Writing a thesis – some advice for first-timers

Writing a thesis – some advice for first-timers

Teaching is very important part of academic life. It is a never-ending cycle of all-to-similar problems and questions. Yet, there is one teaching responsibility that stands out from the others, i.e. being an academic means supervising writing of theses.

Usually, the thesis is the most complicated and the longest document that STEM students have to write since enrollment. They may have written structured essays (with a proper introduction, discussion, and conclusion), but nothing even remotely as complex and demanding as a full academic text. For this reason, writing a thesis is a difficult task. Even more so if the author lacks writing and reading habits. Compiling 40-60 pages of an academic text can be a particularly daunting experience.

Still, the work needs to be done. So, at the beginning of every semester, I discuss with all my students how to start writing a thesis. Over time, I developed a system and guidelines that helps them to write at their best.

This post is not a guide how to write a thesis. It is merely the discussion on how I set up collaboration between me and my students in a way that improve their writing process. If you are a student, you will learn here about some tools and techniques that will improve your writing. If you are a mentor, you might find below a few ideas on how to organize collaboration with your own mentees.

There are three things that I always discuss with every student that wants to write his/her thesis under my supervision. We establish rules that allow both of us to work in coordinated purposeful manner. First, I ask them to ditch Word and learn how to write everything in plain text LaTeX. Second, we establish a plan for our collaboration (an outline). Third, we agree to have regular meetings to discuss progress and problems.

Write everything in plain text

There are many ways to write an academic text. Normally, the process requires a word processor. So, for a long term users of Microsoft Word, it will be a tool of first choice. I would like to encourage you to try using much simpler editor (any editor) that lets you write efficiently in plain text.  Microsoft Word, despite its powerful features, is a distracting writing environment. It shines in business context, but it might hurt your academic writing.

Your goal should always be “extreme simplicity” because in such raw environment you will stop worrying about fonts and start thinking about words. For academics, the tool of choice is LaTeX, and chances are that you already know what LaTeX is.

Have you seen any LaTeX document lately? I am quite sure you have. They are very distinguishable because of their elegant and professional formatting. Even incoherent and badly written report appears like a work of an expert. As the final document looks awesome, it gives its author emotional feedback and stimulates his writing process in a good way.  I noticed that since we transitioned to LaTeX, theses became better thought over and generally more interesting. Engaged authors write better.

There are thousands and thousands of written and recorded tutorials on how to write in LaTeX, so I will not dig deeper here. All answers you need are a single search away.

And if you are curious, my personal editor of choice is Sublime Text. Very flexible and with built-in “distraction free mode”.

Start with the proper outline

I am telling all my students what every writer understands intuitively: writing should always start with a plan. Writing a thesis is a project. Writing a book is a project. Every project needs a plan, in this case an outline that contains synopsis details of all chapters, sections, and sub-sections.

Regardless complexity of the topic, the structure of thesis is usually quite simple. Like any other academic text it should contain: introduction, several body paragraphs, and conclusion. Body paragraphs (typically chapters) discuss separate topics, provide supporting details, introduce examples, and end with conclusions. It is very important to think about the contents before even typing the first letter.

Having to write an outline forces student to think about his thesis as a whole. Down the path, this will make writing much easier because the goal will be clear. I found that thanks to completion of this simple task, students stopped asking what else they should write about. On the contrary, their approach is now more proactive. They often inquire if it is a good idea to add more content because they feel it will improve their work.

If the thesis involves making designs and calculations (all my advised theses do), I ask students to focus on the introduction and literature review first. For STEM students, writing is challenging, require grit and determination. Usually, they are not accustomed to looking for and reading of sources, taking and reviewing notes.

Meet often and regularly

Being a thesis advisor means having to meet with the student to discuss contents of his work. After few years, I came to conclusion that it is necessary to meet often. Single session doesn’t have to be long – my own standard is 30 minutes. But it needs to happen every two weeks. More often if necessary. It is not only about the progress. Usually, all a student needs is a little push and a dose of motivation. Encouragement is more important than any substantive help.

One thing that I try to convey during those meetings is that writing a thesis takes time. The text will have to be rewritten. Its quality is a function of how many times that revision happened. Hemingway famously said that “The first draft of anything is s**t!”. Who am I to disagree with the master, but in case of thesis this is especially true. This is just something we all need to accept. Sooner, the better.

At the end of every meeting we set the date and the time for the next one. The appointment is an effect of negotiations with a student. I usually propose a date (plus minus few days). She agrees (or not) and declares how much progress she expects to make. It works.

Few years ago, I started to send calendar invitations. Many students rely on modern organizational tools. It is very convenient for them, as well as for me.

The above described process is very simple, but it works. I hope that you find some inspiration in my methods and they will improve your own writing/advising experience.

Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash.