How to start writing your thesis

By Dr Ruth Nottingham, Impact Officer, University of Nottingham

ruth-nottinghamSo you are final year PhD student and the moment has finally arrived for you to put down your pipette and pick up a pen. It’s time to write a thesis!

This is an exciting time, it is the final hurdle of the PhD process and the finishing line is most definitely in sight. The tricky part is working out how to start, as whether you like writing or not the thought of writing something as large as a thesis can be a bit daunting.

To get past the fear of starting I leapt into the writing process, deciding that generating words however good or bad or in whichever order was the best way to get my thesis written. This worked out in the end but there are better strategies out there, so I thought I would share with you what I wish I had done.

What I wish I had done before I started writing my thesis

Talk to your supervisor

This might sound obvious but it is good to get a clear sense of what you both expect of each other now you are entering the writing up phase. For example:

  • Will you be writing up at home or in the lab office?
  • How many drafts of chapters is your supervisor willing to read and how many meetings will you have?
  • When are you aiming to hand in, is there anything scheduled that might delay that plan? For example a conference.

Make sure that this is a two way conversation; this is the time to be honest about what you feel would be most helpful to you.

Thesis structure

A thesis plan, with bullet points of what will be in each chapter is helpful and with results chapters it can make you really think about where your data should sit. However, there are other considerations other than just ‘what goes in what chapter’ such as:

  • What order should you write your chapters in?

Personally I wish I had written the results chapter in the order they would be read in. As this automatically lets you introduce a topic in chapter 1 and refer to it briefly in chapter 3, by writing them out of order you can accidentally create a lot of repetition, by fully describing each time.

  • Set a maximum word length for a chapter.

It is true that your chapters will vary in length, but it is good to think about the number of chapters your thesis is going to have, think about the overall thesis word limit and decide the maximum length of a chapter. This can act as a guide later, when you are still working on a chapter and it is approaching the word limit it might be time to move onto another chapter. This can help cut down on the editing that you will have to do at a later date.

Remember your audience

Despite all the effort you are about to put into writing your thesis the number of people who read it will be relatively small. So it’s good to have a think about who these people are and what they need to know.

  • Your Supervisor: They should know what you have been up to, but bizarrely they can sometimes want a very detailed thesis. This can be because a detailed thesis is much easier to write into a paper than looking though old lab books, but also because they want to preserve everything that you did during your PhD so others in the lab can learn from it. Though it is good to listen to advice it is up to you to judge what level of detail is necessary and at what point it is just going to bore your examiner.
  • Your Examiners: You may not know who these are going to be yet but there are still some measures you can take. Try and identify anything that your lab does that is a bit unique, be this a technique in the lab or a way you analyse data. If you can’t think of what this might be just ask a post doc from your lab which aspects of your labs work is commonly misunderstood by reviewers when they try and publish. This lets you know which areas of your thesis might benefit from the extra explanation.

If you would like anymore hints or tips about how to get through the thesis writing up process check out my blog and Vlog at YouTube channel: Dr Nottingham, which documents my final 12 weeks of writing my Thesis.

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