Why I Had to Unlearn Everything From the 7th Grade to Finish Writing My Thesis
My first assignment in 7th grade was to write a report about my favorite book that I read during the summer.
Our teacher, Ms. P, was a no-nonsense person, and she handed out a detailed template for the report.
In capital roman numerals she listed the major sections which included information about the book, characters, main plot, and my opinion of the book.
Within each section there were subsections with details about each character, place of story, and how the problem was solved.
Up to that point this was the longest piece of writing I had to produce.
I am not a native English speaker (I was born in Hungary), and I had only been in the Unites States for only one year at that time.
Yet, I was determined to get an A+.
My parents had to make sacrifices for us to be able to move to the US and I wanted to make them proud of me.
I listened to Ms. P’s words very carefully and followed the outline verbatim.
As she suggested, I went through the different sections in the order they were listed.
The result was a boring and straight-forward paper.
I did not get an A+, just an A, but this was enough to convince me that Ms. P’s outline was the recipe for writing good papers.
I applied this process all throughout middle school, high school, and college.
While I did not enjoy writing at the time, Ms. P’s orderly method served me well enough to get A’s on most of my essays and term papers.
Fast forward to my second year in graduate school: the time when I had to write my thesis proposal.
I had 2 months to write my proposal and I struggled for weeks.
For some reason, every time I sat down to write, my brain froze.
Ms. P’s method was not working.
Previously, in English and History classes in college, I had been given a clearly-defined assignments.
There was a title, and a list of questions that I had to answer within my report.
The writing of my thesis proposal presented a completely different set of challenges.
I only had a very vaguely defined topic and nearly a hundred journal articles to go through.
This was the first time that I had to come up with both the topic of the paper and the paper itself.
In addition, I had defend it in front of my committee and convince them that this was an original contribution to my field of research.
This was daunting given that I had only 1 year of experience in the lab (and that was part-time, as I was taking classes as well).
How could I possibly come up with a research topic, let alone put together an outline, and write each section in an orderly fashion?
After weeks of struggling and staring blankly at my computer screen, I was very close to deciding to give up and leave graduate school altogether.
One evening, my friends invited me to dinner to celebrate our colleague’s birthday.
During the dinner I began talking with one of the postdocs about the struggles I was having with my thesis proposal.
She just shook her head and said:
“Are you trying to write your proposal from beginning to end?
We always leave writing of the abstract and the introduction to the end.
Just start with your methods section and your preliminary data.
That’s what the committee will pay the most attention to anyway.”
I began writing that very night, and my process went against everything Ms. P taught me.
Instead of writing everything from beginning to end, I just summarized all the data that I collected and my methods.
I felt so liberated, that I disregarded grammar and style.
I just wrote as much as I could in 2 hours so I could get home by a reasonable time.
With this push in momentum, I was able to finish my thesis proposal by the deadline (with all the grammar and style corrected in the final draft) and defend it in front of my committee.
Tossing out Ms. P’s orderly process was the first step in learning academic writing (or any creative writing for that matter).
During the next few years I learned even more strategies that were essential to help me to complete my thesis by the deadline.
Are you still writing the way you were taught in the 7th grade?
Those habits might be holding you back from producing high quality manuscripts and finishing your thesis.
7 Rules You Must Violate to Write a High Quality Thesis
1. Writing the sections of your thesis in order
Since research is a journey of discovery it is impossible to write your thesis from beginning to end.
Most researchers write the abstract last.
It varies from student to student which section is easiest.
In the experimental science the methods sections is usually easiest to begin with, followed by the results sections.
I have coached students in the humanities and social sciences as well, and they usually don’t write all the chapters in order either.
Sometimes the introduction (literature search) is the toughest, and many students leave it until the end.
Start with whichever chapter is easiest for you so you can pick up momentum in your writing.
2 Write for a set number hours a day
While it is great if you have blocked out time in your calendar every day for writing, it is more important to focus on the results than the time you spend writing.
Without well-defined goals, two hours of writing can produce absolutely nothing.
Instead, try to write a certain number of pages, or complete a clear and realistic goal such as creating a table or making a figure.
3. If you skip a day, make it up the next day by writing twice as much
We are all great planners – or at least we try to be.
We make a plan, and a week later we discover that we did not really follow through.
So, the following week we try even harder to “make up” for all the lost time.
This is a mistake, and it can lead to burnout and poor quality writing.
To produce high quality writing, focus on today’s writing only.
Forget the guilt of not writing enough yesterday.
Put aside any worries about how you will meet your writing goals tomorrow.
Make the best of every day by setting realistic goals for that day – this will help you to keep up your momentum.
4. Make yourself resist distractions
If I could have a dollar for every graduate graduate student who asked me: “How can I resist distractions”? I would have a small fortune.
Try to “not think of a white elephant” .
Do you see the white elephant?
I do too.
Your mind is quite stubborn.
Once it comes up with an idea, such as “I must email XYZ to ask about….” it will not leave you alone until you do something about it.
But that something does not have to be writing the email and getting distracted by all the messages in your inbox.
The simplest solutions is to write every thought down.
If it is out of your head and on a piece of paper there is a good chance your mind will leave you alone.
(Notebooks and notepads work better than post-its).
Then, take care of these items once you finish writing.
There are many ways to “resist” social media (disconnect from the Internet while writing).
But, if social media is important for your work (e.g. Linkedin for job searching), you need to set reasonable boundaries.
A good solution is to go on social media only at predefined times of day – and preferably late in the day after you got your work done.
5. Follow rules of grammar and style while you write
Remember the spelling tests from second and third grade?
Many schools today place a smaller emphasis on spelling, and focus more helping students to develop their creative writing skills.
The reason is that teachers realized that students were afraid to express their ideas if they did not know how to spell certain words.
Many students try to get the grammar, style, and even formatting of their thesis perfect even before they have all their ideas down.
Remember that it is much easier to correct your grammar and spelling than to write creatively.
Use your writing time for putting as many ideas on paper as you can.
Leave the editing and styling for the later stages after you have all your arguments in order.
6. Write when you feel inspired
This rule is tricky.
Yes, if you feel inspired it is a good idea to write down any ideas you have.
If you can carry around a small notebook to capture your impromptu thoughts, it could save you from staring at the computer screen blankly for hours.
The problem with this rule is that it leads students to believe that inspiration will come someday, and then they can start to write.
To finish writing your thesis you also have to write when you are not inspired.
In fact, 95% of the time when you write you will not feel any inspiration at all when you sit down at the computer.
Skilled writers know how to write when they have no inspiration at all, and they would rather be doing anything else (including cleaning the bathroom), than to write.
There is no secret.
When you have a deadline to meet, and you have no ideas, you need to write anyway.
If you feel stuck, do some free writing.
You can even write about why you cannot write about your thesis.
After 10 pages of free writing, there is a very good chance that you will have some ideas that can go into your thesis or paper.
The good news is that if you write when you do not have any inspiration, the inspiration will come as you write.
This is a very rewarding process.
7. Grandma’s law: You have to eat your zucchini (or spinach, lima beans, broccoli etc.) before you can have dessert
This law works to some extent when applied during dinner time, but it can lead to having an aversion to foods that are actually good for you.
In graduate school this law can lead to self-deprivation for years, which can result in loss of motivation and focus.
Many graduate students have no publishable results until their final year.
Does this mean that you should not reward yourself until your thesis is approved and bound in a shiny black cover?
Rewarding yourself for your effort consistently (whether you get good results or not), will actually lead to increased self-confidence and better quality work.
Celebrate each small success – and definitely do not wait until your graduation party to have dessert!
When I was a 1st year student a postdoc told me that he felt empty inside after he defended his thesis successfully.
He was not proud of himself at all.
While he was relieved, he did not feel like celebrating.
I had a similar experience.
My hooding ceremony was a day just like any other.
I did not feel ecstatic, and it actually surprised me how ordinary the day was after so many years of anticipation.
Don’t wait for others or external results to give you a sense of accomplishment.
You need to give yourself the feeling of confidence, whether your work goes well or not.
Celebrate each small victory and every small step you take in the right direction.
Whether you celebrate with dessert, a movie, or a night out with friends, your creative mind will thank you for taking care of it on a regular basis.
What is your #1 challenge when it comes to writing your thesis? Please leave a comment below and I will reply to you directly 🙂
Click here to get on the waiting list for the online “Finish Your Thesis Program” and get a copy of my free book “Finish Your Thesis Faster”
in 30 Days? You Really Can Do It!
Many people would say it’s absurd to think that anyone could complete their dissertation in just 30 days. But with the proper motivation, people can accomplish almost anything … even completing a thesis or dissertation in such a short timeframe.
I’ve heard of a professor who did exactly that. She was working on her dissertation when a close family member was diagnosed with cancer and scheduled to begin chemotherapy in 30 days. The professor wanted to support her loved one during the treatments in every possible way, yet knew she couldn’t accomplish that and work on her dissertation at the same time. So she went into “Ph.D. Completion Mode,” dedicating herself completely to finishing her dissertation within the next 30 days so that, afterward, her family member could be her one and only priority.
Instead of waiting for a family crisis or other 30-day deadline to call you into action, what can you do right now to complete your project in a more timely fashion? Is it possible to delay some less critical tasks so that you can focus completely on your dissertation? What can you put off so that your dissertation can come first?
Following are some tips to consider.
Give up email for a month.
Put an automatic message on your email that says you will be unavailable for the next 30 days because you are dedicating yourself to completing your dissertation. Ask senders to phone you in case of an emergency, but to otherwise respect your situation and be patient for a response. This is, in effect, an email “DO NOT DISTURB” sign, which will hopefully deter most people from bothering you with anything other than very serious issues. Do not include your phone number in the email; the people closest to you should already have it.
If you simply can’t give up your email completely for an entire month, try to limit checking your messages to once a day, and responding to them quickly.
Claim a workspace, and draw strict boundaries around it.
At the point at which you begin writing your dissertation, you have already completed numerous writing projects. As such, you should have a fairly good notion about what conditions are necessary for you to produce your best work. When are you the most productive? Morning, afternoon or evening? In what type of work area is you most comfortable? Is it realistic to write your dissertation at the dining room table, or would you be better off working at a desk? Do you work better with or without music?
If you have a family or roommates, is it possible to ask them to do without a particular room for the next 30 days? It’s important to claim your own private space to do your writing. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in your home; it may be in your lab, office or a hotel room. Whatever special spot you ultimately choose, make sure that it has adequate lighting and all of the materials and equipment you need to get the job done.
You’ll waste time and be more prone to procrastination if you have to keep getting up and down to retrieve the items you need. Make sure your workspace is clutter free, and commit a few minutes at the end of each writing session to straighten your desk and put all items away. That way cleaning never becomes a major task. A desk and straight-backed chair are usually the best choice for writing. Although you may be able to write on a couch or comfy chair, you may fall asleep or succumb to daydreaming.
Map out a work routine for the next 30 days.
Map out a schedule that dictates all the timeframes you will dedicate to writing over the next month, and be absolutely faithful to it. To be successful, you’ll have to know everything that you have planned or scheduled in your life over the next 30 days. If you plan accordingly, nothing should interfere with your work schedule! Never go to bed without knowing when you are scheduled to write and a “to do” list of what you wish to accomplish the next day.
Commit yourself to doing something every day toward completing your degree.
The single most important strategy that TA-DA!™ promotes is to make a commitment to work on your project a minimum of 12 to 15 minutes every single day.
This level of commitment isn’t as difficult as you might think. The first step is to complete a comprehensive “task list” that includes every single item — large and small — that you will need to do in order to complete your degree. Many of these items will fall under what we label “12-minute tasks,” such as creating the dedication, acknowledgement pages or table of contents for your dissertation, or sequencing figure numbers, table and appendices, formatting your document, or checking your bibliography against the citations in your document.
On days when you’re feeling a little less ambitious, work down your list until you reach one (or more!) of your tasks that can be completed in 12 minutes or less. No task is too small, and no item is too insignificant. Every action you take will move you closer to getting accomplishing your goal. Each morning refer to your checklist and ask yourself, “What action can I take today to move my thesis or dissertation forward?” Resolve yourself to work on at least of those items each and every day. No task is too small, and no item — such as “creating the cover page” — is too insignificant.
Come on, you can work for just 12 minutes! Simply set your watch, cell phone, microwave or timer and see what you can accomplish in that timeframe.
Have a strategy to deal with writer’s block and other emotional roadblocks to writing.
We all suffer those moments when the words won’t flow, our self-esteem begins to fail, and we become frustrated, insecure and outright angry. Writer’s block is unavoidable, so it’s important to have a plan in place that will help you resolve it quickly when it does happen. Will you hire a copy editor to help you through the rough times? Go for a run? Call a close friend who is an expert at building your confidence? Take the time for some honest introspection, and come up with a plan that will work best for you.
Post regular updates on an electronic blog.
It’s important to keep your advisor, committee members and other individuals informed about the progress you are making on your project. A daily blog is an excellent and time-efficient way to summarize your work accomplishments to a large group of people. It also provides motivation to continue working so that you have something to report! A blog also ensures that all relevant parties have access to your most up-to-date draft, and provides them with an easily accessible forum through which to provide prompt feedback and answers to any questions you may have posed. In addition, your blog has the additional advantage of providing “back up” copies of your work in the unfortunate event that your computer crashes.
Call in the Calvary!
There are countless people in your life who truly want to help you through this process; let them!!! There are myriad ways in which others can pitch in to help. For example, during a particularly demanding portion of my dissertation, an old Stanford colleague flew into town to offer support. He provided much-needed stress relief by packing up my house so that I could continue to work on my dissertation AND still be prepared to move out of my apartment when my lease was due to expire in a few days. He also provided on-point advice when I needed help resizing my table graphs to fit the required document format. As a result, both of us were happy. I met all of my required deadlines, and he got to feel the satisfaction that comes from knowing that he was truly able to help out a good friend.
Be aware, however, that unless your loved ones have written a thesis or dissertation themselves, they most likely don’t know how to help you, or even the right questions to ask or actions to offer. But rest assured, most of them definitely DO want to help. So put them to work! It’s your responsibility to be specific about how they can best help you, relating EXACTLY what you would like them to do, and WHEN.
Following are just a few of the many ways in which your friends and loved ones can help.
• Editing and/or alphabetizing the bibliography
• Formatting the template or front matter pages
• Checking and formatting all figures and tables
• Inputting data into the references
• Editing the document
If you aren’t comfortable asking your family member to perform work on your actual thesis, ask them to help you with household chores like cooking, cleaning, errands, bills and laundry. That will free up more time for you to focus on your project!
So what are you waiting for? Stop reading and get to work!
Email Question of the Month:
Hello Dr. Carter,
Thanks to your helpful website I am looking at defending next week. I most enjoyed the challenges and reading everyone else' comments on what they were doing. It motivated me a whole lot. Thank you so much for launching this site. It was nice to feel connected to a group being that I was attending a part-time program and had very limited acess to a support network or even other people.
I was looking on your website but did not see a link. Do you have tips for dissertation final defense?
Have a great day!
Congrats on getting to your defense. I am so glad you contacted me and seem to have confidence that I must of have written something on that issue. It's good that you think of TADA as a resource for all aspects of graduate school.
Below is the newsletter on Preparing for Your Thesis or Dissertation Defense written back in 2005.
I wish you all the best. Please let me know how it goes.
TA-DA!(TM) Graduates --
Congratulations on Your Success
This morning at 11:30, I successfully defended...I read all the pointers the newsletter gave and it helped alot....
I am so glad I sought TADA out.....
Dr. Davis does have a nice ring to it..... :)
Have a great day!
I completed my dissertation for my PhD in Christian Education on March 31, 2009, more than 2 months ahead of the original achedule I had planned using your system. It has been submitted and now begins the waiting process.
Thanks for the assistance provided.
Soon to officially be,
Dr. Murray D.
Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D.
About the Author: As a single mother, professor Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D., completed three masters' degrees and a PhD. Her motto is a Good Thesis/Dissertation is a Done Thesis/Dissertation. She is the creator of a new innovative interactive resource tool on CD—TA-DA! Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished. To learn more, contact us. Privacy is our policy. TA-DA™ Finishline does not give out or sell our subscribers' names or e-mail addresses.