Writing a PhD or Master’s thesis? Here’s what helped me.

By Sheeva Azma

Writing your PhD or Master’s thesis can be stressful. Here are a few things you can do to set yourself up for academic success.

I often meet Master’s and PhD students working on their thesis, and have edited many theses and dissertations as a science writer. The dissertating process looks incredibly stressful to me now that I’m an outsider to academia, but I’ve noticed that successful students all have one common thread: they write in small chunks over time, eliminating distractions while they work. The process can take weeks or months, even years, but eventually, it is over. It all depends on the student, their writing process, and the stage of their research project.

I’ve been a graduate student and PhD candidate, too, and while I left before getting my doctoral degree in neuroscience, I did write the entire background to my doctoral thesis. In ensuing years, as a freelance writer, I would copyedit tens of theses for various postgraduate degrees, including Master’s and PhD theses.

Keep reading for my thoughts on setting yourself up for success as someone writing your Master’s or PhD thesis, based both on my own experiences and those of the people whose theses I have copyedited.

stressed out woman working on her laptop
Feeling like you want to throw your laptop out the window while writing your thesis? You’re definitely not alone. Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash.

I loved participating in a PhD thesis writing bootcamp

I mentioned that I wrote the background to my thesis as a PhD candidate prior to leaving my doctoral program. I did this by signing up for a structured event: a thesis writing bootcamp. The thesis writing bootcamp was an intense five-day experience organized by the Georgetown Graduate School Organization. I recommend that all graduate schools provide such an event, as I learned a lot. Every day, from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM, we would first hear professors, writing experts, and others talk about how to be productive in thesis writing. Students also shared their own tips and experiences. We’d take a break for lunch. Then, for the second part of the day, we’d break up into smaller groups, focused on our writing for several hours. One day during the bootcamp, we had a snow day, and I stayed home all day, writing my thesis. Perhaps as a foreshadowing of my life as a science writer, I found it glorious.

At the end of the thesis writing bootcamp, I had written the entire background to my PhD thesis. My dissertation covered a complex topic with many moving parts: adolescent brain development, the neuroeconomics of decision-making, brain structure and function, multimodal brain imaging, addiction, and more. Studying in an interdisciplinary neuroscience program, it was up to me to unite all of these different things to come up with a new perspective to advance science. That was both the challenge and the opportunity I faced in writing my PhD thesis that week.

The hardest thing about dissertating, to me, was getting all of my ideas to paper

What did it feel like to write the background to my PhD thesis? The main thing I remember from that experience was that, while it was exciting to get words onto a page, it felt like it would take forever to capture all the nuance I wished to communicate. I would write something, then remember another piece I wanted to add, and … it felt like this process could go on forever. Eventually, I came up with something that met my standards that I felt could set the stage for my research results and discussion. I was to be working on that next.

As a PhD candidate and fifth-year doctoral student at the time, it was time to graduate or move on. Pressed for time, I did not have time to stress about what I wanted to say exactly. I focused on getting words onto the page. I started explaining everything I had studied in graduate school and that I knew about – things that would be essential to understand my research questions and hypotheses. My lab was still collecting the data. While I had not analyzed it yet, I wanted to set up the reader to be able to understand my results once they read them.

It felt amazing to come up with a draft of the background section of my PhD thesis. The bootcamp really helped, though I realize that most PhD students don’t have the option of participating in such an event. If you want to replicate my PhD thesis writing experiment, I recommend setting aside a week in which you write for a 3- to 4-hour block of time daily. If you’re really busy, maybe that timeframe can be more like 45 minutes a day for a month. Consistency and persistence goes a long way.

photo of sheeva azma presenting her graduate research at georgetown
Here’s a photo of me from my grad school days! Here I’m presenting my research on stress, trauma, and the brain at a poster session. Though I officially work in communications now, I will always be a scientist at heart (and in reality).

Sadly, I ended up leaving graduate school after becoming a PhD candidate – I had done everything but the experiments I had proposed. Yet the thesis writing experience ultimately led to an opportunity to co-author a review on my thesis subject with a colleague.

If I hadn’t been able to focus my thoughts and get words to paper, the opportunity to write a review paper might never have materialized. In seeking to publish my thesis, that’s when the arduous work of editing started.

In writing your thesis, don’t forego editing

Once you have words to paper, you’ve done all the research. You’ve done all the writing. All of the different sections are there, once you can come up with a workable structure for your thesis. So, what else could possibly be needed, you might think?

You’ve already done all of his hard work, and now I’m telling you that you missed a step?

Yes, I’m telling you that the work doesn’t end with simply writing your thesis. Remember you’re writing for an audience of your colleagues in academia and you have to take them, the reader, into consideration.

Editing your thesis is key to a successful thesis defense. You can take the time to do it yourself, or you can hire someone to do it for you. Most Master’s and PhD programs allow students to hire a professional copy editor for thesis editing, provided that the ideas and work are all the student’s own.

Why care about thesis editing? Most students writing a thesis are stressed out, pressed for time, and likely engaged in the job search. Well, imagine that you are a member of a Master’s or PhD thesis committee, and a student has submitted a thesis for evaluation that:

  • Has typographical and grammatical errors
  • Does not flow well or lacks an overall structure
  • Does not make clear what the research questions and hypotheses are, and whether those were answered
  • Has various ambiguities that open the student up to criticism at their thesis defense
  • Does not provide a clear picture of what the student actually did and why it mattered
  • Does not have properly-cited references for faculty members to look up sources

Would you be more likely to fail that student based on these difficulties?

Less ambiguity in the text of your thesis means fewer misunderstandings, and that boosts your chances of academic success. Whether you’re a PhD or Master’s student, if your thesis committee can’t understand your thesis, you may find that it reduces your chances of passing your thesis defense. Nothing is worse than something unclear in the text which prompts your thesis committee to grill you, opening you up to criticism. Hiring a professional thesis editor can help make your great research and ideas stand out. Furthermore, hiring a thesis editor makes it easier to publish your thesis work later on. A good editor can even provide guidance on the best way to break up your thesis work into different papers.

Hire Fancy Comma, LLC for Master’s and PhD thesis editing

Fancy Comma, LLC can help. Hire us to edit your thesis and lighten the load. We will work with you to ensure that your text is free of typos and other errors, has a flow that supports your research aims, and communicates your work well. Clarity of writing demonstrates clarity of thought.

We’ve copyedited theses in various fields – both in the sciences and the humanities – including computer science, public health, history, neuroscience, and more. Furthermore, for neuroscientists pursuing their Master’s or PhD, Sheeva has expertise in MRI research and design and can also provide more detailed editing on thesis proposals and theses in that area from a rigorous scientific and methodological perspective. She’s a published author in cognitive neuroscience and was a PhD Candidate in neuroscience at Georgetown.

The bottom line

If you’re a Master’s PhD student stressing about writing your thesis, the most important thing you can do is to start writing. Be patient with yourself and realize that writing a thesis is, for the most part, not something you can accomplish by pulling a week of all-nighters. The fact that it took me a week of dedicated writing in a thesis writing bootcamp just to write the background section of my PhD thesis says it all: writing a thesis is a marathon, not a sprint.

Once you get words to a page, and are seeking to take your thesis to the next level, contact us. We’re more than happy to help and can work with your grad student budget! Communicating complex subjects is at the heart of what we do and we’d love to help you succeed in your future endeavors doing the same.


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