11 quick fixes to get your thesis back on track
(Last updated: 3 March 2020)
Struggles with a dissertation can begin at any phase in the process. From the earliest points in which you are just trying to generate a viable idea, to the end where there might be time-table or advisor issues.
If you feel like you're struggling, you are not alone.
For as much as the situation might feel unique to you, the truth of the matter is that it's not. You are one of hundreds of thousands of students who will have endured, and eventually triumphed, over a centuries-old process.
So, rest assured that any struggles or difficulties are completely and totally normal, and not likely to be insurmountable. Your goal to ace your thesis is certainly achievable.
There is one book that you should have on your shelf and should have read. Umberto Eco’s 'How to Write a Thesis' (MIT Press, 2015), was originally published in the late 70’s for his Italian students, and most of his analysis and advice rings true today.
It is, in essence, a guide on how to be productive and produce a large body of research writing, and it contains lots of really sound and useful advice.
"Help! I've only just started my dissertation and already I'm stuck."
For as weighty and profound as the final product might appear to be, the essence of a dissertation is quite simple: it is an answer to a question.
Dissertation writers often stumble over the same block. They try to find an answer without first asking themselves what question they are actually answering.
One of the greatest advances in physics was a result of a question so simple, it is almost child-like: ‘what would light look like if I ran alongside it?’. For those of you interested, have a read about Einstein’s thought experiment on chasing a light beam.
For many, a problem arises with a dissertation because after becoming accustomed, over several years of earlier education, to ‘spitting back’ and regurgitating information, you suddenly and largely – if not entirely – feel expected to say something original.
Try flipping your thesis statement on its head and see it as a question; what is a thesis statement but a question that has been turned into a declaration?
So just to recap, the first step in the early stages of your dissertation really should be identifying a research question.
In fact, for some advisors this is the first thing they want to see. Not, ‘what do you want to talk about?’ or, ‘what is your thesis statement?’ but, ‘what is your research question? What are you trying to answer?’.
What to do if you don't know where to start
One of the easiest ways to get started is by simply reading.
A professor we know often recommended this as a simple way of getting ideas flowing. He would have his students read about a dozen of the most recent articles pertaining to a particular topic.
Not broad topics, mind you, like twelve recent articles on Shakespeare or globalisation, but more focused, like ‘Shakespeare and travel’ or ‘globalisation and education’.
What is particularly useful about reading in this way is that most articles are part of some thread of academic discussion, and so will mention and account for previous research in some way.
By reading such articles, you’ll gain an idea of what has been and is being discussed in your area of interest and what the critical issues are. Usually, after just a handful of articles, some rough ideas and focus start to emerge.
What to do if you don’t have anything to say
Maybe you have found a general idea, that ‘question’, but you are still left without something to talk about. At this point, you just don’t have the data, or the material, to work up a dissertation. The answer is quite simple: you need to do research.
Have you ever considered what research is? Why the ‘re-‘? Why isn’t it just called ‘search’? This step requires you to look over and over and over again, for patterns, themes, arguments… You are looking at other people’s work to see what they have wrong and right, which will allow for plenty of discussion.
Follow your instincts
Not to make the process sound overly mystical, but at this point in your academic career there should be a gut response to what you read.
A noteworthy idea or a passage should make your academic antennae sit up and pay attention, without you necessarily even knowing why. Perhaps you are simply struck by the notion that what you just read was interesting, for some reason. This ‘reason’ is what we mean by ‘instincts’.
In fact, studies have shown that you can be right up to 90% of the time when trusting your gut.
We know many, many academics and the process is very much the same for them – something for some reason or other just catches their attention. As you go through your research – your reading, reading, and reading – you should always note these things that draw your eye.
Write (don't type) everything down
Now seems like a great time to tell you that here at Oxbridge Essays HQ, we are HUGE fans of the index card.
We’re not joking when we say that a few books or printed articles and a half-stack of index cards for jotting down notes and ideas is all you need to get going.
Index cards are easier to sort and move around than a notebook, and easier to lay out than a computer screen. In fact, outside of research and materials-gathering for which internet access is vital, for the first stages of your dissertation writing the humble index card might be all you need. After you’ve created a good-sized stack of index cards, a pattern (though maybe not the pattern) should start to develop.
And for the sake of all that is holy and dear, write everything down! Do not trust your memory with even the smallest detail because there is little worse than spending hours trying to remember where you saw something that could have been helpful, and never finding it.
"Argh! I'm mid-way through my dissertation and suddenly, I've run out of steam."
There is a famous phrase; you probably know it: ‘Never a day without a line’.
You should never go a day without writing something, or rewriting something.
If the notion of working every day on your dissertation fills you with dread, consider this: a dissertation, as we just suggested; is merely a form of work. In life, there are few good reasons to not go to work, and so should there be few that mean you do not work on your dissertation.
Some days will always be better than others, and some days you will feel more or less enthusiastic. But don’t trick yourself into thinking that your ‘feeling’ towards your work on any particular day may make what you produce better or worse.
Ultimately, the quality of your work should stem from the good habits that you have cultivated. Make working on your dissertation every day one of your good habits.
What to do if you feel like you've reached a dead end
This may not be what you want to hear, but even if you are struggling, you should work every day including weekends.
And try not to book any holidays that will mean you’ll be away from your computer – or tempted to be – whilst you’re doing your dissertation. It’s likely there will be at least one time when you’ll be forced to take time off (illness, for example, or a family bereavement), so if you work every day, it’ll help you stay on track should anything like this come up.
And work begets work. It’s far easier to pick up where you last left off if you only left off yesterday. But trying to do so when you haven’t worked for a week, or even a few days, can be a hard task.
Some people do complain of writer’s block, but this just doesn’t fly with us. First, you aren’t writing Ulysses. Second, and more important, there is always something to do. Have you read everything in your field? Updated your bibliography? Read over your notes?
Granted, sometimes you can get stuck. There may be times when paragraphs or sections just do not cooperate. This is not uncommon and it can take days or weeks to figure out what the problem is.
It can help, when you come to a dead-end in this way, to think about two things: is it necessary and, if so, is it right? If it’s neither necessary or right, it can and probably should be deleted.
You’ll have to get used to, particularly in the early stages of your dissertation, binning sections of work that just don’t fit or do your dissertation justice. Don’t be afraid to be ruthless; just quietly move the offending passage into a scraps file (do not delete it entirely) and move on. Maybe it will make more sense later.
If it helps, one academic who contributed to this blog post had, for their 100,000-word dissertation, a file of 40,000 useless scraps.
What to do if you are falling behind
Not to finger wag, but if you had planned well and worked every day, this statement should never be one you relate to.
But, sadly, sometimes it happens. Time can be remarkably fragile and unexpected life events can ruin what probably looked good and doable on paper. Setbacks do not mean you failed, nor do they mean you will fail. It might mean, however, that you have to take a different approach.
Any time you have a serious issue that jeopardises your ability to complete your thesis, the first place to go is your advisor to discuss options. There are also mentoring services on many campuses.
If you have fallen behind, you need to honestly assess how bad the situation is. Is this something that can be resolved by, say, putting in a few extra hours each day? Adding a half-day on the weekends? Neither of these situations are uncommon. Or will you perhaps require an extension? If the amount of time is serious enough to warrant taking it to an administrative level, be honest and frank with both yourself and the person you speak to.
"If you have fallen behind, you need to honestly assess
how bad the situation is. Be honest and frank with
both yourself and the person you speak to."
One of the most practical ways to avoid falling behind is not to let some of the smaller things get away from you. Reading, note-taking, data collection and bibliography building can all be tedious tasks left for another day.
But sitting down to read thousands of pages in one marathon go is unproductive. The best advice is still ‘read a little, write a little, every single day’.
The math favours you here. Reading a single article or a few chapters every day builds a nice familiarity with your field over the course of a year. And writing 500-1000 words every day yields enough content for two to three dissertations.
In fact, it has been shown that professional academics who write just that many words each day are more productive than colleagues who attempt marathon (and sometimes panicky and stressful) sessions.
"I'm so close to finishing my dissertation, but I'm having last-minute worries."
What to do if you think your idea is terrible
If you work on something long enough, doubts are going to start creeping in. The further in you are, the less of an objective view you will be able to take on your work.
Some perspective can be helpful here.
There are two fairly common rules of thumb for dissertations and theses among academics. The first is that you are finished when your work is more right than wrong. The second is that it does not have to be perfect, but it does have to be finished.
You can waste time obsessing about how awful your idea is, or you can just finish the bloody thing. Examiners commonly disagree on the quality of your work, its merit and its value, and make suggestions for improvement. This will happen no matter how brilliant your idea might be.
It also helps to keep in mind that you are very unlikely to write anything with which examiners do not disagree.
What to do if your idea is no longer viable
This is the stuff of nightmares for dissertation writers. You spend oodles of time and effort coming up with a brilliant idea. Your advisor and/or committee are supportive and excited for you. You are certain that nothing of what you are talking about has been essayed by anyone else.
And yet, there is a lurking terror. A terror that you are going to be scooped and find research that is exactly like what you are doing. We speak from experience here, and we know people who have had this happen.
The scenario usually plays out in one of two ways.
More often than not you'll find that you and your new nemesis have taken two completely different approaches. This is actually great news for you. Now you have a discussion that you can incorporate into your work. You have something in which you can find and comment on positive aspects as well as shortcomings.
In the less likely event that you have, in fact, rewritten the work of another researcher then you will need to account for that work and perhaps try to develop another line of approach.
The most important point to bear in mind is that the vast majority of academic work exists in dialogue with other works. So it is often a good thing that someone else is researching the same problem you are. Indeed, you might even consider reaching out and contacting that person just to hone your ideas or solicit feedback. In general, if you do this politely and professionally, you will be warmly received.
What to do if you don’t have enough words
Everyone writes differently. Some people are amazingly concise writers. They can elegantly shoehorn into a single sentence what balloons into a paragraph for another. Most dissertation requirements have a set range.
Notably, some advisors can adjust that and add or subtract. The aforementioned academic who contributed to this blog post – his doctoral supervisor tacked on 20,000 words just because he felt it was necessary. The academic still disagrees with it to this day.
Our point is that the word limit is not arbitrarily set. It is generally agreed that this is the amount of words required to discuss a topic fully. Thus, if you're short of words then unfortunately you haven't discussed your topic as fully as you should have.
If this is the case, you need to look for where your gaps have settled in. The best way to do this will be to solicit outside readers – two or three, one of whom should be your supervisor.
But you don’t want to drop a stack of papers in front of someone and say, ‘can you read this and tell me what to do?’. The better approach will be to assemble a very thorough outline of 3-5 pages that shows the structure and ask if they will look this over. We can assure you, the response will be much more positive and their response time markedly shorter.
Another approach to increasing word count is to generate an indirectly related discussion and add it as an appendix.
What to do if you have too many words
Congratulations! You are probably in the minority, but cutting words is often much easier than finding them.
Still, the acceptable range rule stands for an excess of words just as it does for too few.
If you find yourself in this position, then quite likely you have academic bloat. It’s quite a common trap for dissertation writers as they develop what they perceive to be an academic style and tone in their writing.
But before you simply jettison whole sections of your thesis to bring the word count down, we would especially recommend, for later stage thesis and dissertation writing, a wonderful little book by Richard Lanham called 'Revising Prose' (Pearson, 2006).
When it was first introduced it was a welcome sensation. It’s a short and clear-cut guide to cutting the bloat and bull out of academic writing and making your prose more precise and refined at the sentence and paragraph level. This might sound overly simplistic but don’t sniff at the notion – the book is a potent little text and we wish it were read by every dissertation and thesis writer.
What to do if your supervisor isn’t helpful
This is a problem that can actually present itself at any stage of the dissertation or thesis writing process. It can be one of the most frustrating matters with which you might have to contend.
One thing that you must understand is that the university wants and needs to see you complete your project.
That is not to say that they’ll be pleased with shoddy work. But the more graduates, the more vital the department appears, and the more funding they can request and be allocated.
So there is a vested interest in your success, even if there are points at which it doesn’t feel this way. At some universities, one of the ways in which these conflicts are avoided is through a general contract of expectations. This is done at the outset and lays out the basics of the working relationship (when and how often you will meet, for instance). Hopefully you will have formally or informally handled this early and can identify where a fault might lay.
It can also help to arrange at the outset for a co-supervisor. This person can be invaluable. Often a co-supervisor will practically take over a project, especially if the co-supervisor is young and eager to build credibility and experience as a supervisor (the best sort, really).
If you have an unproductive working relationship with your supervisor, consider seriously the nature and expectations of it from both sides.
Not to shift the fault to you, but sometimes supervisees can have unrealistic expectations of their supervisor. The truth is that very few supervisors have the time or inclination to pal around with their supervisees, drinking cognac into the wee hours and talking about high enlightened matters.
The reality is that the better and more capable students are often regarded to be the ones who come in, write their projects, and move on. Supervisors have other obligations (e.g. teaching, their own research, other students writing projects). They expect supervisees to be able to work independently and not need too much hand-holding.
There is, nevertheless, tremendous anxiety that surrounds one’s relationship with their supervisor. This is largely due to the extremely imbalanced power relationship. Your supervisor is, after all, someone on whom you will depend for letters, vetting, and generally someone on whom you will rely professionally.
It is not a relationship you want to sour. But you should also consider that the relationship has to be professional and nothing should be taken personally. Think about what you need from your advisor, not what you want. If your professional needs are not being met than you should consider mediation, provided you have discussed these needs with your advisor and they remain unmet.
A final thought...
Throughout the months or years that you are preparing your dissertation or thesis you should keep in mind two helpful words: don’t panic.
It is extremely unlikely that anything you are experiencing hasn’t been experienced by someone else. Or that it presents an obstacle with which your supervisors or the university is unfamiliar.
There are few obstacles that are insurmountable, so try to remember this if you ever feel panic rising. Remember to keep your advisor in the loop and deal with any problems that arise promptly; don’t let them fester.
Also, the more prepared you are to begin with the easier it will be to deal with problems and frustrations down the road.