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A thesis survival guide: 5 ways to make your life easier

How to survive your thesis term

The purpose of this “survival guide” is not to give you tips on how to formulate a good research question or structure your thesis—trust me, you will get plenty of help when it comes to the content of your thesis. I will not insult your intelligence by telling you not to plagiarize, either. Instead, I will talk about some mistakes that I and some of my friends made and the setbacks we had, while telling you how you could avoid the same fate.

As a recent thesis course “survivor,” I believe that my case can be a cautionary tale for those of you who tend to procrastinate, get distracted, fail to set achievable goals or spend way too much time reading—basically, the ones who make the entire process of thesis-writing much harder for themselves than it is supposed to be. While writing a master’s thesis is not the easiest task, there are a few things that you should keep in mind to make it simple for yourself, and manage to submit your thesis in May.

#1 You don’t have as much time as you think you do

This is a very common misperception among many thesis-writing students including myself, so the first thing you should remember is that you don’t have the luxury to slack because you are on a tight schedule. Once the course starts, it might look like you have more than enough time and writing a 20.000-word thesis will be a piece of cake, which may lure you into doing other things e.g. making travel plans during your last term. This kind of thinking makes it incredibly easy to get distracted from working on your thesis until a month or a few weeks left before the deadline.

Well, I certainly thought that I had more than enough time and failed to prioritize working on my thesis over my other, less important commitments. I was also guilty of doing some traveling myself. As a result, I could not make it to the first examination opportunity in June 2019. Then I ended up spending the entire summer agonizing over my unfortunate choices and mistakes because I was stuck home trying really hard to finish my thesis while my friends were traveling, enjoying their lives, and getting some vitamin D. 

This doesn’t mean that you don’t have enough time to finish your thesis, but it is important to keep in mind that you should use your time wisely. Even if you have a solid plan and know what you are doing, there is always the possibility that things may change as you work on your thesis and you may want to go in a different direction with certain sections, which will require you to have time.

#2 Try to work on your thesis every day

This tip might seem completely pointless for those of you who procrastinate, but another unsolicited advice that I want to give is that it could do wonders to push yourself to get at least a little thesis-related work done every single day. I did not do this, and realized that the more time off I took from working on my thesis, the harder it got for me to go back to it, the guiltier I felt about shirking my responsibilities and the more I put off what I needed to do. This, my friend, is a vicious cycle that you don’t want to find yourself in.

Considering that you might be under the impression that you have a lot of time, it is so easy to make excuses and take long breaks from thesis-writing. This rule would apply even if you had all the time in the work to complete the task in front of you. I know, I know… Not everyone works the same way, everyone has their way of doing things and their own timeline, and so on. In my experience as a former student who used to tell everyone the exact same thing, this is merely an excuse to justify one’s tendency to procrastinate. Working on your thesis slowly but steadily is a much more efficient method than working on it extensively in a short period of time.

#3 Attend the midterm seminars and group supervision sessions 

If you are anything like me, you might not be very fond of the idea of an incomplete text that you submitted being scrutinized by your teachers and peers. Maybe you are not the best at handling criticism, particularly about something that you are not absolutely proud of… or maybe you don’t have enough material to submit and get feedback on because you have been procrastinating. 

Even if you feel like you are behind and believe that you might not get much out of attending the midterm seminar or groups supervision sessions, I recommend that you try to push yourself out of your comfort zone and go to those meetings. Maybe you will not get as many in-depth comments as others because you don’t have a lot of material, but you might still get many useful suggestions and improve your thesis. Besides, meeting your peers who are all experiencing the same stressful situation and seeing that you are not alone might evoke a feeling of camaraderie within you, which can be empowering.

#4 Make well-thought-out outlines and set precise goals

Another mistake that I and many others made during the thesis-writing process was not to clearly plan every step of the way, in addition to setting goals that were not well defined. For instance, it is not uncommon for any thesis-writing student to plan to write a certain number of pages or words every day, but that might not necessarily be an achievable goal in itself. 

At one point, I convinced myself that I would easily get done on time if I wrote three pages every day, and I tried very hard to reach that goal only to get more and more stressed out. Sometimes it even felt like what I was writing was completely meaningless, which meant going back to where I started and rewriting entire pages. I now know that focusing on quantity rather than quality can lead to huge setbacks.

My suggestion is that you should be much more precise when you are setting goals.  If you want to write three pages every day, you should plan ahead what these pages will be about and which sections that they will be part of. It will get you much better results to make a thorough outline of your thesis, and to come up with a daily/weekly/monthly plan to slowly but steadily build a cohesive draft. That is one strategy that will help you submit your thesis on time.

#5 Seriously, don’t read too much

This one is a little bit ironic as it entails procrastinating while you think you are working on your thesis: You should avoid reading too much because doing way more reading than you are supposed to makes getting actual work done on your thesis very, very difficult. While there are certain risks associated with focusing on too few articles and books, doing the opposite is no less dangerous. Believe me, you surely don’t want to feel like you wasted a lot of time that you could have used to write your thesis.

I know from experience that some of you might feel like there is always more to read, and it is not wrong. However, that doesn’t mean that you should read absolutely everything, either. Can you honestly expect to read every single book and article that pertain to what you are trying to do? How do you think you will incorporate everything you want into your 20.000-word thesis? You can’t, it is as simple as that. It is admittedly a little tricky to know how much you should read, but it is essential. You can search for other master’s theses similar to yours on LUP Student Papers and see what references former students used. Alternatively, you can talk to your peers about this to get an idea or ask your supervisor for advice on how you can delimit how much reading you should do.

To conclude, I don’t necessarily agree with the statement that the best thesis is a finished thesis; however, I can attest that completing your thesis will take a tremendous amount of stress off your shoulders and you will be able to move on with your life. These tips and tricks are far from being an exhaustive list of what you should and should not do during your thesis term, but I strongly believe that paying attention to these points will help you get there. My last suggestion is that you should ask for help when you need it. Don’t be scared to bother your supervisor because it is only natural that you need advice and they should be able to offer you help. Also, if you are struggling with the whole thesis-writing process, Graduate School has great study advisors whom you can schedule a meeting with and get support from.

May 19, 2020

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