There are many advice blogs describing how to write a PhD thesis, probably about as many as there are PhD students. While the experience of producing a thesis unifies all PhD students in the end, each PhD thesis is unique. Even two theses on the same broad topic (say, radio astronomy) may look completely different, so what helps one person write their thesis may actually hold back another person.
That being said, there are some more general pieces of advice that can be given, especially based on the experience of writing a thesis. I handed in my PhD thesis just over a month ago - around 200 pages and 60,000 words representing three and a half years of research work. I also wrote the entire first draft in a single weekend - and this is how I did it.
The Australian National University Thesis Bootcamp (#ANUTBC) is a unique program run by Dr Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) and her dedicated team of helpers. Over the course of two and a half days, they work together with PhD students to overcome the fears and concerns that hold them back from writing, while providing a safe and comfortable environment for us to just ’shut up and write’. There’s added incentive for showing up - with neat prizes for every 5000 words written. At the end of the weekend, every student leaves having written a minimum of 5000 words. At the November bootcamp I attended, four people (including myself) wrote over 20,000 words (and recieved their coveted gold brick)!
Lots of universities have a similar program. So if you’re wondering exactly what makes it so good, here’s my take!
You learn how to write. Really write
When it comes to writing, it becomes tempting to constantly self-edit. We delete and re-write sentences as we go, searching for the perfect phrasing. This may not be too un-economical if you are writing say, a blog post or even a research paper for publication. However, your thesis is long-form writing. If you agonise over the placement of every word, it means agonising over the placement of anywhere from 20,000 - 100,000 words.
Learning to write without the constant need to self-edit and critique isn’t easy. For many of us, it means breaking the habits of a lifetime. The first exercise at #ANUTBC was to write an introductory paragraph with a series of prompt sentences without the use of the delete key. Sounds easy?
Actually, it’s downright impossible. But this five minute exercise is enough to begin to break down the barriers of constant self-editing that hold us back from writing fluently
You stop being afraid of imperfections
One of the big parts of #ANUTBC is keeping a running total of words written, which means all words written. No material is deleted during #ANUTBC, and editing isn’t allowed. The three days are designed for you to write as much of your thesis as you can without the usual distractions (all food is provided, for example), not to write a polished, finished thesis. I found that the more I wrote, the more I felt OK with my writing not being perfect.
Usually I’d only be satisfied (or even comfortable) with a very polished piece of writing, but seeing sections become complete gave me a real sense of accomplishment (even if they needed future editing) and motivation to write even more.
The preparation required helps you see your thesis as a whole
The PhD thesis really is the sum of its parts, and when you’re working on your research project it’s easy to only see those parts. Prior to #ANUTBC, it is required that each participant creates a thesis roadmap and meet with a learning advisor to discuss your writing style and what you want to get out of #ANUTBC. These appointments are unique to each student, but for me, I wanted to discuss how my thesis came together to combine my very different papers into a single document.
The roadmap was the single most useful thing I did as it gave me a breakdown of all my section, subsection and sub-subsection headings for my whole thesis intro, connecting chapters and conclusions. With the roadmap, I could see how my thesis came together, and if I got stuck writing one section, I could move on to another and not waste time rifling through references.
You are in an environment which is highly motivating
There’s a reason that they don’t train military recruits as individuals. While each person at #ANUTBC was working individually, the staff created an atmosphere that felt more like we were all working toward a common goal. This was accentuated by the activity on the Sunday morning where we were paired up with another PhD student with a completely different research topic, and were given 15 minutes to come up with a pitch for a unique piece of research that combined our research areas.
With the total word count for the weekend being made up of everyone’s contribution, and the shared mealtimes and activities, the whole thing felt more like we were working toward a common goal. It’s easy to get lonely on your PhD journey and lose motivation, especially when writing your thesis, but #ANUTBC directly counteracted that with the planned activities, and the positive attitude of the bootcamp leaders and Inger’s infectious enthusiasm!
It works for all subjects, and any style of thesis
I was very skeptical about #ANUTBC before I attended. I even went as far as to say to friends that I wasn’t sure it would even be productive for me, as I was doing thesis by compilation and I wouldn’t have access to my references.
I was wrong.
It’s easy to underestimate thesis by compilation (where your chapters are made up of already published research you produced during your PhD). However, it can sometimes be harder to write the introduction and connecting material when you have already published the bulk of your PhD work, and it’s often surprising the amount of introductory and connecting material that is required to make the thesis a cohesive whole. Thesis by compilation is not, contrary to popular belief, simply stapling together your published papers. The thesis still needs to make sense as a single document.
Inger and her team are experienced in dealing with students from all faculties and schools, and are more than familiar with the unique challenges of thesis by compilation, making #ANUTBC is the perfect place to work on your thesis by compilation.
While the weekend was exhausting and at times difficult - there is very little respite and downtime, and if you are unwell like I was (I had glandular fever) and you need some time alone to recuperate from constant social interaction, it can be very challenging - it was a very rewarding experience and I recommend it to all students getting toward the end of their PhD at The Australian National University, and it is definitely worth investigating whether your institution offers a similar opportunity.
Happy PhD writing, everyone!