How to write your thesis and stay sane in the process

I have embarked on a Master thesis journey in mid-January and I have roughly two more months to go.

The Master thesis, the nightmare dreaded by all master procrastinators (read: all post-grads), the burden on thy back, the crown jewel of your education to date.

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Writing your Master thesis begins (and I assume ends) with a bitter-sweet feeling. There are no more classes, it is a sign that your time as a student is coming to an end and the Master thesis is sort of your acclimatisation for real life. You know, the one where you have to have a job and do a lot of adulting. On the other hand, the end of your studies can be the end of a long, exhausting process of examinations and being called out on Monday morning lectures when the only call you want to take is the one of your warm bed. Whatever you may feel about your education coming to an end, I think this one is universal: it will feel as your whole life up to now just ghosted you and you are left with a piece of paper to show for it.

But let’s get back to that Master thesis thing. This is arguably the time in your life when you will be tested the most: your ability to have a sustainable work plan, meeting deadlines, asking yourself fancy questions you probably already know the answer to but still need to stretch it out on a minimum of 50 pages. Now, being in this process myself, I have decided to share my system of doing this with you. By no means do I know it works – we have to wait until June to figure it out – but I think it is not that shabby so it’s probably worth throwing out there. You know, solidarity. Anything helps. Maybe this “guide” [what a pretentious word for this] will be useful, or maybe you’ll have gone through the same process and reading this post will make you feel like you’re not alone. Whatever it may be, I’m glad you’re reading it. <3

I want to share my tips on being effective in writing your Master thesis while saving your sanity as much as possible during the whole process. Now, before I started this blog post, I had to optimistically persuade myself that I have, in fact, stayed sane during thesis writing time. I don’t know if it’s true, and I am terrified to find out. So let’s just keep it at that.

Try to find out your topic long before you’re supposed to start writing

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At least find an area worth exploring. Start small, but make sure to have an overview of what you want to write about before the clock starts ticking. This way you will have a small advantage over the clock.

Write up an outline ASAP

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This will likely be your first task with your supervisor anyway, but in any case, make sure that you spend the first week of writing on your outline. Set up your research question(s) and write the outline so it serves as a mental roadmap for the whole process.

Do the basics before starting to write

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Some people feel tempted to start writing immediately, but I think it’s important to give yourself a week (or two, or more) of pure reading and researching on the topic (most people do this anyway). No pressure, just acquaint yourself with the subject matter. Become friends with it first, then start exploring it. [No pun intended, obviously. This is serious stuff.]

Schedule, schedule, schedule

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Take a calendar, jot down your most important dates like seminar deadlines and days you know you won’t be able to work on. Then assign a certain amount of pages per day, stretch it out in the time you have. By no means do I put quantity over quality, but I do believe it’s important to be concise and have a ballpark amount of pages you want all your brilliant ideas to fit in. Then exceed it (or not), as necessary. I made a schedule that increases the tempo of my writing gradually, but ambitiously. I made it my goal to finish way ahead of the actual deadline, for contingency. And I also made a bet about finishing it by then, to get my competitive juices flowing. Make sure to be aware of the fact that you cannot plan the writing process. Some days it will be awesome, some days it will be horrible. But having a plan and a bunch of small goals is good.

Give yourself a break

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This depends on the person, but I have made a strict resolution not to work on weekends. That way I allow myself proper time to rest, clear my mind from the thesis and well… enjoy life a bit. I think my presumed sanity depends on weekends and it has probably been the best decision I’ve made recently. By allowing yourself to rest from constant thesis-brainstorming, you give yourself time to charge batteries as well as to get a fresh perspective on your work every week. Every Monday is like a restart button, in a good way. The break becomes an important part of your writing, because you push yourself to work harder during the week instead.

Don’t be afraid to pull long hours

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Nah, you’re not going to escape long hours, sorry. This is the universal truth about academic work: you will become prisoner of your thesis whether you like it or not. It will peck away at your brain for months until you’re done with it and there’s nothing you can do about it. I come into the library at 9am, leave the library around 6pm. Sometimes I stay longer because it’s necessary, or because I’m having a good flow of ideas or because my daily quota wasn’t reached and that really annoys me so I want to get as close as I can to it.

Eat well, sleep well, exercise

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It is so tempting to reach out to junk food when you’re writing your thesis. I think it’s good to indulge yourself on occasion, but make sure it’s an exception to the rule, not the other way around. Cook your own lunch and pack it with good stuff for you so you don’t experience sudden sugar highs and lows. Also, put your sleep above all else. I have become so unapologetic about my sleeping patterns – whatever might be happening, if it’s a school night, I need my 8 hours of sleep and I will get them. It undoubtedly makes you a bit more boring, but it helps so much. I wake up at 7am every morning and, not being a morning person, I really have to take time with my breakfast and morning cup o’ joe if I am to be a functional human being that is at least moderately pleasant to be around. Exercise when you can, this one is obvious.

Get a life, too

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Try to balance it out with the previous point. Have fun, go out, indulge in fika, go to parties and make sure to make the most of your time with your classmates since you will all go separate ways once those pretty diplomas are in your hands.

Start stressing at the end

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It really makes no sense to stress yourself out during the whole process. Stress will hinder your ability to think clearly and present your ideas well, so kick stress to the curb for a while. If you’re going to stress, stress at the end of it all. Then, I give you permission to go nuts with stress and just scream internally until your defence, if you will. It’s very bad for you but, you know… suit yourself. I’m going to do it, there’s no doubt about it. When it’s all over, you’ll realise how ridiculous it was to stress about it… Right? I really hope so.

So there you go, my tips and tricks for preserving sanity during writing your Master thesis, with no success guarantee and no return policy.

Have you already written a Master thesis? What would you add to this guide?
Are you a PhD student? Please share your wisdom!


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Written by Dena

31 Mar 2016