Many factors may complicate how you feel as you approach the end-phase of your PhD. You may be stressed about applying for jobs. You may still be finishing some experiments for a publication (or for the final chapter of your thesis!). You may just be one of the many scientists who don’t enjoy writing. So how do you make the writing process more productive and fun?
I want to share with you a strategy that helped me to write my PhD thesis in less than four months. And yes, at that time I was still finishing off some experiments and applying for jobs.
1. Organize your workflow
Your time has come. You have finished your experiments and your PhD thesis outline is approved by your supervisor. You just need to sit down and communicate four years of your hard work. Just. I’ve heard many PhD students reminiscing about their days in the lab, preferring to do more experiments than writing their thesis.
Start by reserving big, uninterrupted chunks of time for your writing. If possible, choose the time of the day when you are the most productive, whether you are an early bird, a night owl, or prefer the good-old nine to five.
The next important step is to find an ideal place: in the library, at home, at the cafe. I found I was especially productive while traveling by train. You’re trapped at your seat, the Wi-Fi is generally not working properly, and the only way to escape the boredom is to concentrate on your writing.
Establishing a writing routine can also help you to stay motivated and on track. You can implement yoga, running, or meditation to re-set your mind before you start writing. You can try to read a poem or inspirational quotes, or even sing your favorite song. It can be anything that you enjoy and find motivating.
Finally, plan several nice breaks every day. You will need them. When I was writing at home, I found out that assembling a jigsaw puzzle for just five minutes could recharge my batteries.
2. Have a detailed and structured plan
Boring, we know, but it is crucial to have your outline with a detailed plan for each chapter ready before you start writing. Each thesis chapter requires a special approach. To write an introduction you will first need to read a bunch of papers. As you read, you can pull out all useful citations in one document which will give you a basis for your future ideas. Reference software such as Mendeley or Zotero can help you to stay on top of all references. For the ‘Results’ section, it is helpful to first organize all figures and tables in the order that tells the story of your PhD project. You can then proceed with writing the bulk part.
3. Set small goals
The amount of work can seem overwhelming, so it is important to concentrate on small steps. A goal of writing a page or even half a page will feel much less intimidating compared with a goal of creating the whole sub-chapter. Some supervisors recommend starting with the ‘Materials and methods’ section as it is the easiest chapter, and the first victory will motivate you for the rest of the journey.
If you find that you can’t convince yourself to start writing one day (this happened to me more often than I want to admit), try a Pomodoro technique. This is an easy time management method: you set a timer and work for 25 minutes, then you take a break for five minutes. You can use an app instead of an actual timer.
4. Write, write, write
Just get something down on the page. It doesn’t have to be a well-written sentence to start with; you can edit later to ensure it ends up simple and logical. Nobody forces you to use ‘academic’ language. In fact, the most famous and impactful papers, such as Crick and Watson’s, are written in plain English.
I would recommend writing first and editing later. Editing the finished piece (eg sub-chapter) is much easier because you can assess the overall flow and the clarity of the message. Once you come to editing, do it ruthlessly. Think about each word: does it convey the right message? I like the advice from Mark Twain: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
5. Productive procrastination
While you are waiting for inspiration, why not enroll to “Writing in Sciences” on Coursera and watch a few videos? This course teaches scientists how to become more effective writers, using practical examples and exercises. I wish I found this course before I had written my thesis.
Also, why not check out this Tipbox article on scientific writing during your next procrastination break?
6. Finally, a bit of motivation…
You don’t have to be a good writer to write a good PhD thesis. You know the topic of your PhD thesis better than anybody else. Think about messages you want to convey, use simple language, and write it down. Then go and do something fun for five minutes. I am sure you deserve it.
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