How to navigate the PhD thesis

The PhD thesis may be a mountain to climb, but you can take it one step at a time. Luis R Rojas-Solórzano offers his guidance

Luis R. Rojas-Solórzano's avatar
16 Jun 2024
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Embarking on the journey of writing a PhD thesis is both daunting and exciting. In this pocket-size guide, I’ve distilled my decades of experience in higher education into practical advice to help you navigate this challenging terrain and emerge with a completed work you’re proud of. 

Creating a detailed timeline with daily goals

Time management is crucial to thesis writing, yet it’s often underestimated. Many students feel overwhelmed by the volume of work involved but creating a comprehensive timeline allows you to break down the project into convenient tasks, track your progress and adjust your timetable as needed. Setting daily goals provides structure to your workday, helping you stay focused and productive.

Writing a PhD thesis is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s natural to experience moments of doubt and frustration along the way. When you do, taking care of yourself and finding ways to stay motivated is essential. Take short breaks to rest, recharge and celebrate small victories. Remember that every thesis is unique and progress is not always linear. Instead of comparing yourself to your peers, focus on your journey and the valuable contributions you’ve made to your field.

Understanding the PhD thesis

The requirements for a PhD thesis vary significantly depending on your institution and field of study. It is crucial to familiarise yourself with your university’s guidelines and requirements early in the process.

Writing the thesis

Writing a PhD thesis is not simply an academic exercise – it’s a journey of self-discovery and intellectual growth. Here are my recommendations for writing with confidence: 

  • Create a draft outline to guide your writing process. Use digital tools such as MS Office and Grammarly to streamline editing and save time.
  • Start early to build momentum and confidence. Embrace your unique voice and opt for an active writing style. Let your ideas flow freely initially, refining them over time with rigorous edits.
  • Remember to write in a voice that is authentic to you. Modern academia values the personal perspective, so don’t hesitate to express your thoughts and insights in the first person.
  • As you approach the final stages of your thesis, you must organically merge all the relevant findings that support the novelty of your thesis into the final document. Typically, the wrap-up happens three months before the expected submission of your book, leaving time for your supervisor’s thorough revision.
  • Wrap up with careful planning and disciplined execution. Start by updating the original outline to adopt the final structure of your thesis that progressively unfolds and tells the story of your investigation. The updated outline will serve as a roadmap for your final sprint, helping to shape your concluding research story.

Structuring your thesis

Craft your thesis like a compelling story, following the scientific method’s structure: abstract, introduction, literature review, methods, results and discussion, and conclusion. 

The abstract is typically a paragraph with no more than 400 words, portraying a concise summary that addresses your thesis’ subject, relevance, research questions, methodology and main findings. Generally, the abstract is continuously updated until the book is complete.

In the introduction, provide context for your research by outlining the problem you’re addressing and its significance. The literature review should demonstrate your understanding of existing research and highlight the gaps your study seeks to fill. Then, describe the methodology in the subsequent section and continue with your results and their thorough analysis. Finally, conclude with a summary of your main findings and their implications for your field of study. 

Managing referencing and bibliography

Proper referencing is critical to academic writing, ensuring your work is credible and properly attributed. Take the time to familiarise yourself with your chosen citation style, whether it’s APA, MLA, Chicago or another format, and double-check all information for accuracy and consistency.

Preparing for the viva voce

The viva voce, or oral defence, is the final hurdle in the PhD journey. It’s an opportunity to defend your research and demonstrate your expertise in your field. To prepare, consider conducting mock vivas with your peers or supervisors to simulate the experience and receive feedback on your performance. Stay calm and composed during the examination, taking time to think before responding to questions. Remember, the viva voce is not just a test of your knowledge – it’s also an opportunity to engage in scholarly discourse and demonstrate your ability to think critically about your research.

You’ve completed your thesis – now what?

Finishing a PhD thesis is a significant milestone and celebrating your accomplishment is essential. Take a well-deserved break before embarking on the next phase of your career. Reflect on your goals and aspirations, considering how your research can contribute to your field and shape your future career path. Whether you’re pursuing academic opportunities or exploring options in industry, use this time to prepare for the next chapter of your journey.

The writing of a PhD thesis is a transformative journey, requiring strategic planning, perseverance and a positive mindset. By applying these insights and tactics, you can confidently navigate this journey and contribute meaningfully to your field of study.

Luis R. Rojas-Solórzano is associate provost for graduate studies at Nazarbayev University.

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