The first and most important principle is: it’s never too early to start working on your thesis! In part this is about planning and making decisions, but it is also about getting into the habit of writing.
Often, most of the thesis is written in the last few months of your PhD when the submission deadline is imminent, funding might be running low and the pressure is high. Future-you in this situation will appreciate if you’ve laid some groundwork early on. There are a number of things you can do before even starting your research
A PhD thesis is a piece of writing that talks about the motivation for your research, introduces any necessary background knowledge, usually includes a literature review of some sort, describes your data and methodology in detail, summarises your results, discusses and puts your findings into context, and finally sums up your most important points. There are several ways in which a thesis can be put together:
The monograph: One long text, separated into chapters.
The paper based thesis: One or more stand-alone publications that you (co-)authored, typically with a separate introduction, transition chapters between publications and a discussion and conclusion to tie everything together.
A custom format, that may include a piece or set of artworks, a video, or something else.
Depending on your research project, it should be relatively clear from the beginning which format is going to work best for your thesis. Make sure to check the university’s requirements as to what is or isn’t allowed and discuss with your supervisor what they think is appropriate. Here are some guidelines from The University of Exeter.
Once you’ve decided on a format, go and get or make a template document. Depending on the software you want to use for your thesis (most students use Word or LaTeX), more senior students in your group may have a template document that they can share with you, or you might be able to download one from the university’s website. If there isn’t one readily available, it’s a good idea to make your own. Check the formatting requirements set by the university (font, font sizes, margins, etc.) and default them into a document. That way you know from the beginning what your thesis is going to look like, and there are no nasty surprises or last minute formatting issues down the road.
These are the formatting guidelines from the University of Exeter.
Once you’ve come up with a format and a template, you can start thinking about a rough outline. It is not set in stone and can of course be modified as you progress with your work. An outline is not only a useful start for your thesis, it will also be extremely helpful to guide your research along the way. Think about your research questions, what background knowledge you might need to put together, and what methods you could use to answer the question. Some of the sections further down the line might still be vague (for example you might just have three final chapters called “Results”, “Discussion”, and “Conclusion”, that can be refined as you start with your methodology and get first results).
Writing an outline can also help to make the task of thesis writing less daunting. Surely it can’t be that bad to write a short chapter called “Introduction”. And then one called “Motivation”. And then… all of a sudden you’re halfway there!
As your research progresses your outline may change significantly. Keeping a record of this will help you to understand your own process and iterations of your work. It will also be a helpful talking point for supervision and reflection.
It can be very difficult to figure out how to start a chapter (or any piece of writing). Instead of getting stuck on that, start by just brainstorming and jotting down some bullet points of the main subsections/topics/ideas for each chapter. In Word or any other typesetting software it is very easy to then arrange them in a logical order, start coming up with transitions from one idea to the next, and slowly build your writing around those ideas. The bullet points can be kept at the beginning of the chapter until you’ve ticked them all off. That way it might be easier to keep your focus on what you really need to say and cut out any unnecessary information that does not relate to the main ideas.
You can even start doing this while you’re doing your research. As you read up on the existing literature, jot down important ideas (and the publications they’ve come from) in your background/motivation chapter. When you’re developing your methods, make a note of every step (and changes as you modify your methodology along the way), including pointers to any relevant other work for that part of your methods. When you start to get results, maybe even copy and paste a graph or diagram of your findings into your thesis draft and follow by putting down a few bullets about what you think are the most important features in your data/results. By doing this you will save yourself valuable time towards the end, that otherwise you might have to spend trying to remember exactly whose paper it was that described the really important concept, or why exactly you set this parameter to the value you’ve used for your analysis, and not a different one.
Have a look at Study Hub's guidance about developing your points.
Once you’ve set up your thesis template and filled it with bullet points as a first draft, it’s time to get writing. Whether you’ve decided to write a thesis made up of individual publications, or you’re going to write the equivalent of 100,000 word essay, there will be a time during your PhD when you just need to sit down and write. The hurdle to starting will be much lower if you’ve done all the preparation work above. It can still be very daunting though! Below are some ideas to make it easier.
Set regular writing goals
Map out the time you have from now until your deadline, and break down your writing into chunks, including some buffers. Put these goals in your calendar (e.g., week starting Feb 27th – write introduction; week starting Mar 6th – write transition between paper 1 and paper 2; …). That way, when you show up at your desk on Monday morning, your calendar will tell you immediately what the goal is for this week and where to start. Time management will be crucial to your success and levels of stress!
Once you start on a section, don’t worry too much about what it sounds like. You should have your bullet points for each section already, so for now just flesh them out. It is a lot easier to modify and change your wording later on than to find the perfect phrase the first time you put your virtual pen to paper.
Writers block is pretty typical, take a look at this blog post for some inspiration.
Get feedback early
When you first meet with your supervisor try to set up some writing deadlines. They could be literature reviews, reflective pieces, explorative, or a primitive draft for a section of your thesis. Getting into the habit of writing is really important, and getting regular feedback on small pieces of work will help your research process and also be much more managable for your supervisor than huge chunks of writing less regularly.
Early feedback should also flag any issues early on, and you will be able to keep their suggestions in mind for your further writing, avoiding repeat mistakes, and getting more and more into a flow of writing that won’t need much editing in the end.
Find like minded people
Writing can get much easier if you don’t have to suffer alone. Are there other PhD students in your department? Or do some of your friends from other disciplines have writing to do for their degrees? Get them together and start a writing peer-support group! Maybe you all just want to sit together in a quiet space in the library, and just have someone there at the same to make you accountable and stop you from procrastinating. Or maybe you want to exchange pieces of work and give each other feedback on your writing style. You can decide on a format that’s good for you, or even test different formats to see what works best.
Create a routine
You might do your best work when you are along in your room, or in a favorite coffee shop. That’s totally fine! If you’re struggling to get started on your writing, set yourself a routine. Set a manageable amount of hours per week aside for your writing, and put them into your calendar, along with other committments. Get up at the same time every morning, eat well and exercise (or do something non-work related that refreshes your mind). Sit down at the time you set aside each day and start writing. Writing, like everything, takes practice so if you do it regularly you’re likely to see big improvements soon.
Be realistic with what you schedule, if you over estimate what you can achieve and leave no time for practical and social life you’re likely to get frustrated quickly and your writing time won’t be very productive. Instead, opt for a shorter time period, but really commit to it and don’t allow for any distractions during that time. The rewarding feeling of having just completed another chapter will be totally worth the effort!
Revise, revise, revise.
As you go along with your research and your writing, always keep in mind your thesis draft and modify if necessary. Once a section or chapter is completed, put it down for a day or two, then go back and re-read it from start to finish. You will probably notice some inconsistencies, or come up with new ways of getting your point across even more elegantly. If you’re struggling to follow a thread in your writing, print the section and summarise each paragraph with a bullet point on the margin. Go through the bullet points and see if they need re-arranging. You can read more about this reverse outline strategy to identify structural problems of a text and the difficult task of cutting words to reduce your word count here.
These ideas are of course neither mandatory nor comprehensive. Some suggestions might work really well for, others might not. The most important thing, however, is to do everything you can to get rid of that daunting blank page in the beginning. It is so much easier to continue a task than to start one, so if there is an easy way to start (like making a template or coming up with bulleted lists) just go for it! You can get it done!
Many people find it very helpful to use software to help them to manage, organise and track their writing process and different iterations of projects. If you think this would be helpful for you it's a good idea to spend some time considering the options and deciding which you will use at the beginning of your project because once you have started generating material it will be a long and complex job to transfer it all over into another system part way through the project. A commonly used program is Scrivener, and there are lots of online tutorials to help you get to grips with the functionality of the software and how to use it most effectively.
This resource list links to books and e-books on all aspects of postgraduate research and writing a PhD
Kipworld - blogpost from the Director of the Centre for Qualitative Research at Bournemouth University offering a suggested outline for a PhD
Ingrid Curl offers 10 tips for writing a PhD thesis for the Times Higher Education.
Kim Thomas offers tips for finishing your thesis for the Guardian's Higher Education Network
The University of Edinburgh has several downloadable open access guidance documents about writing up a qualitative research PhD, broken down into sections (literature review, methodology, data chapters, etc.)