How to Write a Thesis

… Or, rather, how to do it and adapt to the PhD life. These past three months have been wonderful, but also full of lessons learned. So, since I wanted to share more about the PhD life with you, here are some little things that I have learned and that worked for me. They are mainly related to adapting to a new lifestyle and a new working schedule after being a student for the last 21 years of my life. A thesis also requires studying, but in a very different way. All this comes from my own experience, but I hope it resonates with yours too, whether you’re a student, a writer, a journalist, a blogger or a human being. And if not,well… some introspection never killed anyone!

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1. Writing a Thesis is Your Job. Set a Schedule

One of the things that worried me the most was whether I could work at home and how I would manage my time. I love working, don’t get me wrong, but I was afraid it would be difficult to establish boundaries between work, my family life, and my hobbies when it all happened mostly in the same room. Eventually, I created a schedule and I obliged myself to meet it every day: wake up early, walk the dog, have a shower, have some proper breakfast and start replying to emails, comments on the blog etc. Why do this? Because a doctor, a professor, a hairdresser, a waiter, a cook do not go to work when they naturally wake up and work until they feel like they’ve finished. There are boundaries, establish them.

2. Are you a Morning or an Evening Person?

I wish I was a Morning Person, but alas, I’m not. So, how could I manage to do some work in the mornings? By doing the tasks that I found easier and that also allowed me some room to get started. Replying to emails, taking a look at the weekly tasks, and organising myself are easy tasks, but they set me to work. By doing this, I found that I naturally moved on to more complex and attention-demanding tasks. Also, by starting your day looking at your daily and weekly schedules you will find it easier to organise yourself. For example, if I have to read three articles today, I can read one in the afternoon and the other two in the evening, when I’m feeling my best. But now everyone is like this. Some people are the opposite, and they need to get up at 6 am and get lots of things done by lunch, because the evenings are their off time. There are also people who can only deliver at night. To each her own. But the key question here is to identify ‘your time’. If you are at a loss, try different schedules for a week until you find one that you’re comfortable with.

3. Want it done? Write it down!

I have a diary like this that allows me to write things down every day, but, at the same time, it also gives me a weekly overlook. As a student I always found these the most helpful because they allow me to focus on the day and get things done, while they also give me the sense of the goals I have to achieve that week. So, when Friday comes, I can relax. However, some people feel better by meeting goals on a shorter period of time (i.e. the morning/before 11 am), and others prefer to organise themselves monthly. It’s up to you to find that schedule that allows you to feel you are actually accomplishing things while keeping in mind long-term goals.

4. Mind Your Body

Exercise has never been my priority. Actually, I hate it. But last November – after quite a hectic week that I loved but left me knackered – I found myself unable to separate my left arm from my body. I thought maybe my body was morphing back to an original T-Rex state, but my family thought it quite not probable at all, really, Elena. So, I went to physiotherapy for the first time in my life and I discovered the muscles on the left side of my back were contracted. ALL of them. I spent 70% of my monthly allowance on four sessions that hurt like hell, which I didn’t expect or otherwise I would have never go and I would now be writing this as a T-Rex. Lesson learned: I had to stretch or do yoga after 3 or 4 hours sitting reading or writing. I listened to my body when it was too late and I paid the consequences. The best thing is to stretch and slow down when your body starts to hurt, even a little. If you don’t like yoga, here are some stretching exercises than help you release muscular tension and avoid contractures.

5. Eat and Drink (Other Things Than Coffee)

Healthy eating and staying hydrated are really fashionable topics to write about nowadays. Doctors recommend drinking 2 litres of water every day, and don’t get me started on  your 5-a-day campaign. Stress, worry and being so busy you just don’t remember what time it is (surprise! It’s time to eat!) can affect not only how many times a day we eat, and what we eat as well. I tend to go all-carbohydrates when I’m stressed, and on the long run it makes me feel tired and crave even more sugar. I have found that forcing myself to stop and cook a healthy lunch or dinner has incredible benefits on my mind and my body. I get all the nutrients and vitamins that I need while relaxing cooking and listening to music.

And coffee? I have had a long and passionate affair with coffee and I now consider it a food group (the world disagrees, not fair). However, by the time I graduated three years ago I was on 5 coffees a day, and sleeping from 5 to 6 hours at night. It doesn’t feel good, I tell you. But let’s be sincere: there will be times when we need to go back to as many coffees a day as we can get, and that works for me as long as it’s temporary. Just don’t make it an academic year, like I did. Balance is the key word.

6. Go to Sleep NOW!

Directly related to my coffee intake was the quality and quantity of sleep I was getting, or rather, the lack of. We all know about the 8-hours a day, but not every day we manage them. Sometimes we simply cannot sleep and other we are out with friends, or watching TV. I know when sleep deprivation is getting on me because I morph into Grumpy Cat and I start eating sugary food: all I want is breakfast for whatever time of the day it is. However, I sometimes have trouble falling sleep and – who would have said this about the crime fiction fan?! – I get nightmares. So, I try to read before going to bed: no TV, no Criminal Minds, no L&O:SVU, no Code 37. Just me, my fairy lights and a good book. Turn all your devices off too, because the blue light coming from the screens activates us. Creating a relaxing environment does not always work,  but it is easier to relax and fall asleep if you have bed-time routine. (Or so they say, so we get a point for trying, right?)

7. Find a Mentor or Two

Obviously. You don’t go and write a PhD on your own. I always took for granted that people chose tutors they love and had a previous relationship with. Mentors should love the work you are doing, be passionate about it, help you celebrate your successes and get you out of ‘trouble’ if necessary. After talking with some people, I have discovered it’s not always like that. I’ve heard everything: from people afraid of their tutors stealing their work (WHAT?!) to others who simply were afraid to ask them questions. I have been very, very, very lucky with my two tutors, because I can also say they are my friends too. They celebrate my success, guide me when I’m lost, and try to help me in everything they can. Don’t be afraid to look for the people who you feel totally comfortable and secure with. There will be someone, I promise.

8. PhD Candidates CO.

While I was still writing my MA thesis I met a few other PhD candidates who are a year ahead of me in the programme, but with whom I can share everything. There is no competition between us, and we do proof-reading for each other while we discuss private matters, gossip and enjoy a coffee. This friendliness surprised and shocked me, in the best of ways. During my English Studies Degrees competition was so fierce that it feel claustrophobic at the best of times, so having my mates revising my papers knowing that they will be there supporting me even if the paper is rejected is new to me.

We decided to meet and support each other as after one of us posted an article about the isolation of the Humanities PhD life on our FB group and everyone just cried out in relief I’m not alone!! Doing research is your job, but don’t forget the social aspect of your life and how liberating having a coffee with a friend is.

9. There is a Thin Line Between Your Passion and Your PhD. Find it

Most days I’m lucky to say that the thin line separating my passion for crime fiction and 21st century literature and my thesis is non-existent. Fine. But then, there are those days. Those days when everything goes wrong, and you are buried in paperwork that is a mess, and you are on your third coffee of the morning and… You know how it goes. That is the time to pick up an imaginary pencil and draw the line again. On those days I try to work less than usual, and then I binge-watch TV until I run out of episodes or it’s dinner time already. Getting to work on something that you love is something special, but that does not mean there will not be bad days. Just let them happen.

10. Give Yourself a Break

Because you’re doing a job that many other people don’t even consider. It’s expensive, it’s elitist, it means studying well until your 30s (and if you are not researching to find a cure for cancer, why are you losing your time?!), travelling, working long hours, spending most of your day sitting, not really knowing where your day went, feeling alone, feeling bad, feeling great, and lots of questions and confusion. Don’t let society tell you what to do: you doing this because it’s your passion. And because it’s yours – and it’s unique, because it’s your point of view – you are allowed to give yourself a break every once in a while.

13 thoughts on “How to Write a Thesis

    1. Thank you, Susan. Yes, I think this could apply to anyone who works at home or does some kind of writing. I thought about that too 🙂

  1. You’re right, these fit for whatever you are doing in life. I have a to-do list which I check every evening before I go to sleep, making sure the next days is correct for what I need, prioritised.
    I also try and set myself routine, but with that I do have to be flexible. Working from home can be difficult, but if you are a little organised, you can do it. Great post!

    1. Thank you, Rebecca. I’m so glad you’re all always highlighting the similarities of working from home and doing a PhD! Most people don’t think a PhD is ‘work’.

  2. It’s hard to do a Ph.D. (or any other kind of studying) later in life, when you have a house, a partner, children or all sorts of other responsibilites. I was lucky enough to go straight on to do my Ph.D, while I was a single student living in such primitive accommodation that I was happy to spend my whole day at the university researching and writing. Later on, when I had a change of career and had to study again (part-time, distance-learning), I found it much harder to set boundaries and stick to them. Sensible advice, and good luck with sticking to it – at least, most of the time!

    1. Thank you, MarinaSofia. I am still living with my parents and I don’t have anyone to take care of, which really helps me concentrate all my effors on reading and writing. Some professors have told me to enjoy this part of my life, because it will never be the same once I get a job, and/if I marry or have kids.

  3. Excellent post, Elena. I think many of your suggestions are apt for a writer’s life. I’m definitely a morning person. All my good stuff gets done then. After lunch all I want to do is go to sleep.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. I’m completely the opposite: everything starts to make sense and I get plenty of energy after lunch 🙂 To each her own, but the important thing is to get to know oneself, isn’t it?

  4. I really enjoyed this post. I agree that setting a schedule is important – I struggled with this when I started maternity leave as I went from being super busy all the time to being busy, but in a different way with a baby. Now that Giles is almost 6 months, I’m able to set schedules for us and it definitely contributes to my happiness.

    1. I LOVE your comment, Sam, because it shows that schedules and a routine can very much help you organise the day and make a good start. Otherwise, it’s complete chaos for me.

  5. Elena, best of luck with the thesis. I could substitute “Ph.D.” with “writing a novel.” I needed to read your post since Christmas festivities have blown my schedule. No wonder I’m cranky!
    Hang in there.

    1. Lovely Ann, do you know how much it means that these tips resonate with your life as a writer? Don’t forget to give yourself a break. Can’t wait to read your next book!

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