Dr. Strangehabits, or: how I learned to stop procrastinating and write my thesis

Athene’s recent post about how students write their PhD theses (plus frequent keyword search hits to my blog on the same subject) served as a long-overdue reminder that I’d promised to share my own thesis writing experiences. Some of the comments on the preamble post I wrote in (let’s see… February? Really? Oops…) led me to believe that taking three months to write a thesis from scratch is not as unusual or impressive as some of my acquaintances have led me to believe, but hopefully my experiences (or part thereof) will still be useful to someone!

Before we start, just a reminder that PhDs are very different in different countries, and that this is no reason to automatically condemn anyone’s degree as substandard just because it took them more / less time than is typical in your own country, or because it was different in some other country-specific way! If you have something to say on this subject, please do it on the aforementioned preamble post!

Right, so here’s what worked for me. YMMV.

Have a hard deadline, and make sure everyone knows about it

As I mentioned in the preamble post, British PhD programmes typically provide funding for students for exactly three years, and not a minute longer. My supervisor was able to negotiate an extra month of funding due to a lab-wide cell culture contamination that set my long-term colony assays back, but after that extra month was up there wouldn’t be one penny more. I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford more than one month’s rent for my shared flat in Glasgow after the money ran out, and I knew it would be much more difficult to write up from my parents’ house without internet access, easy access to journal articles (most journals had created online editions at this point, but hadn’t uploaded their archives) and with no other scientists around for support. Plus, I really didn’t want to have to move back home for any longer than was necessary; I ended up spending two and a half months there between submitting my thesis and starting my postdoc position and, as much as I love my parents, that was plenty thank you very much.

I also had a postdoc position lined up in Vancouver, as an added incentive; it was nice to have both a carrot (exciting new phase of life in the city I’d dreamed of moving to for several years) and a stick (living with my parents and/or impending financial ruin) as motivational aids.

My supervisor was also extremely supportive. (We did have one stand-up shouting match in the library one day, but that was an outlier.) He knew about my carrot and stick deadlines, and was committed to helping me meet them. For example, there was a classic moment when he came into the shared office to find me drinking tea, feet literally up on the bench, chatting about football with one of the techs. “Um, Cath…” he said, “what seems to be your current rate-limiting step?”

“You are”, I replied. “You have all current drafts of all chapters”.

“YOU ARE THE WEAKEST LINK!” yelled the tech, who was always hilarious.

My supervisor laughed, turned around, went back to his office, and started flooding me with red ink-covered edits within the hour. I had every section back by the end of the day.

Start getting organised as soon as possible

At the beginning of my final year I’d started making notes on the overall structure and content of selected recent theses in the institute’s library, but with just a few months of funding left I decided that now was the time to focus on the details; it was time to figure out exactly what information I was going to need, and then to start assembling it.

While still working full-time in the lab, I used all my down-time as productively as possible. I made a list of which figures were going to make up each chapter of the thesis (this is always my first step when writing any scientific document), went through my protocols and lab books making lists of the reagents I’d used to generate each figure, then spent some quality time at the reagent shelves and fridges/freezers noting down manufacturers’ names and other details.

Any time I had 20 minutes or more access to a computer, I updated and organised my reference library (I didn’t have a computer at home at this stage, and there were only two in our office (shared by 6-8 people), plus a few more in our IT room). I’d already done some lit reviews (for my end-of-first-year exam and for a jointly-authored review paper) and had kept all the papers. I’d also kept up with the literature pretty well throughout my time in the lab: I used PubCrawler automated searches to highlight all new relevant papers, and printed, read, annotated, and filed each one as it came out (I still have a couple of old subject-specific PubCrawler searches saved, and they still send me notifications, but I get all my new searches through RSS). I then spent a lot of time on PubMed and Web of Science finding key papers cited by/citing all papers in my existing library, in preparation for the extra breadth and depth of the thesis introduction chapter. Due to my lack of a computer at home I amassed quite the pile of hard copies; I printed the most recent papers from the online journals, but had to actually hunt down dusty hard copies in the library archive and photocopy some of the older ones. I kept my EndNote library updated as I went along, and kept the hard copies in folders sorted alphabetically by first author.

The end result was that by the time I’d finished most of my lab work and could therefore start spending quality time on thesis writing, I was ready to start the meat of the text pretty much immediately.

Find a routine that works for you, and stick to it

When I was ready to start writing in earnest, I managed to scrounge an old (and I do mean very, very old) computer from our IT department, to borrow for the duration. (I still had no internet connection though). I decided to take advantage of this unheard of luxury and start making figures and writing my Materials and Methods section at home. After spending a full week on this task, I almost went crazy from lack of human interaction and realised that something had to change.

My institution was out on a separate campus and had its own library, well-stocked with the most popular journals and with six or seven desks that faced an internal window, overlooking the break room on the lower floor. I decided that this set-up was purpose built for me: besides the obvious ease of access to new papers I suddenly realised I needed, the desks and window were at the very back of the library, where hardly anyone ever came; the librarian was absolutely lovely and helpful and supportive and made me a cup of tea every time she had one herself; and I could see when my friends entered the break room for their 10:30 am, 12:30 pm and 3:30 pm breaks (almost everyone in the entire institute took the same breaks, and every break was a very social occasion with lots of laughter and, often, cookies or other treats), so I could join them for a sanity break. It was absolutely ideal and I loved it; I’d come in at my usual time (on my bike, up lots of hills, thereby also getting some exercise and fresh air to clear my head), read papers and make notes / very rough drafts, see all my friends, then cycle home at my usual time. I spent almost every evening and weekend typing up everything I’d done in the library.

I can’t emphasise enough how much this routine – incorporating exercise and socialising with friends as well as tons of work – helped me.

Don’t burn out

If all you do is write, you’ll go nuts. I refused to work at all on Friday or Sunday nights, and made sure I spent that time doing something fun (a walk in the park, a takeaway and a movie at a friend’s house, a night in the pub, playing my guitar… anything that didn’t involve too many words). I also took frequent micro-breaks during evenings and weekends, e.g. to watch a favourite sitcom or go out for lunch.

Build a support network

A good friend of mine is just starting the second year of a very intensive two-year diploma course. She works almost all the time – days, evenings, weekends – and we barely see her. We keep inviting her to dinners, BBQs, concerts, Canucks games and other fun times, but she barely ever comes out any more. I keep thinking how terrible it must be to go through something like this when you’re the only one of your friends who’s doing it; any time I’ve been overwhelmed with exams or coursework I’ve had tons of friends in the same boat, and it just makes everything so much easier to deal with.

My appreciation for peers going through the same thing as me at the same time was especially strong during my thesis writing. I worked in an extremely sociable and friendly lab in an extremely sociable and friendly institute; almost all the students and younger postdocs from the whole institute would go out to the pub together at least once every couple of weeks, we spent evenings and weekends together, we got to know each others’ outside friends and families, we even went on vacations together. (This ruined me for working anywhere else, let me tell ya – it was amazing and I loved it). The friends I had from outside the institute were almost all fellow grad students, in a variety of fields; the result was that literally ALL of my friends were either writing their thesis, had recently written a thesis, or knew they would have to write a thesis very soon. We got together all the time to bitch, vent, proofread each others’ drafts, and share writing tips.

I realise this situation is somewhat unusual, but I firmly believe that having even one close friend who understands what it takes to write a thesis will help you enormously.

Relax and enjoy yourself!

I loved writing my thesis. I loved taking all the work I’d done and organising it into a story; I loved digging into the deepest and darkest depths of the literature; I loved writing the discussion and thinking about what I’d do next if I had more time and money.

I especially loved the fact that my rate of progress was proportional to the effort I expended. This made a very pleasant change from my lab work. I’d already realised by this point that I didn’t want to be a PI, but this revelation was my first hint that a career in writing about science might be the niche I was looking for.

Some days, of course, you just don’t feel the love.

For those days, there’s chocolate.

When I hit a block of any kind, I’d allow myself one square of high quality dark chocolate per paragraph drafted.

Some sections of my thesis have extremely short paragraphs.

Keep your eyes on the prize

The multiple rounds of edits, the proofing, the reference checking… SO painful.

Seeing the soft-bound thesis for the first time, ready to be submitted for examination… SO awesome.

Seeing the hard-bound final version, after the exam, and knowing it was going to secure me my degree, the letters after my name, and my Canadian work permit…

SO, SO worth it.

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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30 Responses to Dr. Strangehabits, or: how I learned to stop procrastinating and write my thesis

  1. rpg says:

    Best. Title. Ever.

    “I loved writing my thesis.” Yes! Yesyeyesyesyyesyessss!

    I had a blast, too. Did it in about 2 months, through very hard work and organization. Also, hard-bound the submission copies. That was … *fun*.

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    There were several iterations of the title, so I’m glad you like the final version!

    Did you also love your viva? I thought it was so much fun, and also knew that never again would I have people soooo interested in the nitty gritty details of my work for so long.

    Hard binding the submission copies is like doing the crossword in pen.. kudos! I don’t think I ever thought of it as an option!

  3. Anthony says:

    Ugh… In the past 3 months, I have written my entire thesis, much the same way you described yours. (Fencing on Monday and Thursday nights, etc) Unfortunately, the big difference for me is that nothing I do seems to get me any feedback. I’m SO impressed that your supervisor chipped in and started busting his ass to give you revisions.

    You had a catalyst for your rate limiting step!

    BTW. good post (=

  4. Alyssa says:

    I’m a huge fan of the hard deadline rule (especially making sure that everyone else knows about it). Nothing like having a bunch of people telling you the number of days until your deadline to keep your butt in gear!

    Great suggestions, Cath!

  5. Anguished says:

    LOL, sounds as business as usual (except for the no-work at fri/sat) from day one at PhD studies?

  6. Eva says:

    I was given the impression that everyone took three months to write. Is that not normal? Or is it different for different styles of thesis? (Because mine included chapters that were published/drafted papers, although in my case I still had 4 chapters left to write.) I think I took 10 weeks, not counting a bit of lab work I did in between (for a collaboration, not for my thesis). I wrote the discussion chapter in one day, but from notes that I had taken during the rest of the writing (“this is for the discussion chapter” *scribbling on a post-it*)

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      I thought it was fairly typical, but when I mentioned it at work a lot of people said they were amazed it could be done so quickly (this is what triggered the original post. Of course, many commenters immediately popped up with tales of much faster thesis writing!).

      I started writing literally from scratch. I didn’t have any papers drafted (although I did write a paper after the thesis was finished). The lit review and review paper I’d contributed to were of some use, but overlapped only peripherally with the direction the final introduction chapter ended up taking.

      • Eva says:

        Thinking back, I may have started to write the introduction while I was still in the lab, only it went verrrrrrry slowly. It would account for the difference between 3 months and 10 weeks, so it would still have taken me 3 months just for the writing.

  7. Pharm Sci Grad says:

    I’m in the thick of it and it always helps to know it can be done! Some days, I tell you…

    Got the same sort of carrot/stick approach going and that seem to be the key.

    Thanks for the encouragement!

  8. katebow says:

    Excellent post. You’re a woman after my own heart:

    “When I hit a block of any kind, I’d allow myself one square of high quality dark chocolate per paragraph drafted. Some sections of my thesis have extremely short paragraphs.”

    I chose to write my thesis at my mother’s kitchen table due to its proximity to a well-stocked fridge.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Parents’ fridges are great, aren’t they? I still don’t seem to have got the hang of keeping a fridge constantly well-stocked with a variety of healthy snacks and lots of different kinds of cheese. Maybe one day I’ll be a proper grown-up!

  9. ricardipus says:

    Wonderful post, Cath. Should be essential reading for every grad student.

    I’ve probably told this story before, but a Certain Eminent Scientist Famous For Cloning A Recessive Disease Gene was on my committee. I gave him my thesis to read and comment on prior to final submission. After some weeks, I cornered him and asked for it back. It appeared shortly thereafter, and he told me (and I quote) “It has the content of a thesis, and the format of a thesis, so I guess it’s ok”.

    When I started reading through, I found he’d written comments… on the first ten pages or so. The rest of it was exactly as I’d given it to him. You can draw your own conclusions from these data.

    At the end of the day though, I did kind of enjoy writing it, and the defense was pretty good fun as well.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Thanks mate!

      You’d think the CESFFCARDG would have thought to space his comments out a little more evenly…

      • ricardipus says:

        To add insult to injury, while a member of my permanent committee, he actually had to miss my defense as a result of being at some CIHR site visit or other.

        Naturally, I replaced him with someone much less likely to ask difficult questions. 😉

  10. biobabbler says:

    Great stuff.

    One of my advisors, bless him, basically used a fat sharpie and put huge Xs across entire (apparently story-telling) pages of my thesis draft. I could have kissed him. It’s SO EASY to delete when you’re just trying to finish.

    V. helpful to have committee members who get along, and I only had 2, and was SO glad of it.

    I finished @ home vs. @ school while working for NPS full time. However, to live w/ myself I HAD to finish, so worked EVERY SATURDAY on it until done. All day. So I’d never get a full weekend until it was done.

    Finally, advice I got ages ago from a USGS science guy was begin with the graphs you want to show (figure them out, even, when designing study, to focus your work), then write enough text to explain them, then you’re done. =) He got LOTS published, that way.

    Great and useful post!!

    Finally, GREAT thing re: finishing. Once you get that degree, despite any fears you might have about not being worthy or “found out” re: not being a genius, THEY NEVER TAKE IT AWAY. It’s ALWAYS yours. =) Hooray!!!

    • ricardipus says:

      I got similar advice from a senior grad student… do the figures first, then you’ll know what to write about them and how they fit together to make the complete story. Maybe the best advice anyone ever gave me (other than my dad, who told me “the point of graduate school is to get out of it as quickly as possible” ;)).

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        Yep, I learned the “Figures First” rule pretty early on. Always followed by the methods, then the results, then the introduction, then the discussion – although I know people who do the last two items in the reverse order.

  11. cromercrox says:

    Great post. One thing that I discovered is that you have to know when to stop doing experiments and start writing up. Experiments are endless, there is always something new to find out, to discover, to check, to measure, to repeat. But the time comes when you have to say STOP. It’s arbitrary, I know, but so is the length of one’s grant.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Very true, for papers as well as theses. The former is trickier though as the hard deadline on a (British-style) PhD is the major determining factor!

  12. chall says:

    Great suggestions and fun to read. I had to do lab work as well as writing up, until I decided to stop with the lab work the last four weeks… that said, I “only” had to write what we can call “summary and background of the research papers that were added in the back of the thesis”. And finish those manuscrips that weren’t published yet. Piece of cake 😉

    I found that my best relaxation was the bike ride home at night from my department room… and then watch one episode of TVs shows (DVD so only 40 mins long). That was pretty much as long it could be before I got nervous and fidgiting about starting writing again…

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