Some of the most common mistakes I see people make when it comes to writing their thesis.
Starting too early
Yes. I think starting too early is a problem. Mainly because it sets you up for failure. Failure to reach your writing goals. Failure to make progress. Failure to write stuff that you think is useful or relevant. I’d rather see you start writing early by writing regularly. Not necessarily by writing your thesis. So, write a blog. Write social media content. Write your methods. Summarise articles. But don’t think of it as writing your thesis. Instead, think of it as building your writing muscle.
Starting too late
Of course, the bigger mistake regarding starting is starting too late. People think they’ll just turn into a writing superhero in the last few months of candidature. That, like magic, they’ll sit in front of their computer and words will materialise on the screen. Perfectly formed. Succinct. Eloquent. And then you expect your supervisor to be ready to read your perfectly formed draft. To sign it off as a research and literary masterpiece. But instead, they are busy with other things. Grants. Conferences. Journal articles. So, your perfect draft is not even reviewed, let alone perfect. And when the feedback is delivered, you realise there’s a massive gap in your research writing, and research knowledge. Therefore, the solution, just like above is to build your writing muscle early.
Not involving your supervisor
For most students in most universities, your supervisor is the person standing between a draft, and a submitted thesis. Yet too many students seek supervisor input way too late. Like I wrote above, you write a full draft then send it along to your supervisor. Not only expecting they’ll read the whole thing (they won’t) but also expecting they’ll do so in a day or two. It might surprise you to know, that your supervisor is not waiting for you to send them stuff to review. You need to involve them in the process. Let them know your intended timeline. Ask them how they’d like to receive drafts. Do they want the entire thesis? Or just a chapter? Or just a few pages? Do they want the draft you wrote? Or do they want a PostDoc in the research team to cast their eye over it first? In my experience, involving your supervisor early and asking them all of these questions can make the writing process easier on your (and them). It can also make it faster. My recommended approach is:
- Know your writing timeline.
- Communicate that with your supervisors (including changes as and when they occur).
- Seek supervisor and/or PostDoc input on small sections first.
- Take the feedback into account as you write the whole thesis.
- Be clear on what you expect, and what they think is possible in terms of reviewing drafts (e.g., turnaround times, draft size, and timing of requests).
Poor backup processes
I am part of a few PhD student, and thesis writing groups on Facebook. And there are regular discussions covering document recovery, document loss, and document backup. I’m always surprised to see these posts. Why? Because with current technology and the support from your university, these should be non-issues. If you are not aware of your university’s recommended approach to digital document backup and recovery, make yourself aware. If you are not using that approach – use it! No, emailing yourself a copy is not good backup practice. It wastes time. Effort. Energy. Crowds your inbox and email in general. Thumb drives are no good either. They are notoriously unreliable. Can get lost. Can get damaged or destroyed. You should be using your university’s recommended system. But if that’s a bit crap or non-existent, what can you do? Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive, and iCloud all have two-way synch and seamless integration with your local hard drive. That means, save locally, and it is automatically sent to the cloud. That means, accessible anywhere, anytime. If your computer burns or dies or is lost or stolen, you have your files. They also have version control. So, you can roll back to the last minute, hour, day, week, month or year (depending on the version, and settings). These cloud systems also have real time automatic saving compatibilities with certain programs. That means no more “remembering to save”, the system automatically does every change. And you can restore to almost any of those versions.
It is a hard task to gather all of the necessary references for your thesis. You’ve probably amassed a large amount of knowledge in your chosen field. There’s stuff you know, but you’re not sure where from. There’s stuff you might still be learning as you read. A lot of academics write “[ref]” when they need to find a reference for something they know. And that is great shorthand to identify areas to go back and do some digging. But I’d much rather you actually go and find that reference and insert it. At the very least, it’ll save work later. But, more importantly, it’ll ensure what you typed matches what the article says – not what you vaguely remember it saying.
Managing references yourself
There are heaps of reference managers out there, and most universities have subscriptions their staff and students can use. A citation (reference, and citation are used interchangeably here) manager maintains a database of references (in your case your primary, and secondary sources of data). Mostly, they’ll be journal articles, but they might also be books, chapters, webpages, and social media. A reference manager allows you to insert your reference into your writing as you type. They usually integrate with common word processors – Google Docs, MS Word, and Pages – and manage changing citation formats. So, you can change things to match your supervisor’s preferences one day, and then your thesis submission requirements the next. All without doing anything more than changing one setting. Of course, they also compile your references section. Again, matching the requirements to those of your university or thesis committee or (when it comes to writing journal articles) publisher.
Poor word processing skills
When I ask most PhD students if they know how to use MS Word, they say, “Yes”. But as soon as I start talking about using MS Word, there are inevitably cries of, “I didn’t know that” or “I wish I knew that earlier”. So, at the very least here are some word processing skills that’ll save you hours when it comes to thesis writing and formatting:
- Use styles. They are defined heading, paragraph, figure, table, footnote paragraph, and typography formats. Each one has a name. Even if you just use the names, and definitions out-of-the-box it’ll make formatting changes easier later on. For example, if your supervisor doesn’t like the way your chapter headings are formatted? No problem, in as few as three clicks you can change all chapter headings to whatever they want them to be. Need to build a list of figures or tables? No problem, in four clicks you can build a table automatically. This is also the basis of the creation of a table of contents. Used Times New Roman throughout but realise your university wants your thesis in Arial? No problem, three clicks and that’s all changed. Sick of adding page breaks before the start of each section? No problem, define your heading style to have page break before, and it’ll do it automatically every time. Need to shift sections of your introduction around? No problem, the outline view, combined with heading styles will let you do that easily with mouse clicks, drag and drop or quick keys. No need to select, cut and paste. These are but a few examples of how styles make things easy. There are HEAPS more!
- Use captions. Captions are a specific style for tables, and figures/images. They are pre-formatted to include specific text such as Figure or Table or Image, or you can create your own. Then, they are automatically numbered depending on where they are in each section, and relative to each other. So, the first figure will be 1, and the second 2. If you want, you can make the first figure in chapter 1, figure 1.1 and the second 1.2, and so on. If you change the order of the figures, the numbers update. If you delete a figure, the numbers update. If you move them to a new chapter or section, the numbers update. AND you can use cross-referencing to refer to the caption. By number. That also updates if the caption details update.
- Cross-reference. A bit like a citation manager allows you to refer to a journal article and place it in the reference section of your thesis, cross-referencing allows you to refer to specific parts in your document. As mentioned above, that could be a caption. But it could also be a heading or section name too. And just like with captions, cross-references update when the referenced item changes. So, if figure 10 moves to the start of your thesis, and becomes figure 1, the references to it will update to say figure 1.
- Outline number. I find this useful to note where I am in my document. You can set up heading styles to reflect the section they are in. So, the first (sub)heading in section will be 1.1 [heading name]. And the second (sub)heading in section three will be 3.2 [heading name].
Poor file naming
As soon as you name the file “final” guaranteed you’ll need to make a change and update the name. Instead, just use v (for version) and then a two-digit number (or three if you think you’ll have that many versions). Don’t bother with decimal points. So, you might use [your name] thesis [chapter name or number] [section name or number] v01 as the first version. And whenever you feel like you’ve progressed a version, you can save as, and progress the number. If you really feel the need, you can keep a log (e.g., in MS Excel, Google Sheets, and Numbers or within the thesis document itself) of what changes you made in or to each version. Examples might include: supervisor comments; new theory; new idea; reviewer feedback; new result; changed order; deleted section; or added section. Using two digits (or three) is important to sorting in the correct order. When you sort alphabetically it will ensure the most recent is at the top/bottom depending on your sort preferences. Using other naming conventions is okay. But consistency matters when it comes easily finding the version you want to find. People put dates in the filenames. That’s okay. But if you’re writing for many weeks or months, and you have a new file each day that’s hundreds of files! And if you don’t update the file each day, what’s the basis for the date you select? The first day you created it? Or the last day you edited it? At the very least use “yyyymmdd” format. Like using two- or three-digit numbers, this approach (year, month, day) will ensure the files are correctly sorted.
Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He is passionate about PhD training and students getting the most out of an experience often designed with the supervisor in mind. Richard has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career, researchers, and established academics build their careers. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how make the most of a PhD.
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