Episode 20 – How to get your thesis written

Writing a thesis is hard! It’s probably the longest document you’ve ever had to write, and the experience is often accompanied by a tendency to procrastinate and feelings of overwhelm and imposterism.

This episode will help! Jen and Michael briefly talk about their thesis writing experiences and share their top tips. But most of the episode is filled with advice and tips from eight of our UniMelb SciComm alumni who have recently written theses. They’ve been right where you are now and have so much wisdom to share!

You’ll hear from Nancy Rivers Tran, Owen Missen, Samantha Ward, Xavier Busuttil-Crellin, Kate Huckstep, Adam Hagg, Emily McColl-Gausden and Lachlan Tegart.

Plus here are a couple of resources to help you:

How to write a Better Thesis by David Evans, Justin Zobel and Paul Gruba

Explorations of Style – A brilliant blog about academic writing. Start by checking out their “How to use this blog” page to get an idea of what articles they have to offer

The Thesis Whisperer – Another fantastic blog worth following – full of honest, upfront advice, especially on research during a pandemic

Patter – Another great blog about academic writing

DoctoralWriting SIG – Very useful blog covering lots of interesting and relevant topics, with an entire category dedicated to thesis writing


Jen (00:00:00)
Welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team.
I’m Dr Jen Martin and my co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.

Jen (00:00:39)
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm.
I’m Jen and as always I’m so happy to be joined by my wonderful friend Michael. Hello Michael.

Michael (00:00:49)
Hey Jen, it’s a pleasure to be here as always and I’m really looking forward to today’s episode.

Jen (00:00:55)
Yeah well, this week we’re talking about a topic that’s certainly a big part of our day jobs, and something that’s very close to my heart. And I’m pretty sure that it’s close to yours as well. And that is supporting research students in science to write their theses.
Because I don’t really know anybody who’s ever said, “Oh yeah, writing my thesis, that was so easy, I just didn’t even have to try”. Writing a thesis is really hard. And I think for most of us the first time we write a thesis, or if we write an honours or a master’s thesis and then move on to a PhD thesis, you know each time it’s the biggest document that we’ve ever written. And I think it can be an extremely daunting prospect going from short assignments and essays.
And you know, if your habit until then has always been to leave things to the last minute, which may or may not have been me as an undergrad. You know, you can’t do that with a thesis. You’ve, you’ve got to collect the data. You’ve got to analyse it. You’ve got to make the figures. You’ve got to write it. You’ve got to edit it. You’ve got to take on feedback from your supervisors. You’ve got to sort out the referencing. You’ve got to format it as a big document.
It’s a really big task and the actual writing part of it you know, writing word after word, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, it’s a huge job I reckon. And it reminds me of one of my favourite ever writing quote which all of our students have certainly heard. It’s a quote from Gene Fowler, who was an American author and dramatist. And he says “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” It reminds us that writing is hard for everyone.
And of course, we’ve already recorded episodes about writing and procrastination and editing. But I don’t know Michael. Can you relate? Does writing feel like you’ve got blood sort of just pooling on your forehead as you do it for you?

Michael (00:02:47)
Yeah, it’s terrible, gets in the way, makes it very difficult to write your thesis.

Jen (00:02:51)
Does your keyboard kind of end up all dirty?

Michael (00:02:55)
Yeah, I went through several keyboards, yeah? But no, I think you’re right, Jen. It is, it is an experience. It’s like that, I actually thought it wasn’t going to be that hard going into it. And I was wrong.

Jen (00:03:10)
Well, you are an optimist right? So…

Michael (00:03:13)
I’m an optimist. I did a thesis by publication. So I had written some papers that I knew were going to form part of my thesis. And so I was thinking I have some writing in the bag here and I was feeling optimistic about it going into it. But I really should have gotten a start early because I procrastinated. And yeah, well look it was difficult. It’s still a massive task. And for me it was really about trying not to think about the whole thing in its entirety ’cause it’s really scary.

Jen (00:03:49)
Yeah it is. It’s huge. It just feels too big, doesn’t it?

Michael (00:03:56)
Yeah, it feels too big. So for me it was thinking about bite-sized pieces. You know, what is my task today? Or what do I need to get done this week? Having regular contact with my supervisors. And actually speaking to other people about their thesis experience. Because you’ll be surprised to find everyone’s got a different experience. You know, some people will tell you Oh, I had to lock myself away in a cave and not interact with anyone to concentrate. It’s completely different from me. I was working part-time so I had to kind of find time to work on my thesis.
But I think it’s really valuable to hear the experience of other people because I think everyone got tips and you can definitely learn something from, from talking about it. What about yourself Jen? What was your thesis experience like?

Jen (00:04:42)
Well, so my first thesis experience was writing an honours thesis. And as much as I did do a bit of procrastination, I have to say I actually really enjoyed it. And it wasn’t until after it was all over that I managed to work out that a big part of why I enjoyed writing that thesis so much was because I was part of a cohort. And we all had the same deadline. So you know, when people were pulling all-nighters in the honours room and buying in pizza, we were all doing it together. So there was this amazing sense of camaraderie and support and reading each other’s drafts and helping each other. And, and it took me a long time as stupid as this now sounds, it took me a long time to realise that I didn’t actually enjoy writing my thesis per se, I just enjoyed being part of a group of people who were all struggling with the same deadlines and, and supporting one another.
And so then, writing my PhD thesis, it was a really rude shock because it hadn’t dawned on me that writing a PhD you don’t have people at the same stage as you. And it’s just kind of you on your own. And I procrastinated for a long time and really struggled writing my PhD. Once I sort of got started, it was manageable. But then even then, I think really the reason I managed to get that written fairly fast was because I ended up helping my then partner, now husband in the field for quite a few months. And we had no Internet access, zero distractions. And the deal was he’d looked after the camp and do the cooking if I helped him with the field work at the times of day that needed to happen. If the rest of the time I could sit and write. So I plugged my laptop into the car battery in the middle of Cape York with zero distractions, no internet, no phone. You know, I couldn’t look up new papers to reference. I had to just use what I had. And so in the end, it was kind of satisfying because I just sat down and did it. But yeah, two totally different thesis writing experiences for me.

Michael (00:06:33)
Yeah, actually reflecting on what you’ve just said, I think I had something similar with a cohort for my honours thesis and then yeah PhD thesis was completely different. I enjoyed it both times, but as that quote that we often say, Jen, I enjoyed having written more so than, than the actual writing process itself.

Jen (00:06:55)
Oh yeah, doesn’t that one ring true?

Michael (00:07:00)
Yeah, but look, I think it’s great to chat to other people about their thesis experiences. That’s why this episode is actually going to be a little bit different. We really want to give a chance for our alumni to share some of their experiences with writing their thesis.
And so what we’re going to do is we’re just going to have a quick few tips from Jen and myself. And then we’re going to hand over to our alumni to share some of their wonderful tips and their experiences [in] thesis writing.

Jen (00:07:32)
Yeah, I’m so excited to expand the student tips section this week. Well, alumni tips, because we’ve got so much expertise among our former students when it comes to thesis writing.
And I can’t wait to hear what some of them share as their number one tip because I think the biggest thing they heard from me in class was just start writing now. I don’t care if it’s day one of your master’s. Start writing now.
So I’ll be fascinated to hear if any of them use that as their number one tip. Just remember to get started earlier than you think you need to.

Michael (00:08:02)
Yeah, absolutely, it’s funny how you have to remind yourself of that one. But it’s absolutely true.
1. So look, if we’re going to share a few tips Jen, let me start with one that I found useful, which is thinking about presenting your data, thinking about using graphics and images, and some visuals to perhaps help explain the story. Because I think pictures and images can be a lot more powerful than words. You know as they say, a picture tells a thousand words. So for me I found this really useful in the discussion section and I was able to create a couple of figures that actually brought together the main message of my thesis. And you could just glance at it and get what the main message was. So there might be an opportunity to do that. I certainly found it useful.
Also, another tip that I have is to think about your audience and to remember that they’re not as familiar with your work as you are. And chances are they’re going to be in not exactly the same fields. They’ll be in a related field, but they won’t be necessarily experts in your particular niche. It can be really useful to signpost what’s coming next and what has gone before. And the reason for that is also because your examiners are not going to read your thesis in one sitting.

Jen (00:09:26)
Probably not.

Michael (00:09:30)
So they’ll be coming at it in bits and pieces, and they might forget where bits are. So I think that can be really helpful.
And then yeah, my final tip would be just with your discussion section, this is probably the section that I enjoyed writing and having written the most is that it’s not just about repeating your findings, but it’s about putting your findings into a broader context of the literature, and I found that a really enjoyable experience.
So that’s it for me Jen, with my three tips.

Jen (00:09:58)
Alright, my top three tips before we hand over to today’s experts.
My first tip would be to make sure you’ve got a really good idea of what is expected of you, and that means going to your supervisor or other researchers in your area and saying, “Can you give me an example of what you think’s been a really high level, fantastic, excellent thesis over the last couple of years?” And chances are they’ll be able to just send you a PDF. But you know, you need to know what the best recent theses in your field look like. I think that’s really important. ‘Cause then you have a sense of kind of what you’re aiming for.
My number two tip would be to consider carefully what sorts of thinking are required for you to work on different parts of your thesis. Because I know a lot of people assume that they’ll just write each chapter from start to finish in the order in which it would be read. But for me, actually particularly with my PhD thesis, I wrote all of the methods and results sections first. Because to me that was kind of detail oriented, exactly what I did, exactly what I found out, doing stats, making figures, all of that sort of stuff. That was really different to the big picture context thinking that I needed for my introductions and discussions. So I didn’t complete a single chapter until I’d done the methods and results for everything, and that worked really well for me. So just be aware of how you have to think to work on different parts of your thesis.
And my final tip would just be to be really aware of the attitude you have towards your thesis and to be quite disciplined about your self-talk, I think you have to really actively cultivate a positive mindset. If every time you think or talk about your thesis you make out that it’s big and hard and scary and unobtainable, of course it’s going to make it really difficult for you to actually achieve this thing. So work on your own attitude. But also, if you are genuinely really anxious and worried, and feeling daunted, think about what support would help you and start looking for that support earlier. Maybe you can have a peer writing session with a friend you trust. Maybe you can listen to some of our other podcasts or recommend that you know, there’s lots of support in all different places. And even if you, you know, if you’ve been always told you’re not a good writer and you’re scared about that, then be proactive about becoming a better writer and get help. I think attitude is a huge part of getting a thesis written.

Michael (00:12:15)
Yeah, definitely. That’s some really great advice, Jen.
And final words of wisdom when it comes to writing a thesis, the best thesis, drumroll…

Jen (00:12:26)
I’m joining the drum roll.

Michael (00:12:29)
The best thesis is actually a done thesis. So don’t let perfection get in the way of excellence.
And now let’s welcome some of our amazing alumni and hear their top tips.

Nancy (00:12:49)
Hi, my name is Nancy and I’m currently doing a PhD project investigating contacts around meal time and how different places and people may change what food you eat. So sometimes when I experienced flashbacks about the thesis I completed for my masters, I feel physically weighted down by dread. I’m sure many of us feel the same with any looming mountain-sized pieces of writing.
My top tips for reducing this fight, flight or worse, the freeze respon[se] are first, always give some leeway time when planning for each section of the thesis. Some parts might take longer than you anticipated, so give yourself some leeway time.
Second, always start with topic sentences to create your structure and then send them to your supervisory team to review. Once everyone agrees on the structure, it will save you a lot of time later. So good luck and I hope it was helpful. See ya.

Owen (00:14:00)
Hi there everyone, my name is Owen and I recently submitted my thesis at the Monash University School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment. My thesis was based on the biogeochemistry of the element Tellurium which is found in some solar panels. And it’s also quite commonly associated with gold. There’s a few interesting links there, which meant it was interesting element to study.
So my number one tip for writing a thesis, I’d say is just to make sure that you get one thing done every day. It might not seem like that much, but it’s actually critical that you can just tick off at least one thing, whether it’s you’ve edited a figure or written a small section. And I found that working with that sort of mindset meant that I did get at least one thing done, and often many more than that. But it can be a very daunting task, and it’s good to break it down into lots of small things.
I also found that in general, it’s better to work on your figures first and then you can write about the figures and that also tends to speed up the process. Hope those couple of tips will help you as you go through the writing process. Just remember [to] take small steps and eventually you’ll get to the end of the long journey.

Samantha (00:15:16)
Good day everyone. My name’s Samantha Ward and I work at Cesar Australia as a research scientist. This is in the agricultural entomology space, which is also what I undertook my PhD in. Now I’ve been asked to give you a top tip for getting a thesis written and one tip is quite a hard one.
But I’m gonna say I began my PhD with a preconceived notion of what worked for me. I’d undertaken a masters before and I thought I knew that I worked solo. Getting started was always my hardest part and then I would slowly chip way, and that’s kind of how I worked. But I will say if I was giving someone a tip I would say Come in with an open mind, try something new. And that might sound a little bit counter intuitive, but I would say your peers are there and they are the best people probably to learn from. Yes, your supervisors can be wonderful. But your peers are going through the exact same journey or very similar journey to what you’re going through now. They might only be 6 months ahead, but they’ve already potentially done a confirmation or have written a similar document to you already in preparation for what’s coming. So I would say chat to your peers, see what works for them, try it out.
And you know, maybe organise some study groups, going somewhere new. I know a group of us from our lab went down to a beach house and worked down there and got some fresh sea air and it was incredible. So I would say Listen to those who’re around you. Get as much advice as you can going in. This is probably… you’re already starting doing that by listening to this. And yeah, just take it. It’s a journey. You’ll probably change your writing styles. You’ll probably change the way you approach this thesis as you go. But just roll with it. That’s probably the best advice I can give you, and good luck.

Xavier (00:17:04)
Hi, my name’s Xavier. I am a graduate from a science degree and degree with honours and I’m now studying the Doctor of Medicine up in Sydney. So some tips that I have for writing a thesis is in the first one is start writing early. No matter how far along your degree you are, it’s always good to get your ideas onto a page. And start writing regularly as well. That can range from doing to 200 to 300 words per day, or you might aim to do about 1000 words each week. You don’t necessarily need to use these words in the end result of your thesis, but it enables you to get your ideas onto a page and have a go at writing your content concisely and in a way that makes sense.
One way that you can possibly do this is to attend the Shut up and Write sessions and these things are really important and really helpful for facilitating that writing and that regular writing. And it’s a great way to kind of have that peer support, peer pressure I guess, when you are wanting to write and be silent whilst doing it.
Second from that, reread your writing. Ask yourself, does it make sense and how can you go about culling things? And when you are culling it’s important that you can remove things that might be superfluous or you might have repeated yourself. But it also gives you that ability to reread and think about how you might want to change the way you’re saying something, or make whatever you’re saying better. And in all honesty, who doesn’t love a good culling with some writing? So best of luck with all your thesis writing.

Kate (00:18:25)
Hey folks, I’m Kate, an addiction neuroscience PhD student and host of the Science Comedy podcast Curiosity Killed the Rat, a show which you can find wherever you get your podcasts. So my top tip for thesis writing is to learn what style of work is best for you, and then embrace it.
When I was writing my masters thesis, I was struggling to make much headway, when I was trying to shoehorn my writing time into that standard 9 to 5 work day. As soon as I realised, accepted and then embraced the fact that my weird brain’s most creative, clear and productive hours were between about 10 PM and 2 AM, and I started doing most of my actual writing and thinking during those hours, my ability to synthesise ideas and articulate them clearly absolutely increased.
Everybody is different and that is so OK. Try a few different things. Try a bunch of people’s suggestions based on what worked for them. But when you find what works for you, don’t judge yourself for it, use it. And the work will follow. Hope this has helped.

Adam (00:19:37)
My name is Dr Adam Hagg. I’m a postdoctoral researcher in the Centre for Muscle Research at the University of Melbourne. My current research focuses on understanding the cellular processes that contribute to skeletal muscle wasting caused by cancer.
My advice for writing a PhD thesis, particularly for candidates at the early stages of their PhD is to aim to complete your thesis by publication. This requires a good structured plan at the beginning of your candidature. Writing a thesis by publication is basically crafting your thesis in a format that allows each experimental or results chapter to be its own publishable unit. I completed my thesis by publication and it allowed me to produce metrics in the form of manuscripts after I submitted my PhD, strengthening my CV at the early stages of the postdoctoral career.
Writing a thesis by publication requires lots of forward planning. You need to sit down with your supervisors and map out the studies you want to undertake and formulate a plan as to how they will become their own publication. Then once you have a plan, you need to stick with it, stay focused and on course. It is likely that the stories may change or the results take an unexpected turn, but it is critical to adapt to this and not get distracted from the overall goal of completing your thesis.
This format of thesis writing also offers the opportunity to write your introduction of your thesis as a review article, which can also be submitted as a manuscript. You need to extract as much as possible out of your PhD. After all, you’re working very hard for it. So get the best metrics possible. A traditional thesis is nice, but once it’s submitted it will collect dust on your parents’ bookshelf; Manuscripts you publish as a result of your PhD studies will serve your career forever.

Emily (00:21:17)
Hi there, my name’s Emily and I recently submitted my PhD where I focused on using environmental DNA sampling as a tool for monitoring freshwater vertebrates like platypus and fish. Having submitted my thesis this year, I have a tip that’s pretty fresh in my mind.
It was really important for me to change my work environment around a bit and have a change of scene. This could be as simple as booking a room at uni for a Shut up and Write session, having a zoom session with other students, maybe using the Pomodoro timer method, something I did a lot of over the past year. Or you could even go all out and organise a lab or student writing retreat somewhere nice and relaxing.
I found that (1) moving my place of work and (2) having people around me also focusing on writing really helped me to just get words down on the paper and not get distracted by all of the other things I could be doing, like analysis.
This tip can also be used at any time, whether you are in the early stages, just wanting to plan out your introduction or dot point in your methods, all the way to writing your thesis conclusions. I hope this tip helps and good luck thesis writing.

Lachlan (00:22:30)
Hi everyone, my name is Lachlan Tegart. You can call me Lachiie. I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania. I’m based in Hobart at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research. I used to do science communication at Melbourne Uni as part of my Masters in Biosciences. And I did two awesome units with Jen Martin and I had such a fantastic time. I truly believe that they both shaped my research and my experience in science positively and I really wouldn’t have it any other way.
My experience writing my thesis in my masters was mostly quite painful. But it was over very quickly and that’s mostly because I left it to last minute. That is my main piece of advice for anyone that’s looking at writing their thesis. Please do not leave it to last minute. I truly, really regret that it really made everything so much more stressful. And as someone that struggles with anxiety, when I am stressed, I panic and then everything falls from there, including productivity and my attention to detail.
So my biggest tip is really to start as early as you can. It may seem like not a great use of time to just generate lots and lots of pages of writing early on, but it will give you a larger amount of writing to work with to develop a higher end product. And it might take a lot of editing, but at the end I think it will show your thinking process more accurately than something that you rush. I don’t think this is particularly revolutionary, but it works.
Thank you so much for listening and all the best with your writing.

Michael (00:24:07)
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