Top 10 Pitfalls of Thesis Writing

Sometimes a change of scenery is just what you need for that tough thesis section (pictured here: writing at Toyota).

Writing your thesis or dissertation may seem like an impossible task — like someone told you to just run a marathon tomorrow or go roof the historic Victorian off the town square. But as with these monumental activities, thesis writing is best conceptualized as a series of steps for which you are prepared to do. So what are the top 10 common mistakes?

  1. Thinking too big. You shouldn’t downplay your work or undervalue yourself. That’s not what I mean. Thinking too big is believing that you must take on the world’s issues and questions for the scope and depth of your thesis. Your life’s work should not and will not be carried out in this thesis. What you are doing right now is a project, albeit a big and important one, that will lay the foundation for more research projects. It is better to have a more narrow scope and a realistic timeline that to try to tackle the world and never finish.
  2. Thinking too small. On the flip side, the thesis is a big deal and you should treat it as such. This is not the same as the 10-page paper you put off until the night before it was due. Take the time and brain space to work steadily to produce quality work. What will be your contribution to the existing field of literature?
  3. Delay, delay, delay. Excuses will not write the thesis. Working with your adviser, establish both a broad timeline that gets you from coursework to graduation and a more specific schedule for each chapter (or section of a chapter). Make every deadline, even if you are a bit unsure of yourself or the overarching magnitude of the project feels too daunting. Do not accept reasons why you didn’t get that chapter done. Just get it done.
  4. Trouble with your adviser. Let’s back up. If you are still in the planning stages and haven’t picked a thesis chair yet, I encourage you to think hard and do a little investigating before you ask (yes, ask) a professor to serve as your adviser. Have you had this person as an instructor? Do you know the potential adviser’s style? You can ask other grad students what the faculty member is like as an adviser or as a t.a. supervisor. Different professors have different ways of approaching the thesis-writing process.
    This is a big deal and marks the start of a new type of relationship. Don’t be afraid to ask (once again, yes, ask, don’t assume). Be polite, explain why you’d like to work with that person, and briefly state your timeline. Usually, professors agree. When they decline, it’s typically not personal, even if it feels that way. Maybe the faculty member is about to go on sabbatical or has recently been approved for a large grant. You just don’t know.
    If you already have an adviser, but it’s not working out, it is perfectly fine to switch thesis chairs. Have a polite conversation with your current adviser before switching. Never badmouth a faculty member to another professor or student.
  5. Getting stuck in the writer’s block quicksand. We’ve all have certain parts of our projects that feel especially tough. Throughout the thesis process, you will definitely hit obstacles in which the section or chapter just feels too hard to continue. It’s important that you don’t get hung up and miss your deadlines. When you don’t know what to write, first take a little break (workout, take a walk, shower, talk to a friend — whatever works for you). Don’t be done for the day. Just rest your brain. Sometimes doing something else is enough to push you through. If you still don’t know what to write, backtrack and read your previous words to give yourself momentum.
    For a difficult section, I recommend switching locations to a place that seems special and only work on that section. More than 12 years later, I still recall the day I reworked my theoretical framework at a coffee shop. Sometimes just focusing can get you through.
  6. Comparing yourself to others. You are writing your thesis. Period. Don’t get caught up in envying a peer’s progress or comforting yourself about missed deadlines by thinking about a person who took an extra year to finish. Like I tell my children all the time, focus on yourself. It is not fair to look at others’ accomplishments or lack thereof. You don’t know their situations and the comparison won’t make you less of a writer or more of one. As I will elaborate in the next point, grad students need to lift each other up.
  7. Going at it alone without peer support. While you shouldn’t compare yourself to others, you also shouldn’t be a lone ship in the sea of thesis writing. Cohorts are wonderful. If you have one, turn to this built-in group of people who understand what you are experiencing. At the very least, find a writing partner or group. This is not your goof-off buddy, but a person who is equally dedicated to writing when it is writing time and pleasant to chat with on your breaks. You will look forward to writing sessions more if you can share in the experience.
  8. Going at it alone without a mentor. Trying to go solo without a mentor is a mistake. Graduate students, especially Ph.D. students, should try to find a faculty mentor in addition to the adviser. If possible, this person should be outside your department or even your university. It’s good to have additional guidance on thesis committee etiquette, the job hunt, and other issues. Making this connection now will also help you as you begin your first tenure-track position.
  9. Getting distracted. Now is not the time to take on extra projects or to do more additional work than you need to pay the bills. Don’t try out for a play or sign up for unicycle class. Write every day with clear objectives, make your deadlines, and FINISH.
  10. Strike a balance. At the same time, you can’t write for 14 hours straight. It is okay to work on your thesis in 2-3 sessions per day, with breaks in-between. In fact, I recommend this approach. If you are a grad student with kids, this will be your life anyway (just make sure you get some uninterrupted writing time). You should eat food, get enough sleep, exercise, and socialize a bit. Finding a balance actually boosts productivity.

Trust me on these tips. We’ve all been there.

For more advice on graduate school, check out my new anthology: The Graduate Student Guidebook: From Orientation to Tenure Track, written by the AEJMC Board of Directors.

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