Stephanie's Adventures in Thesis-land

Stephanie's Adventures in Thesis-land

In my last post as a writer for the PGR blog, I thought I’d share some of my musings from writing up my thesis by comparing it (very loosely) to one of my favourite stories – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.

Chapter 1 - Down the rabbit hole

‘ Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next.’

Illustration by John Tenniel. A rabbit stands on two legs, wearing a waistcoat with an umbrella underneath his arm. The rabbit is checking his pocked watch with his other arm.

Writing a thesis is no small feat. However, don’t go in blind otherwise you will end up like Alice heading down the rabbit hole not knowing where she is or what she was doing. Be sure you go to the ‘Word: Creating a Dissertation or Thesis’ workshop - this has been the most invaluable course I’ve attended - see Danielle’s post for more information.

As part of the 3rd year annual progress review, you may need to write a thesis plan (this may differ between colleges/schools). My advice is to make this as detailed as possible. Invest some serious time and thought into it, because it will make your life much easier later down the line. I suggest gathering all your data, maybe summarise them on post-it notes and try to organise them into chapters. MAKE AS MANY FIGURES IN FULL AS YOU CAN – this will save you time later. When it comes to the writing part, I like to start off making sure all the figures for the chapter are in order, then I have a starting point to go from. I always leave writing the introduction section for each chapter until last. That way I know exactly what subjects need introducing.

Chapter 9 - The Mock Turtle’s Story

‘I don’t see how he can ever finish, if he doesn’t begin.’

The fear of a blank piece of paper (or word document) is very real. This fear is held mostly by perfectionists. Luckily enough the grad school has a helpful course which addresses overcoming this – see Robyn Womack’s post for more information.

A helpful piece of advice from Jennifer Boyle (you might recognise her name from ‘Writing bootcamp’ emails) struck a chord with me when I attended the ‘Effective writing 1’ workshop. The advice was this – when writing a chapter, make two different documents. The first document should be treated as a sort of journal which is for your eyes only, somewhere to get all your ideas out without judgement. The second document will be the draft, where you then take the information from the first document and craft your writing. That way when you are writing the draft, you are not starting from ground zero.

I love this approach – I tend to ‘word vomit’ (excuse the expression) everything out and organise it into different sections. I try to do this in a distraction (internet) free zone to help maintain focus. By doing this method it means I don’t agonise over where to start writing when it comes to writing out a chapter.

Illustration by John Tenniel from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice is pictured drowning in a pool of tears with one arm stretched high.

Chapter 2 – The Pool of tears

There will be days when writing seems impossible. I’ve found that my brain likes to pretend it can push through, but then I end up staring at an open document, getting increasingly frustrated. This, as you might imagine, is an exceptional waste of time. On these days, don’t punish yourself – take a darn break! I give you permission (even if sometimes I don’t grant it to myself).

Chapter 3 - A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale

“Speak English!” said the Eaglet. “I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!” 

I love words. I used to pepper every piece of writing with beautiful words hand-picked from Until one day I got some feedback from a colleague telling me that it made my writing inaccessible. They also said it seemed like I was trying to overcompensate, as if I wasn’t confident in my data. Soon after I struggled through a paper which was littered in overly complicated words – I just wanted to know the findings and their use of language made it impossible to get to the point. Ever since, I apply this rule: ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’.

I can only imagine examiners are thankful for simple, short sentences when going through a thesis.

 Chapter 6 - Pig and Pepper

“Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."
"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” 

 Remember you are not the first, or last, to write a thesis. Get help when you need it, vent to others in the same position, take breaks.

Illustration by John Tenniel from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice is pictures with her back towards the reader, looking up at the Cheshire cat who is perched high in a tree top, grinning.

So, there you have it – a few tips from my time writing my thesis. Now all that is left is for me to finish writing it…

Cover image by Haley Lawrence on Unsplash

All illustrations are by Sir John Tenniel from the 1865 edition of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, via Wikimedia Commons

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