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I am 2 1/2 years in a a part time PhD and really struggling to know where to start with the writing up phase. I have enough research, although this is obviously subject to change, but really don't know where to start...it feels completely overwhelming. Additionally I had to change supervisor recently and my new one is very hands off and always too busy helping people get through their submissions. I am considering that I am not independent enough but I also feel very isolated and unsupported. I have Read many things on "how to write a thesis" but they have not been very useful to me, this may be because my subject areas are cross disciplinary art/science/humanities? Any help or advice gratefully received...

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    This comment may be deleted as promotion, but I think you should check out my wife Joan Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. Lots of reviews on Amazon. Jul 14, 2022 at 22:20
  • Step one should definitely be attempting to vitalize your relation with your supervisor.
    – BillOnne
    Jul 15, 2022 at 17:11
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    @EthanBolker It's a relevant resource, and you've disclosed your affiliation. I don't think you're violating the site's self-promotion rules here.
    – wizzwizz4
    Jul 15, 2022 at 22:29
  • Also, anything written down is better than nothing; you can't edit a blank page.
    – masher
    Jul 18, 2022 at 12:48

12 Answers 12

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TLDR:

  1. write one sentence with the main point that you plan to prove beyond reasonable doubt in your dissertation.
  2. Write a list of bullet points and sub-points which are indispensable for you to prove your main point.
  3. Then go through each point and force yourself to write at least 200 words every day within 20-30 minutes. Do not be concerned with pretty words, that is utterly irrelevant at this stage: brainstorm and write anything that comes to mind during this period. Usually the best time to write is to wake up early, turn off phone notifications and write before most of your close ones start waking up. Once you reach the end of the list, start from the beginning, refining, adding and changing what you've already written. Rinse up and repeat.

Note: starting from a table of contents is also fine, as suggested by the previous poster. Just start writing somewhere, and make it a daily indispensable routine. 200 words per day starts to add up very quickly after a few months, even if you will end up rejecting at least 1/3 of what you originally wrote. Use the table of contents, and discuss it with your supervisor in a meeting, then proceed from there.)


There is no way to "efficiently" write a PhD thesis. You are presenting one research result that no one has ever found out before, and there is inevitably going to be some trial and error, failures and successes, until you get it done properly. It is self-defeating to think about "writing smart" or writing only "fully-matured ideas". You cannot actually start to think about your work until you've put your rough ideas on paper, and look at them again a few days later with fresh eyes, or show them to someone else for feedback. Don't rely only on your supervisor for help; try to get your colleagues to read each other's rough work. By talking to them, many times you will find out that an idea, or line of reasoning that you thought was crystal-clear is actually quite fuzzy and messy; at the very least, your colleagues can help you to clarify your arguments (even if they are not experts), and thus their input is often invaluable.

To state the obvious, it is pointless to wait for some magic moment when you can start writing. You should be writing a little bit every single day, at least 200 words, even if it seems like nonsense, or poorly written. That's what later revisions are for. No excuses, no procrastinations, no notifications, no distractions. Secure a daily slot of time only for yourself. Anything beyond 200 words in 30 minutes per day is a bonus. If you run out of time, write a quick note for yourself to remember what you should write about in tomorrow's slot. Be sure to sleep well every day, go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, eat properly and do some exercise as well. This will be indispensable to help you psychologically overcome the repetitiveness of writing a dissertation.

You were not particularly specific about your fields of study, but here are some bullet points that would help guide you:

  1. What is the key point (thesis) that you intend to argue/prove beyond reasonable doubt in this dissertation? Write a short "Twitter-length" version, then a longer one.

  2. What are the key sub-points (evidence/arguments) that you need to present in order to prove your thesis? Include only the indispensable ones. Later on, you might be able to add a few non-essential ones, but keep it simple.

  3. What are the key points that previous researchers have argued regarding your topic, and how is your work going to improve upon their work? Which of their points do you agree, disagree and why?

  4. What is the basic background information that you must add to each key point, so that all of the final judges can understand all of your arguments clearly? Since you are doing interdisciplinary work, it is likely that each of the professors will come from a different field. What is obvious for one person is completely unknown to another. Never assume that some background info is "too obvious" to write. Be concise and direct, make sure that all of your readers have the necessary background information at hand to understand the gist of your arguments. Footnotes can help to accommodate some of that info without breaking the flow of your argument.

  5. What are the scientific techniques/methods that you will rely on to prove each argument? Present each of them concisely, and state how reliable they are. What are their advantages and limitations? What is their margin of error?

  6. What are the historical/primary materials that you will rely on to prove your thesis? Who produced/compiled them, when? And how reliable are these sources? On which aspects are we likely to find lies and exaggerations, and on which aspects are we likely to find reliable information? If you are analysing a historical (art) object, how has it been transformed over time until the present?

  7. For each of your arguments, are there alternative explanations? If you are trying to prove something, show not only the evidence that agrees with your hypothesis, but also the evidence that goes against it. If there are two or more possible explanations for a given phenomenon, present all of them to the reader, and then use your best judgement to select one of them, presenting it as a hypothesis (note however that at the very least, your key thesis point should be proved beyond reasonable doubt).

  8. When presenting your arguments, always show how you combine techniques from different disciplines in order to support your reasoning. See if you can use images instead of words to make a certain point clearer, or to make a certain technique easier to understand for a non-expert. Use clear language at all times, so that even non-experts can understand the majority of your arguments. Use difficult terminology only when it is absolutely indispensable.

  9. Make an excel list of all of the quotations/citations that are indispensable for proving your point. Make sure that for each quotation, you have another cell with the detailed bibliographical reference and page number, and add another cell with your comments regarding the quotation (ex: what is this quotation trying to say, and why does it matter for your final arguments?) In fact, you can start writing the dissertation just by writing such "comment" cells, and use them to start building up the main dissertation text.

  10. As you expand and revise the text (and expect to fully revise your whole text a few times if you want to have anything of decent quality!), do not hesitate to remove things that might be interesting, curious, but are not particularly relevant to prove your point; It's alright to add a few extra bits of information here and there, but don't get carried away. If those "bits" start getting too long and are disrupting the flow of your arguments, you must be merciless: cut those parts, and put them in a separate word file, in a folder called "scrapbook". You will have the chance to reuse those ideas for future papers or a full-length book.

  11. At the end, write a text reviewing all of the information that you previously presented, and explain how it all comes together to prove your thesis. Be implacably rigorous in your citations, references and bibliography. Make use of tools such as Zotero to carefully prepare such things.

  12. If there are appendixes that are too lengthy to fit into the main text, or key images that are indispensable for proving a point, it is perhaps best to get them fully finished, organized and prepared before writing the final text.


There is nothing glamorous about writing a PhD. It is a "dirty", repetitive and sometimes tedious job. The point of getting a PhD is not to have some diploma to brag about (although it doesn't hurt); it is to prove to others that you capable of overcoming the mindless daily routine of getting basic research done, and proving your key arguments to people who are not familiar with you or your work.

I hope these points can serve as inspiration to get you to commit to a daily routine. Good luck and work hard (or more importantly, work consistently!).

Note: If you are not sure whether you have enough evidence to prove your points, make a pdf with a concise bullet list of your arguments, send it in advance to your supervisor(s) and request a 15-30 minute meeting with them. Since they are so busy, make it as easy as possible for them to understand your work quickly and provide quick feedback, so that they have time to move to other tasks. Consider rehearsing your main points in advance, so that you don't enter the meeting and start talking about random stuff, which will just be frustrating for everyone and waste precious time. Take detailed notes of the supervisor's/colleagues feedback.

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  • Excellent. Lots of detail. It reminds me of another book: "Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics" (no affiliation, but I did enjoy it) which says some very similar things.
    – earthling
    Jul 16, 2022 at 6:27
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Without plagiarizing, look at the efforts of prior students. What was their thesis like? Think of replacing their research with what you have to say. If they had 7 chapters, try 7 chapters, etc. Some basics will be in all of your advisor's students dissertation work, for example, all my advisor's students of the time would need to establish what a correlation matrix was and so forth .... So set up the basic structure related to your field.

There are a lot of things that can then be put into that basic structure. So, write an outline of what you are going to do, with chapter titles and possibly subheadings.

For my field (electrical engineering) there were several scientific / mathematical figures that I needed to have, so start working on those and arranging them if need be. Adding good captions, and text that describes them, can take one a long way in writing a dissertation.

Keep your goals in mind: Make a circle representing the whole thesis, and start filling it in as you complete it, sort of like the thermometer used in some fund-raising efforts.

For a thesis, you both need original work and related it to past work done by others. So, for the latter, you will need dozens of references, so start writing them out, and that too is an accomplishment.

My thesis was 200 pages long (which was long for the time in my field), some liberal arts ones can be much longer. Even if it is 500 pages long, if you average one page of work per day, you will be done in less than two years.

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Everyone has their own approach. I am a skilled procrastinator, but realize that "tomorrow" is the place where lays 90% of human plans and work. My PhD was in France in the late 90's in applied physics.

I started my PhD by the acknowledgments section. That was an easy 1 page.

After taking some rest, I jumped to the parts I liked the most, the technical and scientific "meat" of my thesis. In practical terms, this meant taking my papers and nicely merging them together.

We are now at at least 10-20 pages - a very good start.

I then did the conclusion section, basically congratulating myself for the great discoveries. We should be at 20 or 25 pages by now.

This was followed by a section my advisor almost fainted at - the discussion of how it could have been better, what is wrong with the thesis, etc. This is normally the work of the reviewers but I wanted to be honest and not hide some issues. Out of the five reviewers, one said that this was unacceptable and wrote more or less the same text I did, and two thanked me for improved vacation time (they were reviewing the thesis in the summer).

We are now at 40 pages or so, time to wrap up.

The introduction was 1 page long - after announcing the general topic (an extension of the title of sorts) I wrote that if one needs some introduction, it is best to read this and that book and come back to the thesis later.

This brings us to about 45 pages total and this is, tadaam, my PhD.

You may have noticed two irritating problems with this approach:

  • the smart-assness of the author who believes that 45 pages are enough when 150 is expected of such a pit of wisdom (my good friend wrote two tomes). My beloved doctoral advisor (I really, really liked him) told me that thankfully this is my thesis and that I will have to do the belly dancing.
  • the complete lack of plan when writing the thesis: yes. I was afraid that if I start with a plan (say, the table of contents) I will be scared and leave that to tomorrow.

Writing my thesis was surprisingly fun and rather quick.

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  • which year? which country? which topic? Otherwise it is just a number. I am rather sure that if academia was full of people like you and your advisor it would be a much better place. Unfortunately, not.
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 15, 2022 at 15:38
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    @EarlGrey: I updated the info - you are right, it may be wildly different across areas.
    – WoJ
    Jul 15, 2022 at 15:46
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It is always a good idea to start at the beginning, that is the title and the table of contents. This should give you a pretty good idea of what you want to say. Papers you have written can often be added as separate chapters without excessive massaging.

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I'm in a similar position - about to start writing just less than 6 months before funding runs out. I guess the advice would differ depending on your discipline, the expectations from your adviser or institution, your personality and preferences.

Things that might work:

  • Have a discussion with your adviser and set a deadline for handing something in, e.g. a particular chapter. Having this commitment might help to focus the mind and get something down, even if it's not great. Then you review and re-visit the strategy from there.

  • Work top-down. What is the overall story or set of contributions? How will you develop these through your dissertation? As Oбжорoв says, you could literally start out by putting section titles in and seeing the table of contents grow into a structure that makes sense. Then you'd break it down into subsections, figures, tables, case-studies etc.

  • Work bottom-up. Maybe you've written a conference paper, or produced a particularly interesting result, or you have some notes about a paper you've reviwed and used which could form one subsection of your lit review. Get these into a document and be prepared to re-write, chop, re-order. Having something there feels like an achievement and you can keep throwing a few building blocks in there until you step back and start thinking a bit more about the big picture.

  • Join a writing group. Many universities have a zoom meeting (or a physical room) set up for 2-3 hrs on a weekly basis where people commit to come and work quietly on a defined writing task - no mobiles, no social media, etc.

  • Set targets or record progress as a way to motivate yourself. I made a silly thing to help me keep tack of progress: https://github.com/felixvuo/tex-words-worm. There are many apps or websites which will help you set a goal and record progress towards it.

  • Keep speaking to experienced and helpful people. If your adviser is not very helpful, your uni might have a dedicated writing support facility or some other mentoring opportunity aimed at PhD students.

  • Look at recent theses accepted by your institution in your field. Hopefully they are openly accessible online - they might give you some inspiration for what you're aiming at.

Good luck in getting started.

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On the Very Much Lighter Side

I've always liked Sir Terry Pratchett's approach:

In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.

It's tough to top that, but I do have to believe that he came up with it on a whim, perhaps after a nice stout or sherry.

In general, I just try to get something down when writing something new. If it's not a good beginning, I can always go back and provide an intro to what I have. Relax though, you've got this - you really do. You've done much of the hard parts already.

The key is to relax and have a bit of fun if you can.

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Many good answers on writing from scratch. I infer from the question that OP has already some research done and some papers published.

So, step one: Combine the papers together, one paper is one chapter. You might or might not want to use all the papers. On one hand, the more, the better. On the other, if they do not "fit" each other it might be easier to find some common ground, the inherent research question you were actually trying to answer with those papers. (Even if you do not have such a question in mind, your supervisor probably had.)

Step two: Fix the writing, for example, if a single related work chapter is required, pull out the corresponding parts of the papers.

Step three: Think hard. Everything about research question, the actual "hypothesis", etc. from the other answers applies here. (Actually, this should have been step zero.)

Step four: Produce some kind of a plan, how did you answer this question with what you now have in the theses. Write introduction and conclusions based on this understanding.

Step five: Revise. Revise. Revise until you are happy with the whole content. The whole process might take half a year.


A notice on properly conducted research: You should have started with the research question, at the beginning of your PhD. But if you did some research, produced some results, have some papers, but have no idea how to begin a thesis, then use the steps from above.

So, for the completeness, here are the steps the way it should have been done:

  1. Identify research hypothesis.
  2. Plan out the research to be done, put meaningful parts of it into research projects (corresponding to papers). This is the actual table of contents of the main part of your future thesis.
  3. Get the work done, get the papers published, one after another.
  4. Each paper is now a chapter of the thesis.
  5. General formatting adjustments, such as one central related work.
  6. Write introduction and conclusions.
  7. Revise until happy.

Oh, and do yourself a favour. If you are in maths, computer science, physics, probably even chemistry or biology, use LaTeX. There are some tricks to use, so you don't need to learn all the syntax (keyword: markdown). LaTeX is ugly to deal with, at first. During first two weeks you probably won't be able to write a single word, because you are fighting with the layout and the formatting syntax.

But in the end, it will pay up. Firstly, it looks much nicer. Secondly, writing a large, 100+ pages document in Word is a pain. You can write 1000 pages in LaTeX quite in the same manner you write 100. You can also use version control (keyword: git) to track the revisions of your document. In this way, you can go back to a better wording you deleted two weeks ago due to an oversight. You can easily track your progress. You see what has changed between the versions. And, of course, you can use GitHub or GitLab to store the current state somewhere else. Which might be useful if your laptop self-ignites or gets stollen.

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Lots of great advice already. I'd like to add that formatting can quickly become very time consuming on a large document like a dissertation. It might pay to learn some of the finer points of your preferred document processor (e.g. Word, LibreOffice Writer, LaTeX, etc) now.

Your university probably has a template for your document processor. Get a copy of that and start messing with it.

Some things you should know how to do (in no particular order). Many or most of these things will be useful even if you leave academia forever:

  • Use Styles. Most of your text will be in Normal or Default style. But Chapters and Sections should use Chapter and Heading Styles
  • Use Autonumbering. Chapters, Sections, Equations, Figures can (and should!!) all be autonumbered and if you know how to use these features it will save you a lot of heartache later. Autonumbering for chapter/sections can be especially maddening, but is really helpful.
  • Learn how to Insert Cross References. Say you want to refer to a Figure number in Chapter 7. You could do it by hand, but that would be a grave mistake. Because there is a 100% chance that your numbers will change and it will be very difficult to go back by hand and accurately change all of your references.
  • Figure out a system for References/Endnotes. A million years ago when I wrote my dissertation, EndNote( see here and here) was a popular app. These days there are more options, including Zotero (see here and here). Wikipedia has a page on reference managers.

Make backups. If you can buy a bunch of cheap USB sticks, get a 10 pack and give copies to friends, families, partners for safekeeping.

Good luck and keep your chin up. You can do this.

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Many great points, though I'm going to offer something a little different: after you've set out an outline for the main points you need to cover, start with the part are you the most confident about/have you been working on most recently. When you're building that writing habit it will be hugely helpful if you can start with something you feel confident with. If that's the methodology or results chapters, start with those!

Also, starting is one of the hardest parts, but you can absolutely do this.

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Everyone has a different approach to this, and you must find your own. My own approach tends to be to start at the beginning and keep writing till I get to the end; then go back to the beginning and revise. I will have an outline plan, but it won't be much more than a list of chapter headings and perhaps a paragraph saying what goes in each chapter. I might change the writing order if I can reuse material for some of the content; or I might leave the introduction till last, when I know more clearly what I'm introducing. If I get stuck during the first pass, because I don't know what to say, I'll leave a "TODO" in the text, for example "[TODO: explain here why approach X wasn't feasible]", or "[TODO: citation needed]", or "[TODO: this should probably have been covered in Chap 3]" - the general idea is that by the time you're in the writing phase, everything you want to write should be in your head, and you shouldn't interrupt the flow of the writing process to do more research. The thing I find important is to maintain momentum: once you've started, keep pressing on, don't go back to revise the text, and don't stop to gather information, until you've got to the end.

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  • This is sort of a "bottom-up" approach, as opposed to "top-down". Jul 21, 2022 at 18:02
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The way I wrote my thesis (and any associated publications during that time) was to slowly build up a very detailed outline.

This process is mostly relevant for introduction/discussion sections where you're trying to consolidate a lot of external information. In a nutshell:

  1. I started this process very early on, maybe 1 year into my PhD, and each day I was contributing a little bit to the final thesis. That way I always felt like I was making a little bit of progress, without feeling overwhelmed with trying to write 100+ pages in a short amount of time
  2. Whenever I read a research paper, I would write a 1 line summary of the main finding into my outline. This includes the citation to the paper (use a ref manager to help)
  3. Over time, these 1 line summaries will naturally group into relevant/related topics, so I would create sub headers for them
  4. As these sections fill out, it's also useful to write "connecting sentences" that explain how you would transition from one paper/summary/idea into the next. This is probably the most important part
  5. Every few months, take a big picture view of the growing outline and add/remove/rearrange things to help tidy up the structure

After a couple of years of this process, where you're contributing just a little bit each day, you end up with a very detailed "outline" that contains all of your ideas, how they're related to each other, how you will transition from 1 idea to the next, and all of the relevant references. Over time my outline grew to about 25% the size of my final thesis.

The thesis almost writes itself at this point, because you just need to go in and add some proper grammar and flesh things out a bit. The final thesis itself only took about 1-2 weeks to put together, although technically I had been "writing" it for a few years

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Where to start - writing up a PhD thesis

I am 2 1/2 years in a a part time PhD and really struggling to know where to start with the writing up phase.

I have enough research, although this is obviously subject to change, but really don't know where to start...it feels completely overwhelming.

It sounds to me like you are wanting to start earlier than necessary, and there's nothing wrong with that.

One of the pitfalls many thesis-writers fall into is simply writing too much; too many background chapters or too much literature review (every paper I've ever read that's somewhat related) making their thesis too front-end heavy.

This costs valuable time and may lead to some committee members to simply skim or completely skip reading big chunks of your thesis.

So I always recommend students to build their thesis like a house.

  • Start with the structure. An outline with enumerated chapters and descriptive chapter titles. If you think each chapter will take two weeks to write, multiply that by 2 and then again by pi. Write those numbers down on your outline and add them up. Ouch! This prevents you from suddenly adding spurious or notional chapters without thinking about the consequences.
  • Now add descriptive subsection titles to each chapter.
  • Under each subsection, add notes for what figures (if any) you plan on putting there, and start adding the references you're likely to cite there.

Now you have a structure, a framework, a "map of work" and its associated estimate of how long it will take.

Then do your "interior decoration" one room at a time

You will see that for some parts you are pretty clear what is needed to say, and to include (figures, references) and you can probably start roughing out some text today.

And for others, it's still murky or unclear because the research is incomplete or things may change. Decide on a date when you'll start working on those.

Of course this is a "living document" and will evolve as your research and understanding of the work evolves. But try to be very careful not to add anything to it without taking away something else, because it's so easy to end up with a runaway thesis or "never ending story".

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