The writing up stage of a PhD is both incredibly exciting but also a completely terrifying point of the PhD journey. Some people dread it and some can’t wait to reach that stage. Having recently come out the other end myself and submitted my PhD thesis, I thought I would share some of the best and worst bits about writing a thesis full time.
But what do you want first?! The good news? Or the bad news? It’s always best to finish on a positive note in my eyes so let’s get stuck into what I found were the worst bits:
5 of the worst things about thesis writing
♥ It can get very lonely!
Don’t get me wrong – I love my own company and I was very glad to get out of the noisy office so I could concentrate on writing and getting this monster written. But after two months of my three months of thesis writing, I did start to go a little bit stir crazy not talking to anyone for most of the day every day. I did venture into the office a few times for a change of scenery and hopefully a boost in productivity but there would be so many interruptions and people wanting to say hello that I didn’t really get much done until after 6pm when most people had headed off home. But it is safe to say that I am glad I don’t live on my own so I had some company in the evenings.
♥ The overwhelming feelings of panic, stress, anxiety, guilt and doubt!
During these few months – and unfortunately the few after while you are waiting for your viva or defense – you are always thinking about your thesis in one way or another. Whether it is a feeling that you are not going to get it done in time, worrying about it not being good enough, stress from your supervisor asking you to reanalyse a whole chapters worth of data that you did in the first year of your PhD – yes that happened! – or you actually took some time for yourself and felt guilty that you weren’t writing your thesis – it is always there in the back of your mind.
But here’s a piece of advice for free:
‘A perfect thesis is an unfinished thesis’
Your thesis or dissertation is never going to be perfect. There will always be more you could have done or want to do. You know your thoughts on all your data so put pen to paper and be ready to defend it!
♥ Support is harder to come by!
Another down side to not being down the corridor from my supervisor. Feedback and discussion about my results was much harder to do when I had noone to debate with or have the input of a different perspective to formulate and refine my ideas. It also didn’t help that my supervisors were away and not contactable for the whole last month before submission so I was rushing to get any kind of feedback for all of my chapters so it wasn’t my best writing and even then I didn’t get anything back for about 3 of my 9 chapters! But I shouldn’t complain as a supervisor doesn’t have to help, so I am grateful for the support I got. It’s just those pesky feelings of anxiety and panic and wanting my thesis to be perfect taking over.
♥ The infuriating task of editing and formatting!
If there is one piece of advice I can give before you start writing, it is set up your thesis document with all the right formatting because doing at the end is the last thing you want to be doing. The last few weeks of writing are the toughest I would say because it is just editing and trying to work out what is the best way to present and discuss your data. It can get so frustrating though making all those little adjustments and combining that with the glitches of a dying computer – I just wanted to throw my laptop at a wall by the end of it! You’ll be glad to know I resisted as that might have made writing and printing my work a little harder!
That reminds me – make sure you save your document more frequently that you can ever imagine and back it up daily at least!
♥ There was too much opportunity for procrastination!
You might think this was a good thing, and at times it was, but having too many distractions around meant I couldn’t focus, I wasn’t being productive and as a result I was stressing out that I wouldn’t finish it all in time.
Okay – enough about the bad things. To be honest, I was struggling to write five because I actually quite enjoyed writing up the past four years of my life into one neat but not so little book! Here are a few of the reasons why I loved being out of the lab and writing instead:
5 of the best things about thesis writing
♥ You can work whenever, wherever and however you want to!
Okay – hands up! I spent most of my writing days curled up on the sofa in pyjamas. I could wake up when I wanted. The fridge was in easy reach to keep me fed and watered – possibly too easy to reach! But most of all I could work when I wanted to and worked best. I am one million percent not a morning person! So, it was great to wake up early and spend some time relaxing watching daytime TV before getting stuck into writing when my brain was functioning in the afternoons and evenings. But not having to stick to the lab hours was amazing and you can work it however suits you best!
♥ You could take time off really easily!
If I wanted time off to head home, to an event or – I wish – head off on holiday I didn’t have to ask! I didn’t have to use any annual leave which I would’ve had to if it was any other time in my PhD. In fact, to stop myself going completely thesis crazy – I had pretty much every weekend away from my work laptop. It gave me that break but also sparked me to be more productive in the week too!
♥ There is so much flexibility!
I could work in the office. I could work at a coffee shop. I could work in the mornings. I could have weekends off. I could do my shopping in the day. I could take time to make and eat lunch. I could head to the gym when it was quieter. I could take a trip to London and meet other scicommers and write in the evenings or early mornings. I could work on freelance projects and blogging. What about all that flexibility doesn’t sound great?!
So this might not be a good thing for everyone. Some people hate writing up they would much rather be in the lab. But I love writing. It gives me a chance to stretch my creativity wings and concoct all the hypotheses I needed to be able to piece together my research and work out how it could help medicine and stem cell culture in the future. It gave me a sense of perspective and -perhaps oddly – a sense of happiness in getting those ideas down on paper for others to build upon. It also reaffirmed for me that a career involving writing is something I think that is right for me.
And I haven’t even mentioned the blogging and article writing I had more time to do and get excited about too!
♥ The sense of accomplishment!
At least 3 years of your life, probably more, have been sunk into creating this single piece of work. All the blood, sweat and tears, the pushing and shoving all to reach this end point. Once you have completed it and you are printing like you have never printed before – I spent one and a half hours sat by the printer in the library waiting for mine to finish printing! – and finished working on what is most likely to be the biggest and most important single piece of work you will ever do, take time to step back, reflect and be damn proud of yourself!
Of course, this is completely person dependent as everyone works in different ways and enjoys different things, but I just wanted to highlight that if you are dreading the write up stage of your PhD, Masters degree or even your undergrad dissertation, it isn’t all bad. As with everything, there are pros and cons. All I would say is embrace the experience and learn from it!
These are some of the things I experienced whilst writing my PhD thesis, but I want to hear your experiences too. How did you find the writing up stage or how are you finding it? What were/are your best and worst bits of the experience? Or perhaps you are about to start that stage of your journey. What are you most concerned about? Share your experiences and advice in the comments below.
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