What I’ve Learnt From Writing up My PhD Thesis

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Very few people in life will find themselves in a situation where they are required to write up a rather lengthy document such as a PhD thesis.

If you’re reading this post you might very well be a PhD student yourself or familiar with the process at least. Whether it’s something as simple as an article or an entire book, writing, in general, is not a simple task and often requires lots of referencing, editing, correcting and proofreading.

Over time, things will change and you’ll end up having to move things around, add a paragraph or two here and there, adjust a figure, and to figure out why on earth this table is not stay in its place (you know I’m looking at you LaTeX)

The bottom line is, writing a PhD thesis isn’t easy. Having recently written up and submitted my PhD thesis (awaiting viva) here are a few things which I have learnt over the past four years which will hopefully be of help to you.

1. Don’t aim for perfection

If you’re anything like me, you may suffer from being a “perfectionist”. You may want to have things just so and everything has to be correct and orderly to the highest possible standards.

While it’s good practice to have your thesis in a presentable form, you may find yourself at risk of losing focus of the goal of your thesis – to demonstrate that you have contributed to new knowledge.

Instead, focus on building a thesis which is complete and helps demonstrate that you know your research. Don’t get caught up in things like having the right font size for headings or spacing between paragraphs. These can be adjusted later on.

2. Work in bite-sized chunks

As I mentioned before, writing a PhD thesis is a massive task and it’s not something you can pull off by working 24/7 without leaving the computer. This is not healthy and you could be at risk of burnout.

Instead, I would dedicate three or four hours every working day to writing up my thesis and making minor improvements. This may not seem like much but I remember being reminded of the simple one percent improvement rule.

In the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, he introduces the concept of the one percent improvement rule in which you seek to make a 1% improvement to your work every day. While this may seem small it will have a compounding effect over time which will produce a much larger gain. For example, improving by 1% every day will result in a factor of 37 over the year (1.01 ^ 365 = 37.78). More can be found in this excellent post by Chris Gardener.

3. Be open to change

Towards the end of the thesis, you’ll find yourself spending many hours trying to rework parts of the thesis to make it fit. How you start your thesis is very different to where you will finish it.

To ensure that your thesis is as best as it can be, you need to be prepared to work with your supervisor and accept that some parts may need to be reworked or even removed completely to ensure that it works.

4. Start early

Like most tasks in life, it’s probably best not to leave things (especially the thesis) till the last minute. As a result, you may end up rushing it and producing something rather substandard which is not your best work.

Simply put, my best advice would be to start as early as you can. For my thesis, the first thing I did was complete a literature review. This helped me find out more about my field and gave me a feel for what writing a thesis is like.

5. Make time for yourself

Aside from your academic work, it is important that you pursue interests and hobbies of your own. I cannot stress enough the importance of taking time out for yourself to focus on things which you enjoy and find relaxing.

For example, I enjoy being active and cycling as well as spending time reading and writing. Make sure that you prioritise time in your calendar to do these things. Resting is just as important as working!

6. Just Write!

It may seem incredibly obvious, but just write! Often enough when I’ve faced Writer’s block and I struggle to find the correct words to say, I’m too focused on getting it down perfectly and right the first time.

Writing is a skill and often enough it takes many iterations to get it right first time. It’s simply not possible to do that without a few edits. The chances are you’ve never written to this extent before so it’s not something you’ve learnt to practice over time.

Just write something down. It doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be grammatically correct and free from typos. Just getting words to paper is a great start.


To conclude, writing a PhD thesis is not an easy process. If you’re reading this as a PhD Student, the chances are, you’ll never write something to the scale and magnitude of a thesis ever again.

The reality is, writing a PhD thesis is a massive task and takes months if not years to produce.

One of the best pieces of advice I was given was that “a PhD is a marathon and not a sprint”. It takes a lot of training and work to get it right. Simply rushing into it could leave you at risk of burnout which isn’t nice.

Remember to go easy on yourself, pat yourself on the back and remember that completing the PhD thesis is such a rewarding experience.

About James Ashford

I’m an academic in the UK researching Network Science and Social Computing. I enjoy scraping, analysing and visualising data and social networks. In my free time, I like to explore the outdoors, mountain climbing, cycling, running and attending church. I think of myself as an all-round nerd.