Writing a thesis or a dissertation can be a challenging process for many graduate students. There are so many chapters to complete, and writing each individual chapter requires an immense amount of hard work and a strong motivation.
On top of that, every time you are ready to write, you have to deal with an intimidating blank page. That blank page can make you feel very anxious. You might start thinking your mentor will dislike what you are going to convey on it. You might also feel like you are unable to come up with a perfect paragraph—or even one perfect sentence. Oftentimes, when you stumble during this inconvenient dilemma, you just want to give up and walk away from it.
Writing a thesis or a dissertation also takes a significant amount of your time. To complete all the chapters, you are likely to have to sacrifice your social life, family time, personal time, or more importantly, your sleep time.
For many students, this process is equivalent to a long marathon. To finish a race, an athlete must keep running mile after mile to cross the finish line. Likewise, after finishing all your research experiments, it takes a few more steps to get to that finish line—you must complete, defend and submit a thesis or a dissertation to the graduate school.
Unfortunately, if you want to graduate, there are no shortcuts to avoid this tedious path. The only way to make this process less painful is by planning and executing good strategies to survive and complete it.
Why is writing a thesis or a dissertation hard?
For many graduate students, writing a thesis or a dissertation can be hard for a variety of reasons, such as:
- Technical writing can be long, daunting and tedious, particularly when you are uncomfortable with it.
- Reading and understanding many scientific papers associated with your study is another hurdle to tackle before writing your thesis.
- It takes significant time and efforts to write your research work and summarize them into one coherent document.
- It’s hard to motivate yourself to keep writing.
- You feel that your writing will never be good enough for the professors in your advisory committee.
What exactly is a thesis or a dissertation?
A thesis or a dissertation is a comprehensive document containing a graduate student’s research projects during graduate school. The purpose of a thesis or a dissertation is to communicate the research findings to other researchers.
In addition, this document is evidence of a graduate student’s research skills; such as identifying research problems, conducting a literature study, performing logical and critical thinking, managing and completing the research projects, and reporting all the findings.
What is the main difference between a thesis and a dissertation?
In the U.S., a thesis is a required document marking the completion of a Master’s degree, whereas a dissertation is a necessary document for completing a Ph.D. program. In the UK or other countries based on the British academic systems, a dissertation refers to a document at the end of an undergraduate or Master’s degree, whereas a thesis is essential for finishing a Ph.D program. For simplicity, we will refer to the U.S. definitions for this article.
What are the common structures of a thesis or a dissertation?
In general, the main body of a thesis or a dissertation includes these sections:
- Abstract: a brief summary of your study in a limited number of words.
- Introduction: this section contains an introduction to your study—what it is about and why it is important.
- Literature review: this section has an overview of key information, particularly from previous research, which guides and leads you to your study. The main purpose of this section is to establish a foundation for your study.
- Main Text: The main text may include your research manuscripts. Each research manuscript can form an individual chapter. Each chapter should include these elements:
- Chapter introduction: this should have an introduction specific for each research experiment.
- Methodology: it should have detailed experimental procedures for each experiment.
- Results and discussion: it contains all findings and discussion for each experiment.
- Conclusion: this section has the summary, significance of the study, and future direction of the study.
Each graduate school has specific guidelines on how to shape a graduate thesis. Before you start writing your graduate thesis, familiarize yourself with the thesis structures, format and style required by your graduate school.
What to include in a thesis or a dissertation
When writing the main body of your graduate thesis, consider including these following pieces of information:
- The purpose of your study
- The significance of your study
- The research questions
- The hypothesis
- The expected outcome
- The background of your research
- Descriptions of previous studies
- Comparisons and limitations of previous studies
- The gaps in the previous studies
- The explanation on how previous studies guided you to your study
- The materials you used in your study
- The methods you performed to collect your data
- Descriptions on how you analyzed your data
- Illustrations of your data in graphs, tables and figures
- Results of your study
- The reliability of your findings
- The significance of your analyses
- The interpretations and explanations of your results
- The answers to your research questions
- The significance and implications of your findings
How long should a thesis or a dissertation be?
Depending on the requirements of the university, a dissertation can range from 125 to 175 pages (Pain, 2018), whereas a thesis can have fewer than 100 pages. However, the length of a thesis or a dissertation really depends on the writing style, chapters, and research projects. In fact, some dissertations may reach 200 pages due to the number of projects a Ph.D. candidate has.
How long does it take to write a graduate thesis?
Writing a thesis or a dissertation can range from two to six months. However, the process can be much quicker if a graduate student starts writing some sections before the final year. The following section will lay out some ideas on how you can start your writing early.
When to write a thesis or dissertation
For many graduate students, writing a thesis or a dissertation is commonly started during the final year of the graduate school. During that final year, most of the lab work should have been completed. Therefore, students can focus only on writing, without having to deal with too many interruptions from their experiments.
But actually, it’s possible to write a thesis or dissertation much earlier than that! As you prepare yourself for the qualifying exam, the literature review section is a good place to initiate your writing. For example, you can start a word file and fill it with important notes from scientific articles, which are relevant to your study. You can also include the references, so you can find them again later.
The methodology section is also a possible section to start as you run your experiments, write and organize your lab notebook. You can also organize, analyze your data and put them together into a graph or a table every time you complete an experiment. Doing this as you go along with make it far easier to piece together rather than trying to remember an experimental plan from 9-12 months ago.
How to complete a thesis or dissertation
- Make a clear plan, set reasonable goals, and draw a timeline.
- Divide and conquer—break your big goal (for example, finishing a methodology chapter) into smaller and more manageable tasks, such as writing materials and methods for each subsection. Otherwise, you can use the pieces of information to include in your chapters as a guide for your smaller tasks.
- Focus on finishing your smaller tasks and avoid distractions.
- Start smaller: write for at least for 15 minutes a day and then add more minutes when you become more comfortable with writing.
- Write a certain number of lines or words every day, for example 5-10 lines or 100-200 words in a day.
- Avoid procrastination—finish your daily writing before jumping into another task, particularly if it is unrelated to your writing. Working on small goals also helps avoid being overwhelmed and reduces procrastination.
- Take a break and reward yourself after finishing each small task.
- Keep track of your progress, so you can see how close you are to your goal.
- Motivate yourself frequently (for example, by imagining your graduation day) and find support from your mentor, family, friends and fellow graduate students.
- Recover quickly and move on when you hit a setback or meet an interruption during your writing. When you feel stuck in one section, you can work on another section first, and then come back to it later.
- Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a perfect thesis or dissertation, so just keep writing!
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