5 Tips for Writing & Finishing a Master’s Thesis or Doctoral Dissertation

I’ve had this conversation quite a bit lately, with both advisees and colleagues who are at the final stage in their graduate programs. Writing that big paper can be intimidating and people often experience a roller coaster of emotions. One day you may be full of excitement and energy, and the next day you are second-guessing yourself, feeling depressed, and ready to quit. Regardless of where you are in the process, I here are five simple tips.

1. Don’t treat this like your magnum opus.

This is a big deal for you, so it is easy to build it up as this masterpiece that must be perfect. Allow me to lift the curtain and show you what is behind. They are never perfect. My dissertation has its first embarrassing error in the dedication…that is before you even get to the part with page numbers! I am embarrassed about it, but it sure isn’t the end of the world. A wise professor once put it this way. If your thesis or dissertation is the best thing you ever do with your life, then you really messed up with your life. A thesis or dissertation is the beginning of a long career. It is one that many value, but you will go on to do greater things, to accomplish loftier goals. This is just the beginning for you.

2. The 15-30 minutes a day strategy actually works.

I’ve seen it work over and over for people, especially for the writing part. Sometimes it is more like 30 or 60 minutes a day (maybe 90), but the point is to pace yourself. Force yourself to write/read/analyze each day, even if it is just a bit. You will be delighted to see what you’ve completed in a matter of months.

3. Schedule Your Work

This is similar to the last one, but a schedule can be your best friend. Regardless of your personality, I’ve seen hundreds of people go through this process and those who schedule daily/weekly times to work on their thesis or dissertation seem to have a less emotional experience. They treat it like a job, block off the time, and they keep working at it until they are finished. This works, and this is coming from one of the least scheduled people that you will ever meet.

4. Ask Your Chair and Committee for Help

They get paid to help you. It is their job. If a graduate student does not successfully defend a thesis or dissertation, that is partly the fault of a committee. You have to do the work, but they exist as resources, mentors, and encouragers. I realize that some graduate faculty forget this and get stuck in their own heads. That is misplaced and it is not on you. Respectfully but persistently ask for their input and guidance. If you are feeling stuck or unsure, that is to be expected at times. However, don’t let yourself be there long. Instead reach out and lean on their experience, even if it is just for them to tell you that you are on the right (or wrong) track.

5. Remember That Your Worth Doesn’t Depend on a Piece of Paper

Yes, you’ve worked hard to get to this last phase of your degree, and you can do this. However, anxiety is not an amazing motivator and it doesn’t help you think at your best. Put this in perspective. Yes, this is important to you, but you are a unique creation, full of potential and inherent worth. Some lose track of this and fall into different bad habits: everything from food and drink to taking our their frustration on coworkers or those around them. Battle that with a healthy dose of reality and looking at the big picture. Also don’t forget to keep the good habits going. If you have a habit of daily exercise, devotional reading, free reading or another healthy activity, keep it. This will allow you some balance. Key, however, is to remember that your worth has nothing to do with whether you ever finish this paper or earn that final diploma. Let that freedom allow you to enjoy the work as a choice. Dig in and get it done. You can do this.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

One Reply to “5 Tips for Writing & Finishing a Master’s Thesis or Doctoral Dissertation”

  1. Michael Uden

    #5 is my favorite tip. Perspective is invaluable. My dissertation advisor once told me, “Remember, you are not responsible for completing a masterpiece of research. You are responsible for adding one phenomenal brush stroke to the overall masterpiece of research.” You are adding something to contribute and complement the canon of academic research, but one’s thesis or dissertation is not the cornerstone or completion of all. Leave that alpha and omega stuff to God.

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