have required headings and formatting guidelines, which are described in the following sections.

Please consult the Sample Pages to compare your document to the requirements. A Checklist is provided to assist you in ensuring your thesis or dissertation meets all formatting guidelines.

Title Page

The title page of a thesis or dissertation must include the following information:

  1. The title of the thesis or dissertation in all capital letters and centered 2″ below the top of the page.
  2. Your name, centered 1″ below the title. Do not include titles, degrees, or identifiers. The name you use here does not need to exactly match the name on your university records, but we recommend considering how you will want your name to appear in professional publications in the future.
  3. The following statement, centered, 1″ below your name: “A [ dissertation or thesis ] submitted to the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of [ insert degree ] in the [ insert department or program name ] in the [ named school ].” End this statement with a period.

Notes on this statement:

  • When indicating your degree in the second bracketed space, use the full degree name (i.e., Doctor of Philosophy, not Ph.D. or PHD; Master of Public Health, not M.P.H. or MPH; Master of Social Work, not M.S.W. or MSW).
  • List your department, school, or curriculum rather than your subject area or specialty discipline in the third bracketed space. You may include your subject area or specialty discipline in parentheses (i.e., Department of Romance Languages (French); School of Pharmacy (Molecular Pharmaceutics); School of Education (School Psychology); or similar official area).
  • If you wish to include both your department and school names, list the school at the end of the statement (i.e., Department of Pharmacology in the School of Medicine).
  • Complete examples:
    • A dissertation submitted to the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of Public Policy.
    • A thesis submitted to the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science in the School of Dentistry (Endodontics).
    • A thesis submitted to the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science in the Department of Nutrition in the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
    • A dissertation submitted to the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the School of Education (Cultural Studies and Literacies).

    Copyright Page

    Include a copyright page with the following information single-spaced and centered 2″ above the bottom of the page:

    © Year
    Author’s Full Name (as it appears on the title page)
    ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

    This page immediately follows the title page. It should be numbered with the lower case Roman numeral ii centered with a 1/2″ margin from the bottom edge.

    Inclusion of this page offers you, as the author, additional protection against copyright infringement as it eliminates any question of authorship and copyright ownership. You do not need to file for copyright in order to include this statement in your thesis or dissertation. However, filing for copyright can offer other protections.

    See Section IV for more information on copyrighting your thesis or dissertation.

    Abstract

    Include an abstract page following these guidelines:

    1. Include the heading “ABSTRACT” in all capital letters, and center it 2″ below the top of the page.
    2. One double-spaced line below “ABSTRACT”, center your name, followed by a colon and the title of the thesis or dissertation. Use as many lines as necessary. Be sure that your name and the title exactly match the name and title used on the Title page.
    3. One single-spaced line below the title, center the phrase “(Under the direction of [advisor’s name])”. Include the phrase in parentheses. Include the first and last name(s) of your advisor or formal co-advisors. Do not include the name of other committee members. Use the advisor’s name only; do not include any professional titles such as PhD, Professor, or Dr. or any identifiers such as “chair” or “advisor”.
    4. Skip one double-spaced line and begin the abstract. The text of your abstract must be double-spaced and aligned with the document’s left margin with the exception of indenting new paragraphs. Do not center or right-justify the abstract.
    5. Abstracts cannot exceed 150 words for a thesis or 350 words for a dissertation.
    6. Number the abstract page with the lower case Roman numeral iii (and iv, if more than one page) centered with a 1/2″ margin from the bottom edge.

    Please write and proofread your abstract carefully. When possible, avoid including symbols or foreign words in your abstract, as they cannot be indexed or searched. Avoid mathematical formulas, diagrams, and other illustrative materials in the abstract. Offer a brief description of your thesis or dissertation and a concise summary of its conclusions. Be sure to describe the subject and focus of your work with clear details and avoid including lengthy explanations or opinions.

    Your title and abstract will be used by search engines to help potential audiences locate your work, so clarity will help to draw the attention of your targeted readers.

    Dedication, Acknowledgements, Preface (optional)

    You have an option to include a dedication, acknowledgements, or preface. If you choose to include any or all of these elements, give each its own page(s).

    A dedication is a message from the author prefixed to a work in tribute to a person, group, or cause. Most dedications are short statements of tribute beginning with “To…” such as “To my family”.

    Acknowledgements are the author’s statement of gratitude to and recognition of the people and institutions that helped the author’s research and writing.

    A preface is a statement of the author’s reasons for undertaking the work and other personal comments that are not directly germane to the materials presented in other sections of the thesis or dissertation. These reasons tend to be of a personal nature.

    Any of the pages must be prepared following these guidelines:

    1. Do not place a heading on the dedication page.
    2. The text of short dedications must be centered and begin 2″ from the top of the page.
    3. Headings are required for the “ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS” and “PREFACE” pages. Headings must be in all capital letters and centered 2″ below the top of the page.
    4. The text of the acknowledgements and preface pages must begin one double-spaced line below the heading, be double-spaced, and be aligned with the document’s left margin with the exception of indenting new paragraphs.
    5. Subsequent pages of text return to the 1″ top margin.
    6. The page(s) must be numbered with consecutive lower case Roman numerals (starting with the page number after the abstract) centered with a 1/2″ margin from the bottom edge.

    Table of Contents

    Include a table of contents following these guidelines:

    1. Include the heading “TABLE OF CONTENTS” in all capital letters, and center it 2″ below the top of the page.
    2. Include one double-spaced line between the heading and the first entry.
    3. The table of contents should not contain listings for the pages that precede it, but it must list all parts of the thesis or dissertation that follow it.
    4. If relevant, be sure to list all appendices and a references section in your table of contents. Include page numbers for these items but do not assign separate chapter numbers.
    5. Entries must align with the document’s left margin or be indented to the right of the left page margin using consistent tabs.
    6. Major subheadings within chapters must be included in the table of contents. The subheading(s) should be indented to the right of the left page margin using consistent tabs.
    7. If an entry takes up more than one line, break up the entry about three-fourths of the way across the page and place the rest of the text on a second line, single-spacing the two lines.
    8. Include one double-spaced line between each entry.
    9. Page numbers listed in the table of contents must be located just inside the right page margin with leaders (lines of periods) filling out the space between the end of the entry and the page number. The last digit of each number must line up on the right margin.
    10. Information included in the table of contents must match the headings, major subheadings, and numbering used in the body of the thesis or dissertation.
    11. The Table of Contents page(s) must be numbered with consecutive lower case Roman numerals centered with a 1/2″ margin from the bottom edge.

    Lists of Tables, Figures, and Illustrations

    If applicable, include a list of tables, list of figures, and/or list of illustrations following these guidelines:

    1. Include the heading(s) in all capital letters, centered 1″ below the top of the page.
    2. Include one double-spaced line between the heading and the first entry.
    3. Each entry must include a number, title, and page number.
    4. Assign each table, figure, or illustration in your thesis or dissertation an Arabic numeral. You may number consecutively throughout the entire work (e.g., Figure 1, Figure 2, etc.), or you may assign a two-part Arabic numeral with the first number designating the chapter in which it appears, separated by a period, followed by a second number to indicate its consecutive placement in the chapter (e.g., Table 3.2 is the second table in Chapter Three).
    5. Numerals and titles must align with the document’s left margin or be indented to the right of the left page margin using consistent tabs.
    6. If an entry takes up more than one line, break up the entry about three-fourths of the way across the page and place the rest of the text on a second line, single-spacing the two lines.
    7. Include one double-spaced line between each entry.
    8. Page numbers must be located just inside the right page margin with leaders (lines of periods) filling out the space between the end of the entry and the page number. The last digit of each number must line up on the right margin.
    9. Numbers, titles, and page numbers must each match the corresponding numbers, titles, and page numbers appearing in the thesis or dissertation.
    10. All Lists of Tables, Figures, and Illustrations page(s) must be numbered with consecutive lower case Roman numerals centered with a 1/2″ margin from the bottom edge.

    List of Abbreviations

    If you use abbreviations extensively in your thesis or dissertation, you must include a list of abbreviations and their corresponding definitions following these guidelines:

    1. Include the heading “LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS” in all capital letters, and center it 1″ below the top of the page.
    2. Include one double-spaced line between the heading and the first entry.
    3. Arrange your abbreviations alphabetically.
    4. Abbreviations must align with the document’s left margin or be indented to the right of the left page margin using consistent tabs.
    5. If an entry takes up more than one line, single-space between the two lines.
    6. Include one double-spaced line between each entry.
    7. The List of Abbreviations page(s) must be numbered with consecutive lower case Roman numerals centered with a 1/2″ margin from the bottom edge.

    List of Symbols

    If you use symbols in your thesis or dissertation, you may combine them with your abbreviations, titling the section “LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS AND SYMBOLS”, or you may set up a separate list of symbols and their definitions by following the formatting instructions above for abbreviations. The heading you choose must be in all capital letters and centered 1″ below the top of the page.