Getting started on your thesis as a science student

“How is your writing going?” – this might be the question you dread to hear. You might have promised your supervisor to send a draft of a chapter, and now after several weeks or months there is still not much to show for it. This week on PhD Life, Olga Degtyareva tells science students how to make a start with writing the PhD thesis…

You’ve tried to write but something always gets in the way: other projects in the lab keep you busy or you might be overwhelmed by what is happening outside your work. Even when you did find time to sit down to write you did not know where to start… You felt scattered and got distracted with searching for more papers, reading books and articles on the topic, or browsing social media.

If this sounds familiar you are not alone in this struggle! And today I want to share with you how you can shift from procrastination into action and make a start with your writing by asking yourself these three questions.


Question #1: WHAT. What do you want to write up?
I get to talk to many scientists who run several projects in parallel, and they share that they have this constant thought on their mind: “I need to write my thesis” or “I need to publish more”. But when asked “Which paper or chapter you are going to write next?” they don’t know what to say, because they cannot choose which one it’s going to be. And if you cannot choose, you won’t ever start writing, right?

If you have many projects running in parallel, it is time to decide which ONE you are going to write up now. This could be the one that will have the most impact on your career in the near future, the one that is the easiest to write up, or the one that you have most control over. Now decide which project you are going to write up.

Start thinking about this chapter and this chapter only! Work on it as if other chapters don’t exist. You might be stuck in procrastination with this particular chapter because you keep writing ideas for other chapters, thinking it will save your time and effort later on. Yet in reality it is preventing you from progressing with this particular chapter. Put all other chapters aside, pretend they don’t exist and get crunching with this one.


Question #2 WHY. Why do you want to write this up?
Ask yourself why you want to write up this paper or chapter in the first place. We often go about our day thinking: “I have to write this paper”, or “I have to write this chapter” but it is exactly this thought “I HAVE to do it” that keeps us stuck in avoidance and procrastination. Reconnecting with your motivation and constructive WHY helps you get into action and start taking next steps.

An example of a constructive WHY would be: because it will have a big positive impact on my career; I want to contribute to the general knowledge; I want to leave a mark in my field of research; I have something to say that others need to hear; or I want to finish this up so that I can move on with my work and life. Reminding yourself of your WHY will help you stay motivated and keep coming back to working on your paper or your chapter even if challenges and problems come up on the way.

Stir away from a destructive WHY that will keep you stuck in procrastination or even paralyse you and prevent from taking action. These are, for example, the guilt of wasted time and effort or needing to prove to your parents that you are good enough.


Question #3: WHEN. By when do you want to have the draft ready? One of the reasons the papers and thesis take so long to write up is because they don’t usually have a deadline, or the submission deadline is just too far away. And if there is no deadline no work gets done. To get going with your writing you need to create a close deadline with several intermediate deadlines and keep yourself accountable.

Look in your diary to note any big events coming up soon such as a conference, new experiment or a friend’s wedding. Check with your supervisor when they are available for reading your paper. Work around the existing deadlines, schedule various stages of your writing – such as getting all figures ready, creating first, second and third drafts, sending it to the supervisor – and put them into your diary.


Hopefully by now you’ve got a bit more clarity about your writing and you are ready to take action. In the next blog post we will discuss how to overcome your writing block and start growing content of your writing fast.


How have you found writing up your research as a science student? Have you got any tips for those about to get started? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.


Olga Degtyareva is a Productivity Mentor for Scientists who helps scientists around the world to overcome overwhelm, become more productive, get in charge of their day while feeling happier in their life. Prior to this Olga has studied and worked for 15 years in the field of high-pressure physics and crystallography having published 38 research papers in the refereed journals. Olga shares her experience on “how to manage it all” in her Productivity for Scientists blog at Olga tweets at @Olga_Degtyareva.


Image: book-exposition-composition-poland-436507 / jarmoluk / CC0 1.0

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