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Writing a thesis during a pandemic: 4 Lessons

As I enter the last 2 months of my PhD and prepare to hand in my thesis (as you read this I will be editing my final draft) it’s hard not to reflect on the ups and downs of the last 4 years. These last few months have been the hardest; I have been forced to piece together 3 chapters using half-finished data and fill in the gaps as best I can. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic I lost a total of 6 months of lab time and during the last 10 months, I have only had partial access to the lab. All of this has been mentally taxing, and I know I’m not the only one who has suffered.

As I reflect on my time as a PhD student I can’t help but evaluate how I think I performed and handled events. As I write up my thesis and do some self-reflection there are a few ideas that keep cropping up, and make me think “I wish I had known that earlier.” Even so I can’t help but think that even if someone had told me these things earlier I wouldn’t have listened; sometimes you have to live through something to learn from it. Either way, to those who are either just starting their PhD or are starting to write their own thesis, here are some tips that writing my thesis has taught me.

95% of things are out of your control

The pandemic put a stop to lots of things; weddings were postponed, visits with family cancelled, and, worst of all, mourning loved ones was put on hold. In the modern age we like to imagine we have control over the world – in reality, we still control very little of what happens to us. During any PhD, unforeseen circumstances will prevent you from doing what you planned; broken equipment, unreliable collaborators, or a shortage of key materials – and that’s on a good day. At the start of my PhD, I assumed I would control what went into my thesis and how good the final product would be. Then comes a global pandemic that halts my ability to gather data (no lab = no experiments). It’s hard to accept but fortune has a habit of doing what it wants. This means it’s up to you to focus on the little you do control. Get upset and angry but then, once that initial reaction passes, figure out what you control and where you can put your energy so it can actually make an impact.

Be the tortoise, not the hare

Writing can be an incredibly dull process, especially in science. You might spend 2 hours reading publications from the last decade only to write two sentences. It can feel like wading through quicksand. The trick is not to put too much pressure on yourself; easier said than done, I know. But when you’re writing any large body of work (the average PhD thesis is 100+ pages) you have to accept that you can’t cram it all in the week before the deadline. Instead, set small goals and set them early. The goal isn’t to write a 100-page masterpiece, the goal is to write 100 words today for 3 months. When we first went into lockdown this was the goal I set for myself. Some days I wrote more, but I always made sure that I wrote 100 words a day. Any progress is progress, no matter how small. Find a goal you can achieve each day and do it.

Guard your time

When the lab eventually reopened (at 50% capacity) writing fell to the bottom of my priority list. It was replaced with lab time, experimental planning, and data analysis. I have realised that this was a huge mistake and I was ignoring my own advice; rather than doing a little every day I did no writing for weeks. As my deadline began to loom closer I realised I needed to re-dedicate time each day to writing. I had to say to push back against my supervisor who wanted me in the lab all day every day that “I’m going to be spending less time in the lab, so I can spend more time writing – sorry.” If you have a thesis to submit writing is as much a priority as lab work. Set some time aside each day or each week, whatever works for you, and spend it dedicated to writing.

Never underestimate the power of editing

Anyone can write words on a page, but telling a good story – that is a challenge. If you want your writing to be more than just words on a page then editing is your best friend. Some people will say the only important part of a thesis is the data. But if the story around the data, how you got it, what it means, why it’s important, is bad then what use is the data? That’s what a thesis does – tells your examiners the story of your PhD. To make that story the best it can be you’re going to need to do a lot of editing, not just for spelling and grammar, but getting the flow and structure right. This has been especially important for me; thanks to the pandemic my data is a bit thin so I need to make sure the story I tell is impressive.  As a rule I try to accomplish two full edits of any work I write, depending on time. I also recommend getting friends and family to read your work (you may need to bribe them if they hate science) to spot any obvious mistakes that you will no doubt have missed. 

These are just some of the ideas that I have kept in mind when writing up my thesis over the last few months. I hope there is something here you can use when it’s your turn to write up (and hopefully you won’t be doing it during a global pandemic).

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash under Unsplash License

About the Author
  • Steven Gibney 0000-0002-3309-1522

    Steve is currently a member of the EPSRC CDT in Advanced Therapeutics and Nanomedicines at the University of Nottingham. He uses bioelectronics to design new treatments and diagnostic devices. When he's away from the lab he can usually be found lost in the woods or up a mountain. Twitter: @Steve_Gibney

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