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Institute of Health and Wellbeing Early Career Researchers' Blog

Lions and tigers and theses! Oh my!

  • Jul 29 / 2015
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PhD Experience

Lions and tigers and theses! Oh my!

By Olivia Kirtley:

Blog posts and advice columns about writing your thesis abound and the vast majority speak about it with great reverence; it isn’t just a thesis, it’s “The Thesis”, “The Big Book”, the Goliath to your David, the magnum opus of the last 3 or 4 years of your life. The thesis as a portrait of academic Herculean struggle can strike fear into the hearts of many PhD students. It feels like an unknown, a dark forest with lions and tigers and bears, but perhaps writing your thesis isn’t as scary as it first sounds?

Oil can!

Just like the Tin Man, if your writing is going to go smoothly, your writing skills will need regular oiling, which means…more writing! From the very start of your PhD, if you do a systematic review, try and write it up for publication. If you have data, write it up for publication. If someone “scoops” you and publishes that dream study that you have carefully planned in your head for months or years, why not blog about it or write a commentary on it? Reports, book reviews, blog posts, articles for the university magazine; all of these things will keep your writing skills from becoming squeaky. I was very lucky that I had the chance to do quite a bit of writing before starting on my thesis and I definitely feel this made it a lot less terrifying. Having received feedback on my writing from my supervisors and peer-reviewers meant I was aware of areas where I could strengthen my arguments or stylistic holes I may fall into. Obviously, you can write things without showing anyone, but opportunities to get feedback on your work are truly invaluable. Take some lion courage and let other people look at your work. Your future self will thank you.

If only I had a brain! But don’t forget to have a heart.

There is something about the prospect of writing a thesis that can make one feel completely overwhelmed. Maybe it is the idea of writing so much, the amount of time it will take, having to weave together all of your work into one story, or indeed, all of the above. How will you accomplish this? If only you had a brain. But you do! You designed your studies (or at least had some input into them, if it was a pre-organised grant), you have worked with your data, you have read all the papers. You are the expert! Own your research (warts and all) and tell its story.

But also don’t forget to have a heart. Why did you do this research? What does it mean to you? What could it mean for other people? By the time you get to the stage of writing your thesis, it is easy to feel tired and jaded, but take some time to remind yourself why you love your research. Not only will this enthusiasm shine through in your thesis, making it much easier to write and also for others to read, it is this love for what you do that will see you through the long nights and working weekends of your final year. Thinking about the hundreds of people who have shared some of their most private and painful experiences of suicide and self-harm with me, is the strongest possible motivation; my thesis is made up of their stories and I have to tell them with my data. Maybe the contents of your petri dish will cure cancer? Maybe your research could change policy and help millions? Always have a heart and always put that in your research.

A hippopotamus? I’d thrash him from top to bottomus!

When your thesis is finished and in its nice shiny binding, it is a big book. But, before that point, it is a much smaller beast. Your thesis is made up of chapters, and these are made up of sections, containing sub-sections and sub-sub-sections; small chunks of writing that when all fitted together, will form the complete picture of your work. When I first began to write my thesis, I would set up a blank word file for each chapter and write in the major headings, e.g. abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusions. Then I would go back through again and add in sub-headings for each of these sections. In the introduction of a chapter, for example, I may have sub-headings for self-harm, self-harm and physical pain, self-harm and emotional pain, the relationship between emotional and physical pain, etc. These sub-headings could change and I often found myself adding more in as I wrote. Sometimes I would sit down to write one sub-section and then realise that actually I got through it more quickly than I thought I would, so I went ahead and started on another sub-section. Your thesis ends up as a hippopotamus, but that’s not what you sit down to write. A little bit at a time, persistently plugging away writing small sub-section after small sub-section will eventually turn into a finished thesis.

Writing your thesis will be hard, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying. As long as you keep putting one red slipper in front of the other, you’ll be in Emerald City before you know it.

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