Tip: Write your PhD thesis in year 1

masters phd writing Jul 24, 2023
hand writing on notebook

Its quite easy to think of the PhD as 3 parts: Literature review, research, write the thesis. The general process of the PhD pretty much looks like that. A typical PhD student’s Gantt chart will dedicate a generous amount of time to writing and editing a thesis in the last few months or final year. However, completely leaving the thesis writing to the last year can be quite problematic. Here are some reasons why you should start writing your thesis in the first year.


1. You need to practise writing academically at the PhD level.

While some PhD students start with some academic writing experience, writing a PhD thesis is quite a different beast from writing dissertations, publications and essays. Apart from the obvious word count difference, I think writing a thesis is like writing a high-level storybook. You need to find a good balance between telling the story of your research in an understandable manner and discussing complex scientific/artistic concepts at a level high enough to engage other researchers in your field.

Writing at this level is not straight forward even for published researchers. It comes with practice and comes with some trial and error as you figure out a style of writing that suits you. Different students struggle with different aspects of it and while there are academic phrasebooks and vocabulary lists out there, nothing beats constant writing, editing and receiving feedback, which requires time. Personally, I struggled to write in a manner that is efficient and effective ie. I use more words and make sentences more complex than they need to be, and it took me 2 years to change that. Some of my clients struggle with discussing their ideas in a manner that reflects the high level of thought and analysis in their work. Leaving the thesis writing to the last year only means you have far less time to practice and work on your writing style through feedback from your supervisors.


2. Writing begets motivation which begets more writing

Writing requires motivation, and nothing puts a student off more than the knowledge that he or she needs to somehow cough out a book by the end of 3-5 years, and so the procrastination begins. They plan and prepare but never start drafting their work.

Knowing that you have a few chapters more or less done makes it so much more encouraging for the chapters ahead. The final task of your PhD also will not seem that daunting. The more you write the more confident you get with it which then gets you to write some more.

Even though I don’t agree with it, it is nonetheless very easy to measure the progress of your PhD according to the number of words of your thesis you have written, and compare this “progress” with your peers. As PhD students, we grab our motivation any chance we get. You will certainly feel better with some word count under your belt early into your PhD but note that this is often not reflective of your progress, see below.


3. The writing paradoxes and myths

Why would I write now if I need to rewrite most of it later?
But that is exactly the process of writing and editing. If you can admit that you can’t write a masterpiece the first time around, how can you expect yourself to do so in your last year? Drafts are written for fine-tuning so expect heavy editing no matter which year you are in. It is better to have 2 years to edit than 3 months.

I don’t have time to write
This is one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves. You are always writing, even if it may not be a chapter, it is a research report, your research journal/notes, a publication, a section etc. These eventually make up your thesis even though they may seem like random jigsaw-bits of writing. It is a matter of putting these writing together in a coherent manner. If you have time to answer to your supervisor or funders in the form of a research report then you also have time to answer to your own thesis progress; write or even just stitch up bits of writing into something you can use in your chapter.

I don’t know enough to write
The more you read, the more you realise you don’t know. But the more you write, the more you affirm yourself of your own knowledge. Initially, your imposter syndrome will tell you that you are merely farting on a piece of paper, but if you can even just summarise what you have already read, you are definitely on your way to being a more knowledgable PhD researcher.

Writing is not easy and for most people, it is not fun either but it is necessary. Putting off your writing to the last year is going to make it so much more stressful and off-putting. Write as you go along and take some time to enjoy the process, or at least find comfort in know that you are making some progress.