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The Challenges and Solutions to Stressful PhD Thesis Writing

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One can’t help but wonder: why does thesis writing for PhD students tend to cause so much stress and how can we address it? After investing an enormous amount of time and effort into a substantial amount of research, it might seem like the hardest part is over, and the end is in sight. Unfortunately, for many, the final stage of writing can feel like an insurmountable task.

The Stressors of PhD Thesis Writing

 

The magnitude of the task, typically the lengthiest single document you’ll have ever written, combined with the substantial pressure of everything you’ve worked towards for the past years riding on this one document, can be incredibly daunting. Add to this the fact that many PhD students are tasked with writing in a second language, and the considerable strain experienced by many comes as no surprise.

While pressure can sometimes serve as motivation, it can quickly spiral into crippling stress when there’s a significant emotional investment in the outcome. If challenges arise in your writing, such as feeling stuck on how to proceed, struggling to meet the required standard, or dealing with an overload of potential material, it merely adds to the anxiety, making writing sessions seem intimidating.

Traditional Advice: A Double-edged Sword

Often, the advice given in these circumstances is to just write – get words on the page without overthinking details or structure. This strategy can initially lead to a feeling of progress as pages begin to fill up, but ultimately, it often causes more problems than it solves.

The habit of simply pouring out words as fast as possible without thoughtful consideration can make editing increasingly difficult. If editing a hundred words poses a challenge, imagine having to edit tens of thousands. This approach also encourages a habit of avoidance. It may temporarily alleviate stress to switch topics when faced with a difficult section, but it also means you’re postponing these problems and decisions for later when you’ll be under more pressure. This avoidance, in turn, erodes your confidence and makes the writing process even more daunting.

A Personal Perspective: Taking a Different Approach

My own experience with thesis writing was quite different. I actually enjoyed the process and successfully completed it quickly. I was able to do this by disregarding traditional advice and adopting a different approach. Over the past 12 years, I’ve shared this approach with numerous PhD students worldwide from a vast range of research fields, equipping them with the skills and habits needed to write confidently, and ultimately submit a thesis they can be proud of.

Key Elements of a Successful Thesis Writing Approach

Before you start writing, it’s important to make key decisions. This doesn’t just mean outlining your thesis; it means deciding the primary focus of your work. Your PhD journey will undoubtedly expose you to countless papers, theories, techniques, and ideas, but you shouldn’t try to include all of this in your writing. Rather, you should aim to communicate something interesting and relevant by selecting the most important and pertinent material from your broader base of knowledge, focusing mainly on your strengths. Remember, you’re essentially defining the scope of your own defense, so choose wisely.

Try to separate the processes of exploration and communication as much as possible. Writing is essentially about taking the ideas and knowledge in your head and presenting them on the page in a way that someone else can understand. This is made easier when you’ve already untangled the mess of interconnected ideas and insights in your mind, perhaps through a process like mind mapping, before attempting to write formally for an audience.

Structural Approaches and Variable Pace

Another unique element of my approach is to start with the introduction and work through the document sequentially. The metaphor I use to describe this process is that it’s like digging a tunnel through a mountain. You have to start at one end and persist, tackling obstacles as they come, rather than skipping to easier sections. This method has multiple benefits, including a narrowed focus, forced decision-making, and reduced repetition.

Also, it’s essential to understand that you don’t have to constantly produce words. It’s okay to let your pace vary according to the difficulty of the section you’re working on. When faced with a challenging section, slow down, allow yourself to think, and make careful decisions. This thoughtful approach should not be mistaken for unproductive perfectionism. It’s about finding the balance on the spectrum between total perfectionism and complete carelessness.

Importance of Structure

While there are numerous technical skills that can aid in thesis writing, like sentence structure, style, and rhythm, understanding and employing structure is perhaps the most crucial. Good structure links your ideas together, presenting each new piece of information as a response to a problem or question. This helps guide the reader through your work, establishing a logical flow of ideas.

If you want to learn more about mind mapping, exploring and developing ideas through writing, or about my thesis writing masterclass, please feel free to explore my web content at phd. academy or sign up for email notifications. I’m excited to help you navigate the challenges of thesis writing, and hope you find this article helpful. Please feel free to share this web content withothers who might also benefit from this approach to PhD thesis writing.

Creating a Supportive Environment

While skills and strategies are crucial, it’s equally important to create an environment conducive to effective work. This includes setting boundaries, managing your time, and ensuring you have a physical workspace that is as comfortable and free of distractions as possible.

It’s essential to recognize that writing a PhD thesis is a marathon, not a sprint. This means that self-care, including maintaining a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and ensuring you have plenty of rest, is critical. Your mental and physical well-being are key factors in your productivity and ability to produce quality work. Additionally, connecting with a supportive community of other PhD students can be incredibly beneficial, as they are experiencing the same challenges and can provide encouragement and insights.

Conclusion

Writing a PhD thesis is undoubtedly challenging, but it doesn’t have to be an exercise in misery. By being strategic in your approach, focusing on structure, understanding the need to slow down and think when necessary, and taking care of your physical and mental well-being, it’s possible to navigate the process more effectively. With these strategies, you can reduce stress and produce a thesis that you can take pride in.

Remember, a PhD is not a test of how much you can endure, but rather a chance to contribute to your field in a meaningful way. Make the most of this opportunity by managing your stress and focusing on communicating your valuable insights effectively.

About the author:

Picture of Dr. Friederike Jurth
Dr. Friederike Jurth

Possibly you already heard of me through different media channels. My name is Dr. Friederike Jurth, and I hold a certificate from Harvard in Higher Education Teaching. Since 2010, I have given lectures on Methodology, Empirical Research, Anthropology, and Transcultural (Music) Studies in collaboration with universities in the United States, Germany, Spain, and Brazil. In 2010, I began a 7-year-long fieldwork project in Rio de Janeiro and have since presented my research at conferences worldwide, including in Japan, the United States, Australia, Brazil, Thailand, Switzerland, and many other countries. Additionally, I have worked as a lecturer and researcher with Germany’s renowned UNESCO Chair.

After completing my doctoral dissertation with summa cum laude, I aimed to unite, condense, and share the steps, ways, and details of my unique methodological and structural approach that I developed during my Ph.D. and that ultimately helped me achieve this result. By concentrating and putting them together into an elaborate academic conception, MyThesis Academy was born. Motivated by the sole aim and objective to help my students through all steps and stages of their thesis journey, MyThesis Academy enables them to achieve their best possible results in the shortest time, independent of their specific area of research.

In addition to my extensive teaching and research experience, I am part of the authors of the Cambridge Companion to Music in Brazil 2024, published by Cambridge University Press & Assessment, where I contribute as a Cambridge Author. This work is a co-operative project conducted remotely from Cambridge, England, United Kingdom.

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