Writing the Ph.D. Thesis – Part 3: Finishing

March 26, 2016

Part 1: Preparing
Part 2: Getting Started

This post is the third and final in a series on writing the Ph.D. thesis. In the first post, I covered aspects related to preparing the thesis writing, while in the second tips and strategies to get started writing the thesis were presented. In this final post, I cover the last part of the thesis writing process; finishing and submitting the thesis.

“Piled Higher and Deeper” www.phdcomics.com

The points I’ll cover in this post are the following:

Use the deadline pressure constructively: Write shorter and more focused chapters

As the thesis submission deadline approaches, it is easy to feel stressed about the chapters that still need to be written. This is a natural feeling, but instead of giving in to it, use the deadline pressure constructively; write shorter and more focused chapters.

When I had been working on my thesis for about two and a half months, and with just a little more than one month to go before the deadline, I had written drafts for four chapters – and six chapters to go. Initially, that felt stressful; how would I be able to finish six chapters in just one month?

But then, after a discussion with my supervisors, I decided to pursue the strategy of writing shorter and more to-the-point chapters. I finished drafts for the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth chapters in ten, six, six, and six days, respectively. And with a little less than one week to go, I was then only missing the conclusion and introductory chapter.

In retrospect, I feel that the longer time I spent on the first couple of chapters was a good investment. It did leave me less time for the final chapters, but also with a clearer idea of how I wanted to structure and approach each chapter, which the final phase of the writing, with less time per chapter, definitely benefited from.

Print your thesis draft: Feel the weight of your work

As you go along with the writing, you might end up focusing on all the work that lies ahead of you and forget the progress you are making. Therefore, make sure to illustrate this progress to yourself, to continue to build writing momentum.

One way of doing this is to, every now and then, print the in-progress draft of your thesis. After finishing the first couple of chapters, I did this every time I had finished a draft for another chapter. This, literally, allowed me to feel the weight of my work, which provided motivation for starting to write the next chapter, to add even more weight.

Wrap up and explain loose ends

As the end of your Ph.D. project and thesis writing is coming closer, you are likely to still have projects and research in progress. Make sure to write about these, possibly as one or more more to-the-point chapters mentioned above, and explain the loose ends.

I was tempted to skip a few chapters in my thesis, because the associated work was not neatly wrapped up and published. In the end, I am happy I decided to write them anyway, as they are important parts of the work I have been doing during my Ph.D. project – even though the research was still in progress at the time of submitting my thesis.

Finish the thesis layout

As mentioned in the first post of this series, there is no reason to fiddle too much with the thesis layout before you have actually started to write and produced some words for the layout. As the submission deadline approaches, however, it is time to finish the layout.

The layout and small tweaks will add that last touch, which all your hard work in writing up your Ph.D. project deserves. So make sure to allocate time for this before the deadline.

Read everything before proofreading

Proofreading – as I address below – is mandatory before submitting the thesis. However, before reading the almost-done thesis to remove typos and change phrasing for clarity, you should take time to read (most of) the thesis to ensure coherence in the presentation. Since you have spent several months writing the thesis, it is very likely that there are repetitions and internal inconsistencies – which this pre-proofreading should resolve.

In doing this, consider, for instance, if the order of chapters is the right one? Should content in the bulk of the thesis be moved to an appendix? Are quantities and concepts explained when first introduced? Or are they defined several times? And do chapters and sections have the titles you want them to have to communicate what you worked on?

Write the introduction last

Write the introductory chapter, when everything else – including the conclusion – is written. At that point, you will know exactly what is covered in the thesis, which will make it easier to frame the broader scope of your work and to motivate the specific problems and topics you treat in more detail in later chapters.

Proofread: Allocate enough time (two to three days)

Proofreading is mandatory before submitting the thesis, and you should allocate enough time for this as the last thing before the deadline. I spent two and a half full days on the proofreading of my thesis.

Spend most of the time and energy on proofreading the bulk of the thesis. But also, towards the end, go through the appendices and the reference list. Make, for example, sure that all references are typeset consistently.

Before you start the proofreading, all bigger changes to the thesis should have been made, for example during the pre-proofreading phase. Such changes often introduce small mistakes and typos, so if during the proofreading you need to make a larger revision, carefully proofread the re-organized parts once more to avoid these typos.

Stay on schedule: Hand in by the deadline

As the submission deadline approaches, I bet you will feel pretty fed up working on your thesis. Yet it might be tempting to spend “just a bit more time” on this section or that chapter to polish the arguments and presentation.

I much recommend you don’t. Instead make sure to finish the chapters you set out to write – and proofread these properly – as well as you can. And then hand in by the deadline. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the thesis will be perfect if you spend “just a bit more time”. Instead, be happy with what you have achieved within the time you allocated.

You will need to deliver work for a deadline many times in your future career, so why not start with your Ph.D. thesis?

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