How to write a thesis
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The following entry shall guide you through the process of writing your Bachelor's or Master's thesis - or any bigger research endeavour, really. Reading it takes some time, but so does writing your thesis, right?
- 1 1) Orientation
- 2 2) Topical iteration and triangulation
- 3 3) Design
- 4 4) Getting it done
- 5 5) Reflection and iteration
- 6 6) Finalising
- 7 7) Defense
- 8 8) Celebration
For most students, a thesis is the largest piece of work they ever created in their life, although there can be exceptions. Writing your thesis can be stressful, which is why it is helpful to start with a clear orientation phase that allows you to plan your timeline, get the right tools, align topic, method and theory and - last but not least - get your work mode in order. I would argue that the last point is the most important one. From my perspective, I want people to write a thesis to learn to structure themselves and overcome all barriers to create a contribution to the scientific community and ideally to society as well. In the broader context, the latter parts are very important to most students. Yet, as a teacher, I should highlight that from a purely educational perspective, the goal to catalystically learn to structure yourself and create such a thesis is more important than the content itself. As a researcher, I can however clearly state that it is not only very desirable, but also rewarding if a thesis contributes to the wider development of science, if only as a small contribution. Being a sustainability scientist, I would like to say that it is our privilege to study, and hence we should see it as our responsibility to contribute to society as well.
Here are some concrete steps that may help you to orientate yourself in order to start with your thesis:
Which topics, theories and/or methods are you interested in? Which courses got you motivated to engage deeply with something, triggered a lasting motivation and interest, and enabled you to become versatile within this branch of science? The best starting point to me is to go through your past academic life, and see which parts thrilled you or kept resonating in your head. If you ask me, it is not a particularly good idea to search for something that is not tangible within the setting and environment you are in. If you want to make a topic because you feel that this particular topic was never touched upon in your study program, you may have difficulty finding a supervisor. I think it is equally a challenge to work on something where next to no references exists. Do not misunderstand me: I think it is good to look for engaging and energising topics, ideally linked to creating an impact beyond science. Even very specific cases or settings that are white spots on the landscape of science can be looked upon in a specific sense or be approached in a specific mode, may it be as a transdisciplinary approach, a case study setting, or through the testing of a specific theory. If however your peers and potential supervisors do not seem to resonate with this specific topic you are so eager to engage with, maybe you could find something else? Remember that no human is an island, and science depends on peer exchange, and may benefit from a supervisor who is able to give you feedback. I suggest, you do not work on a topic that you literally work on completely alone.
Can you identify a specific gap in knowledge or contribution to existing research that resonated with you, and made you return to it again and again? Who from the faculty raised this to you, or may supervise it? Since not everybody can come up with a topic by themselves, maybe a suggestion of a potential supervisor might help. The more structured you approach your potential supervisor with your request, the happier they will be to help, at least in my experience. People are often inspired by projects that potential supervisors conduct, and would like to integrate their thesis into the large project. To this end, I would give some cautionary and sobering advise: Most projects that exist are already underway, and most of the time a thesis is an add-on, and not exactly a pivotal part of the project. This should not be a reason to feel that the work is irrelevant. More often than not additional questions arise through your contribution to a project. Yet, you might need to acknowledge that the project was designed a long time ago by someone who probably was not you. Hence the demand in such a project is often quite precise and the questions are already rather specific, and I would suggest that you are clear about what is expected from you. However, this may be a good opportunity to be under the wing of a PhD or somebody else in the project, and get a closer interaction that you would get with most supervisors.
Take stock of your previous work. Which setting worked best, where were you stuck? Analyse your past work systematically in order to make an informed decision to commit to a specific approach in this phase in your life. Try to understand which parts of these great things stuck with you. Sometimes it was not the topic at all, but the way it was discussed in the group. Try to analyse what specific part resonated with you. Make a mind map of the different components you see in past parts of science that resonated with you. Also, these days many people are guided by joy. I think overall, this is a good thing. However, we have to acknowledge that in science not everything is always joyful. While I enjoy writing these lines, writing my own thesis was certainly not joyful all the time. I think this is important to remember, since I would question whether we really want to maximise our joy, or whether we want to balance it. This is for each and every single one of us to decide.
Designing the workspace
Finally, how do you need to adapt your life to enable a committed focus to a thesis? We are talking about hundreds of hours of your life, and you may need to harmonise this with other interests and duties in your life. The head of the lab where I did my PhD always said how nice it is to focus only on one thing, i.e. your thesis. While from her perspective I think this is very true, this singular focus is often also a curse, as you may get stuck. This is why I think her remark was so clever. Design your life that your thesis is in focus, but you also have enough distraction in order to stay continuously motivated. This may include getting a desk, or a committed workspace that was previously unnecessary. I never had a desk at home, but the COVID-19 crisis changed that. I sit on this desk right now, writing these lines. My first mentor had the slogan: „If a cluttered desk represents a cluttered head, what does an empty desk represent” written on the side of his desk. His place was a mess, but it was his mess, and he thrived in it. Design your space how you can work best.
Assemble a team. How did previous students orientate themselves? Ask around in your peer-group, and start to engage early with people who write their thesis. The insights and experience that they already have may allow you to orientate yourself on a different level later. You need to find people that are either complementary to or aligned with your work style and ethics. This is the most important point since you need to exchange with peers on a very regular basis. This is not so much about the goals, but more about the way. Peers can become an important reflexive space, with more time than your supervisors, and more knowledge of your specific needs. In addition, your peers can help you to think out loud on the progressive track that you are ideally on and give you emotional support. This is what friends are for. Most people we know as scientific geniuses were embedded into a larger group, and exchanged frequently and regularly with their peers. Peers often share a similar set of goals (i.e. writing a thesis), and also a comparable rhythm.
2) Topical iteration and triangulation
This is the time when you use the broader topical aim that you have, and try to make it concrete. Now you should contact your supervisor and also intensify iterating your topic with your peers. I sometimes get the feeling that people these days think that finding a topic is like finding your ultimate purpose in life: both are absolutely energising moments, and you have the feeling that suddenly everything falls into its place. In my experience, both is highly unlikely. Instead, finding your topic is a long process that may start with a vague idea, may be heftily trimmed into place by a potential supervisor or someone else experienced in the topic, and may ultimately require a lot of iterations. Here are some tips that helped me in the past:
Keep on writing
Writing is like sports, it takes training to get good at it. People often claim to be bad writers, but I would say they are untrained writers, and I can only say that I came a long way in terms of writing that will never end. What is most important hence is to practice. Write at least 500 words per day, which may sound strange at first - considering that your thesis might have a few thousand words in lengths, you would think that after a few days it is over, so all good! This is unfortunately not what I meant. You should write not to write your thesis, but to practice writing to become able to write your thesis. Start ideally with something that engages you. This might be your thesis, but this might also be something completely different. Just start with something that you cannot get out of your head. For me, it is often a thought that I keep coming back to, that can be altogether trivial, but requires more than one sentence. An example would be why I think that scientific communication is often unprecise. I could ramble on for thousands of words about this, but bringing it to the point in - say - 500-1000 words is I think really helpful. What I learned once I started writing daily is that I get way more swift and precise, and my writing enables deeper analytical thoughts. Therefore, start engaging in whatever setting works best. Some write on the computer. Others need pen an paper. I often write these few hundred words on my phone, which can be quite convenient. Find the setting that works best, and for that, try out diverse settings. Some people need to change the location to get energised. Try things out to find the setting that works best for you.
Read enough, but not too much
A suitable topic should be built on scientific literature, maybe not to the really precise inner core, but at least in terms of previous studies going into a similar direction. If a topic is flooded in literature, I would stay away from it, but this is only my preference, because I like emerging topics. If so much was said before, what could you specifically contribute? If this is not clear, I would advise you to avoid the dead chewed topics where your contribution may not add anything new anyway. However, it can be equally difficult if no literature exists about a specific topic. How do you approach the topic, which theory or conceptual approach can you build upon? All this makes it very hard to engage with something totally new, no matter how appealing it may be. I have a rule of thumb: from the trilogy of science - topic, theory and method - ideally two are rather clear and the third is then in the focus. If you want to work on a specific topic that is vague, the conceptual basis and the methodological approach should be rather clear. Working on methods empirically demands a well understood topic and a good command of the conceptual foundation. Researchers often tend to hopefully become more innovative over time, which could lead them to combine a rather new method with a vague topic, but this can create problems at such an early stage of your career.
People often get dragged down by all the details they read in the literature. This is why it is so important to decide on what you think would work in your specific case. I think this decision can be best taken by someone with experience, but remember that failure is an important part of science. Failure is not the opposite of success, but a steppingstone! Pragmatism is also important, since in my experience it is very easy to start a thesis, but remarkably difficult to end. Hence do not get dragged down on what could potentially work in your thesis, but instead try to focus on what will most likely work, and is also feasible.
Create an outline that you get critiqued
A German proverb reads "Paper is patient". Writing what you want to do is hence vastly different from telling someone what you want to do. While talking you can adapt to the reactions of the other person, but writings need to be clear, concise and consistent. Therefore, writing an outline is one of the most pivotal steps of any emerging research. Experienced researchers may take a shortcut after they wrote dozens of papers, but I think that anyone with less experience under their belt should start with an outline. This also has the benefit that you can approach your peers or people you trust to give you honest feedback. When writing an outline, I build on a blueprint that I have used in years. Many people used it before, and it has proven valuable over time. You can find this blueprint here: File:Outline blueprint - Henrik von Wehrden.pdf. It includes some remarks on typical pitfalls for each section.
Have a bin next to your desk
What is sadly relevant when developing your research is having a bin readily standing next to your desk. More often than not, initial ideas do not translate into a definitive scientific result. Most ideas die even before they are even tested, or to quote Thomas Edison: "I got a thousand ideas that did not work out." This is truly the case in my own research as well. I create most ideas for the bin, by a rough estimate I would say that one out of hundred ideas becomes my actual active research. Everything else is illogical, flawed, dull, impossible or gets swamped away by the tides of everything else. Research is iteration, and failure. This is probably the reason why many researchers I admire have a rather stoic attitude when it comes to failure - most of them failed at an uncountable rate. The question is now: Is this truth depressing? Some would certainly say yes, but - and I am transcending Derek Parfit here - I think it is liberating. You just need to learn this art of iteration, and not get too deeply attached to an early idea. Just like art, science often thrives as an almost never-ending pursuit, and learning to translate an initial idea into a clear outline is an art that you should practice. Do not feel bad because your pile of unused ideas is growing! I am often joyful when I see that someone had the same idea that landed in my bin, but instead made it into something wonderful. Is it not great to know that you had great ideas, and that other great people made these into a reality? It took me a while to figure this out, but I think today that this is a good thing indeed if more knowledge is out there. It is nice to know that these ideas became real contributions - though from somebody else - to the scientific community and society as a whole. We are all in this together, after all.
An outline gives an overview of what you want to do. Ideally you have an idea which theory you are building on or which conceptual approach you use, which methods you want to utilise, and what your thesis is all about - roughly. The design is where you want to develop all the precise details on how you want to conduct your research. This is the time when people often drown in papers and want to combine about 70 ideas and approaches from previous papers while ideally avoiding roughly 200 errors from other previous studies. Here, the main question is what is really important for your case, and you need to learn to ignore what could be potentially important for your case. Remember the tree in the forest that no one is there to hear? This is the time when you should not hear this tree falling when you are not there. This is the tree right now. Can you hear it? No? Then move on!
Trying things out is awesome, and in research it is almost essential to do prototyping whenever possible. Whether it is checking if interview questions work, make a test run of a workshop to see if the time would be well-balanced, or growing some seeds in a pot to see if your ecological design will be feasible. If you can prototype your design, or even better parts of it, and this can be done with a rather small effort, go for it. You can also prototype your work flow, trying different settings and check how you make progress. Your peers are the ideal reflexive space to test your prototype. Team up early with people that share a similar interest and work ethic, and exchange about each others' theses. You may find that their thesis is a welcoming distraction from your thesis, yet the feedback you can give to each other is one step forward to the joined goal of finishing your own thesis.
The conceptual design
Theory and the conceptual basis of the thesis are often the maelstrom that drags people down into limbo. The first and foremost rookie mistake I observe frequently - and that I made myself - is to try to combine too many concepts in one thesis. Working on ecosystem services, focusing on biodiversity, building on resilience while focusing on climate change adaptation? This is not going to work. Ideally, you build on one concept, framework of theory. You may work on two, but then one of the two needs to be super concrete to tackle the other rather vague. I know how happy you are about all the deeper insights you gained over the last years concerning all sorts of concepts, and I know that our safe haven or bubble of sustainability science is only emerging, and hence tinkering with quite many concepts. In much of current research, theory plays a central role. There are approaches such as data science that explicitly do not focus on theory but instead on data, and this showcases that we live in exciting times. Still, I advise you to be rather conservative in your conceptual design, and to not bring yourself into a theoretical orbit from which you will never make it down to the ground on mother earth. After all, we should not forget that theory is helpful to construct a specific model of the world. Models are defined by compromises and imperfections, and we sometimes tend to forget this if we are all exited in the midst of it.
Another word to all of you who consider to write a conceptual work. From my specific perspective I would say: Don't! Do not write a conceptual work. While it may be exiting and some consider it feels very scientific to write a conceptual work, you need to be sure that your education and your personality allows you to do this. If you are a philosopher, or come from the wider circle of this hemisphere, then your education may be the foundation for a conceptual work. If you then also feel that in the past you were able to conceptualise complicated thoughts into an analytical and coherent line of thinking, fine. But do not underestimate the slumber you can basically build for yourself if you get entrenched in often century old debates about this theory or that concept. Many people in the past thought a conceptual work is easy, and learned the hard way that this is not true. Also, do not underestimate the experience of a solid empirical contribution. This may be your first scientific paper, if only in a smaller journal - it can be a start. Your results may matter deeply to a specific case, and thus contribute to bridge the gap between science and society. Last but not least, I have the hypothesis that empirical work trains you to see the world through the specific sense of your work: a precise focus, a defined perspective, a compromise in your field of view. The experience of empirical work should not be underestimated, as it can teach you how to look at something through a specific theory or conceptual framework.
The methodological design
I often prototype my sampling designs in Lego, deciding how many samples to take on which levels, how they are connected and so on. Thinking things through with the haptic power of Lego always helps me to visualise the bigger picture and allow for interactions with iterations I attempt when revising the methodological design. A more conventional approach to visualise and iterate a sample design is a whiteboard. I urge you to get a whiteboard by all means, and use it as often as possible. Making a clear figure that summarises your sample design is essential. Apart from the overall sampling, it is also good if you have compiled your analysis methods. Be as specific as possible to this end. Lately, many people write they will use a mixed methods approach, which is not specific at all. If you use different methods, you have to be as specific for each and every single method as you would be if you would only use one method. When creating a methodological design, I would advise you to prefer exchanging with experienced people as compared to relying on textbooks and papers. While especially the latter may give you some insights into your possibilities, the diversity of approaches that you may find in papers is often overwhelming and difficult to contextualise without experience. Remember that each of these papers has a history and a context. Do not be fooled by the assumption that all this is hyper-objective and super-reproducible. Recent trends in research advice us to be careful to this end, what works in one context might not work in another context. More importantly, most empirical papers are heavily biased based on the preferences and experiences of the authors. Textbooks are a different story. Many authors go through great lengths to provide a good introduction, and this is often very valuable. But one should not confuse such an introduction with the true power of experience. Textbooks are typically schematic superficialities and simply too shallow to enable an informed and sound contextualised design, but they can be a good starting point. However, this also depends on the grade of ripening of a specific method. If you want to rely on a interview campaign, this type of knowledge is somewhat available in textbooks. If you want to statistically analyse such data, there is also a fairly long canon of knowledge available. However, I would still say that presenting your pen-ultimate methodological design to someone with experience is the best way to gain some friction. Until you have your pen-ultimate design: iteration is the key to compensate for lack of experience (write that on a teabag).
Your work life design
I am truly fascinated by the context, setting and design in which famous people worked. Albert Einstein managed to pull off his best work as a patent officer. Maryam Mirzakhani's impact was short but stellar in so many ways. Franz Kafka wrote while working in the insurance business. In comparison, many of us are in a really privileged position. However it is not only the societal and cultural context that thrills me when wondering how influential people work. It is also the design of their work place. People have all sorts of diverse settings, but people I admire typically have workplaces that they designed to best fit their needs. While this may sound trivial at best, it showcases that these people designed places that give the impression that these people arrived. They are in the right place. Often this may not be a real place, but more of a workplace setting. I worked for years wherever I wanted, I just flapped my computer open. Now I learned that having a desk at home can be helpful in times of Covid 19. However, sometimes I change the setting, and write about a thousand words in the garden on my phone. I am however very mindful about these settings, and use the right setting at the right time. I detest for instance all travel by train. I love trains, but I cannot work there. I either fall asleep or my mind wanders. Trains are bad working places for me. I also need to cut distractions. This is indeed a very important design principle. Distractions are not benign by design, yet being distracted may sometimes clear the mind. Sometimes the best motivation can be to finish the draft in a cafe. Many colleagues I admire do this alll the time, and I learned from them. Again I have to be conscious in how a distraction does not ripe into a full blown procrastination. Here are a few things I think a good workplace might link like:
- A desk. Separate work place and the rest of your place, even if all this is in the same room. You need to get your brain into work mode as soon as you switch places.
- End work at times. Find breaks, do not work into the night no matter how cool you feel (no, you are not a night owl). Structure your day, write down what you want to achieve in the morning, and review it at the end of the day.
- Clean up after yourself. This can be a nice ritual to end the day. Maybe you want to review all open browser windows? Maybe shut the computer down all together? Clear all the cups away?
- Journal and/or write on paper. Or better, find different ways to reflect. This is crucial as you may want to track your progress and develop some consciousness about your work procedures. While this may be the hardest part, in the long run it is more important than what you work on right now.
- Find a peer group with whom you can exchange. This is what friends are for, at least partly. Help others, and learn from each other.
Ending the design phase
Being done with the methodological design is incredibly hard for some. Letting go and deciding to start with the actual works a daring act, and many keep iterating and changing things. This is a fine line, since you naturally want to adapt if it needs to be, but you also want your planning and design to be worth something. You can always make things better, but this is about ending. You need to call it a day. I witnessed many people being admirably pragmatic to this end, yet for others it is hard. I think a good rule of thumb is the question whether you can anticipate for a fact that the necessary changes would change the patterns of your results. If the patterns do not change, then do not change anything. Too much has been lost already in our endless quest for all the what ifs in the world (write that on a teabag).
4) Getting it done
Brace yourself, reality is out there
Now you read all this scientific literature, you had all these big BIG thoughts, and then you hit reality. Nothing works. It's complicated. You start worrying if this will ever end. And worst of all, nothing went as planned. Welcome to the reality of a researcher. From where I am standing, this is the greatest learning achievement for many. There are these few who just smoothly steer through this, but the empirical reality, or the conceptual desert for the theorists among you, hits many people the hardest. Yet this is the most important part about research, as research tries to understand parts of our reality through a constructed perspective. We are looking at a world from a certain direction, angle and through a lens, or better, looking glass. Progress is gained step by step, inching forward. Ideally you get yourself into a mindset to not exactly check every little step. While some people rely on a clear plan, other just try to get it done. I think it is in principle good to make a daily plain that is not too ambitious, and have a larger plan that can be adapted. I quit relying on deadlines in 2006, partly thanks to Douglas Adams: "I love deadlines! I love the whooping noise they make as they go by." As soon as I stopped relying on deadlines, I did not work up until the deadline and a wee bit further, but instead just developed the urge to get everything done - whenever, wherever. Many people do not work like this. This is another problem we face: Other people are different compared to us, hence other people work differently compared to us. Do not compare yourself with others, this will not help, I think. Instead try to focus solemnly on the task ahead of you. This is where you want to excel, want to get the data, finish your fieldwork, and go on. You can do it - just say no to everything else (write that on your wall).
Finding a narrative, finding citations
Once you have your data, you should start to develop a narrative. If your research is very hypothesis-driven, then the narrative would have been clear from the very beginning. These are, however, muddy waters, as since the availability of larger data and more complex investigation, not all hypothesis-driven papers are clearly planned. Instead, with the rise of statistics, data started becoming available for everybody to sometimes tinker with it until the best pattern emerges. This more or less inductive approach is of course different from a hypothesis driven approach, but the border between inductive and deductive became more blurry during the last decades. This poses a problem for emerging researchers, as this iterative procedure gives a less clear structure, and make the analysis - may it be inductive or deductive - less straightforward. Also, the vast availability of research makes it often confusing for many young researchers to decide which publications to consider in their own research. Often, the ambition in people almost forces them to quote all papers they ever read, and construct meandering passages of text that bring us from one shore to the next, crossing large oceans full of all sorts of things. Also, many young researchers touch upon things in their emerging narrative that got next to nothing to do with how their research should be framed. Instead you should focus on the initial hook, the main point where you want to continue. Everything else should be logically assigned around this one point, but please not too much. A good introduction can have 3-5 parts, but not 10. Make sure to pitch your story in way that is understandable to others, which is the next point.
Build on your peers often, and on your supervisor only when necessary
There is an almost general misconception of the role of a supervisor. Supervisors could make all the research you do probably in a blink of an eye. Any problem you might want to solve, they could solve, and much faster. If they would do that, they would deprive you however of the most important goal any thesis has: Making you an independent researcher. With a thesis you prove that you are independently able to create a scientific work. Science builds on collaboration, and yes, they are called supervisors. To me, all this is however trumped by the fact that you need to become independent in being able to conduct research. If you are not able to prove this at the end of your study program, then it would be difficult to acknowledge that you are a scientist. Therefore, I think, supervisors may give guidance and general directions, and they may even support you on a meta level as well as considering the broader embedding of your research into the wider context. What they should however not do is make the researcher with you, or make the research for you. They should not solve every second problem you have. This would - to me - be particularly bad because then you become not independent if you are pampered. It is not all about being able to conduct the research, it is - more importantly - about finding your own voice, fostering your own agency as a researcher. Otherwise, most researchers would be clones of their supervisors, something that I would consider to be altogether undesirable.
Since research lives through collaboration and interaction, it may however be essential to interact with your peers. Their lived reality is so much closer to yours, and they can help you with all sorts of things. They may have experiences with certain theories or methods, may know the literature about certain aspects, and they may be a good mirror to reflect on your research. They can also motivate you, give you a little push, and support you along the way. Having a small team of peers around you is I think one of the most important building blocks of the early stage of most researchers I know. It is important to find people with a similar interest, both in terms of the topics but more importantly in terms of the modus operandi. Being interactive increases the Serendipity space, that is the space in which something good may happen to you. This is almost never more important than in your early career, where you might want to maximise this space. Finding peers to interact and learn together is ideal to jointly develop into independent researchers. This is especially important since this may be your first step into being a teacher and a mentor, albeit for your peers. Building tolerance, learning from others and being nevertheless ruthless in your feedback if necessary is essential, I think. I learned so much from my peers along the way, and I owe them so much. I encourage you to try the same.
Research is study and practice
Many people told me they want to become researchers over the years. This is all fine to me, but we should never forget that research is a craft, it is years of practice that make you a researcher. Instead of understanding that you better start with years of study and practice now, many believe they will have some sort of an epiphany. In my experience there will be however no shining light from heaven that will tell you that now you are a researcher. We make such things up in retrospect quite often, the famous and in that moment I knew I wanted to become a researcher. When I was young I wanted to be all sorts of things, including fire fighter and train conductor. All this did not happen. Do not misunderstand me, I was always thrilled by science, our planet, how people live, but I was also thrilled by playing guitar, material arts and playing video games. Do not put too much expectations into the process of conducting active research. In my experience, it will take time to like it, and it will be a process that is also build around a lot of failures and frustration. Yet, I could not think of anything better for me. It is your own challenge to find out if it works for you as well.
5) Reflection and iteration
At some point in your work you will have something written at every section that you planned from the beginning, or that subsequently developed while working on your thesis. Your work is done, or so you think. This is the starting point of your iteration. You already achieved something, no doubt. I always have trouble looking at a part of a work, because it could go on in all sorts of directions. Hence having a whole work done once is an ideal setting for an iteration. Give the work to one of your peers, and all the while start working on consistency. More often than not a typical problem of beginners in research is either inconsistency on working, or too much repetition of certain words. Be consistent in concepts and theories, but still write vividly and engaging, not overly relying on the same phrases. This is quite a challenge, which is why I suggest every writer to write 500-1000 words per day outside of the normal writing process - as long as you are not a total pro, meaning you make your money with writing. Did you ever hear of a professional dancer who never practices dancing or a musician who does not practice their instruments for hours per day? Just like them, you need to practice your skills in writing. This enables you to develop the experience to rewrite your thesis draft, and make it better. What can also be helpful is to deconstruct your thesis. How is the argumentation, what do you want to say in which section? Is the flow of arguments straightforward? Is the structure of the introduction reflected in the discussion? Do you only deal with concepts that are relevant for the thesis? Is all relevant literature quoted, but not too much? Is the style of writing readable? Do you provide clear take home messages? And most of all, did you decide? Writers make decisions. Quite often I read texts of young researchers, and you can see that they could not decide which direction to go. They wanted to put everything in, overburdening the text, and making the hook almost impossible to find. You need to decide what you want to keep in, and what is just an additional thought you may have considered necessary on the way, but coming to think of it not relevant. Allow me to say a word on time management regarding this stage. In my experience, most students writing a thesis work right up to the deadline, becoming increasingly frantic towards the end, and quite some are even extending the deadline if at all possible. All planning that was done by so many people almost never paid off. In most cases I am aware of, people just completely ripped their timeline, became exhausted, repeatedly pulled all-nighters, and would have liked to improve their work even more. What does this tell us? I think it is normal that this is a stressful and not always fulfilling time. After all, it is often the largest hurdle people faced so far. So let us be honest with ourselves. This can be stressful. As a supervisor, it is also important for me to read a thesis 1-2 weeks before it is finalised. It is just sad if a good piece of work is getting a worse grade because of some error that could have been prevented.
Now all the content is there, all you need to do is print the whole thing and be done with it for real. Alas, once more the warning should have been written in the beginning. Formatting and printing a text is often one of the most stressful step. There are at least 3 types of common problems:
It is remarkable how bad Word can be, yet 99 % of us have to use it. Formatting on Word can be a real horror, and certainly took me a lot of time during my thesis. Ideally, familiarise yourself with the settings before the thesis, and make an online course. This may be the time that your geek friend becomes your life saver. However you solve the technical problems in writing a thesis, ideally try all things beforehand so you know what's coming. In addition, use a citation software. Creating citations by hand is not only a lot of work, but also bound to create errors. Go for Zotero, Citavi, whatever works for you. Last, make a pdf of your final work, so you can share it. Make sure that everything is correct in this fine pdf file. This will not only be the file you share with the printer shop, but also the file you may want to share with anyone interested in your work. Me, I prefer to read a thesis online.
Not being able to let go
Yes, you put so much work into it. I understand you feel like it is not finished yet. This is perfectly normal. Any work can always still be improved; at least in research, there is hardly something perfect. Still, there are many contributions that are very good, and I invite you to become part of this. It often works to tell others when you hand in, and to have them support you. I saw it that often that people want to go on and continue, yet I advise you to not do that. Quite often people just keep iterating in the end, but not in a good way. They are just unable to take the final decisions. However, when it comes to smaller mistakes I would advice you to focus on your supervisor. Me, I do not care about one or two small errors, and I am not good at spotting these. Other supervisors are different. Out the last mile into the things that are important to your supervisor.
Make sure that you know early on how to hand in, considering where to give paper versions. Who needs a digital version, and which other administrative steps are necessary to bring the whole thing finally to an end? Regarding administration, it is best to ask people who went through the whole process what to do when. Also, make sure the supervisors know when you hand in, and already book a defense date early with them. Ask them whether the time in between is enough for them to read your thesis. Also, make sure how you can end so that you do not need to pay tuition fees for the next semester. Often I need to make a lot of defenses right before this. Planning ahead helps you also with letting go, because then you really have to let go, since your defense date is set.
Never look at it again once you printed it
Most people look at the thesis a day after they printed it, and find a bunch of mistakes. Again, this is perfectly normal. To this end, it is relevant that your supervisor is either not so keen to find mistakes (like me), because otherwise you need a good editor for the final check. However, I would advise you not to look at your work before the defense, at least not reading it so deeply that you find mistakes. This makes you only feel bad, and this cannot help, right? Therefore, once you have no chance of changing things, do not look at your thesis again. What is more important is to consider flanks in your argumentation, weak points to consider for the defense, which brings us to the next point.
The best way to prepare for a defense is to cumbersome anticipate which open questions arise from your work, especially from the view of your supervisors. You typically need to give a short and concise summary of your work, focusing on the more interesting aspects, but also giving the necessary overview. Many consider the 10-15 minutes you have to be not enough. I understand this, but then again consider that most Ted talks are equally long (or short). Be brief and to the point. Also, prepare lots of additional slides that anticipate potential questions, and master your repertoire. Many people feel that practicing the presentation too often feels kind of dull, but do not worry: The adrenaline during the real thing will up your pulse, and ideally also up your game.
You need to be to the point. Do not have too many slides. No text deserts. Self explanatory figures. Do not talk too fast. Try to look at your audience. Get the essence of your work, but also be critical. You need to present the main results and discuss these. There is so much things to consider. The most important one: Find your own voice. Try to get inspired by others, and tinker with the way you present things. This ideally leads you to developing your own genuine presentation mode, which should be your best in this situation.
Many supervisors have a lot of questions, hence you should be prepared. Always think for a second before you answer, or best while the question you are being asked is elaborated on. There are many rhetorical tricks how to answer. The most common mistake is that people answer too long and build in too many caveats. Be brief, but to the point. Also be positive, and ideally energized. People should feel that you are confident, which you can be, but not arrogant. Most importantly, do not be thrown off balance by a super hard question. Many supervisors push the limit, including me. You need to stand by your work, but also see its limitations. There is a difference between these two things. Understanding this is at the heart of the academic agenda, and often also a good defense.
Accepting your grade
Supervisors may differ in grading but are typically at least internally consistent. Hence, I would suggest to be confident that the grade you get is the one you deserve. I had counterexamples as a student, but even then, I could not do anything about it. Hence, I advise you to accept the grade you get. More often than not, you deserve it, and hopefully can be glad about it. Celebrate it.
I often witness peers throwing a small party after the defense right in front of my office. Such testimony of friendship is very moving, yet the person being celebrated often looks shell-shocked, even with the best grades. Quite often they do not feel like celebrating. Yet I think, having such a small party is not only a nice academic tradition, but also demarks a good starting point to move on. I would also encourage you to celebrate at graduation day, as this is an important academic tradition, and as a professor I have to say that it is quite an honor to meet the parents of the students that often grew so dear to my heart. I think having this exchange is an important commitment and opportunity for both sides, as these brief encounters seal the trust that could hopefully be built between parents and the teachers through their children. I owe so much to my parents and my academic teachers and think that a meeting of them really ended my PhD officially. The students are often slightly ashamed by what is being said, which is quite entertaining, I have to say. Endure it, these will become nice memories, I hope, and an important steppingstone in your coming-of-age.
What is most relevant is to look back at that experience and take stock. If you are done with your thesis, then you should not only celebrate with the outside world. Be cheerful, you made something remarkable for yourself, and contributed if only a wee bit to something so much larger. Personally, I remember how long ago I finished my Diploma thesis, and how many helped me along the way. Looking back at it, it seems like a small step now, but it was a big step then. As my supervisor said when I had my thesis handed in: “A small step for you, but a big step for [hu]mankind.”
The author of this entry is Henrik von Wehrden.