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5 Shortcuts to Finish Your Thesis 12 Months Sooner

Written By: Dora Farkas, Ph.D.

“I had to fight to get my thesis approved. At some point, you just have to put your foot down and talk about graduation. Eventually, my committee gave me the green light to defend,” Amy told me at her thesis defense party.

I was a fifth year PhD student, and I had already started looking for jobs, but the thought of having “the talk” with my supervisor about graduation terrified me.

I was trapped in a vicious cycle.

I was hesitant about fully engaging in my job search because I didn’t know when I would finish my thesis.

At the same time, the subconscious fear of, “What will I do after graduation to pay the bills?” paralyzed me when I tried to work on my thesis.

Amy’s story made one point crystal clear: I couldn’t leave my thesis up to chance.

Showing up at work and generating lots of data would not guarantee a PhD degree.

After my conversation with Amy, I became laser-focused on the question, “What do I need to do in order to graduate?”

I talked to my thesis supervisor until we had clear requirements for my graduation. It took several heated, but civilized, discussions.

While it may feel intimidating to speak to your thesis supervisor about graduation, they are more likely to respect and support you if you are honest with them.

As expected, there were disagreements at my committee meeting, but this time I took a firm stance.

I remembered Amy’s advice and I made sure I was well-prepared by having answers written down for their usual objections, and having backup slides with more details.

My committee members tried to push me as hard as they could, and they all had different opinions on which direction would be best.

Thanks to Amy’s advice, I had the courage to speak up about why I thought I could graduate in a year, even as three distinguished professors glared at me in disbelief.

By the end of the meeting, we had agreed on my graduation requirements, which consisted of a series of experiments that could be realistically completed within the following year.

If I had not taken a firm stance, perhaps my thesis would have taken an extra 12 months, or maybe I would have dropped out altogether.

5 Shortcuts To Finishing Your Thesis 12 Months Sooner

My motivation soared once I realized that I had to become my own project manager.

I had one year left before my anticipated graduation date, and there was a lot to do, especially if I wanted to look for a job too.

There was no time or energy to waste.

1. Don’t be “everyone’s helper”.

I used to pride myself on responding to emails quickly and being “everyone’s helper” in the lab.

It made me feel good that my expertise was valued.

The problem was, the more I helped others with their work, the more dependent they became on me, and the more they sucked up my time and energy.

Once I started tracking my time, I realized that I spent an unreasonable number of hours responding to other people’s demands.

I was not doing my thesis a favor, and I was not doing the other people a favor, either.

If I wanted to graduate in a year, I had to make my thesis a high priority.

I was still available to help others, but I found a way to “protect” my thesis time by working in the library, not responding to emails right away, or just telling people that I was in the middle of something.

2. Map out the path to your finished thesis.

Your thesis will not write itself.

The fastest way to finish your thesis is to know what you need to get done to satisfy the requirements, and then map out a plan.

The idea of creating a map may seem intimidating for a few reasons.

First, if your graduation is far in the future, you may not know what you need to do to finish it.

Students who graduate first in their class (for example, in 4 years instead of 6 years) usually start mapping out a plan as soon they begin research.

Your plan will change (because research and life are unpredictable), but having a plan will help you gain clarity about what you need to do and by when.

The second reason it can seem intimidating to create a map, is that you may discover that you need to do more than you want to, or that you don’t have enough time to complete everything.

It is better to know sooner, rather than later, if your thesis timeline is unrealistic.

You may be able to simplify your thesis question, or get funding for another semester, but you need to create a realistic timeline.

Don’t just “hope” that somehow your thesis will be finished.

Map out a plan and discuss it with your supervisor, so you can take the right steps to get your thesis done and move on with your life.

3. Start every day fresh.

After I clarified my thesis requirements and created a timeline, I came to work every morning with the question:

“What can I do today to make progress on my thesis?”

On some days, I had to set up a new experiment, on other days I had to write parts of my thesis, but I started every day fresh.

My stress levels reduced tremendously once I let go of any guilt I felt about not getting enough done the day before.

When you let go of guilt (or fear of how long something will take), that’s when you can put all of your focus on what’s in front of you, and actually get work done.

This may sound simple, but how many students do you know who complain about how slow their writing is?

I was one of those students too, until I realized that beating myself up was not only counterproductive, but it also alienated well-meaning friends.

Starting every day fresh (without guilt about the past, or fear of the future) will not reduce your stress, but it will also open up room for the creativity you need to pull your thesis together.

4. Break the chains of your desk.

Have you ever heard the saying: “The only way to finish your thesis is to glue yourself to your chair and stay there until it is done” ?

This conventional wisdom had the following effects on me:

1) Chronic back, shoulder, neck, and wrist pain.

2) Eye strain and tension headaches.

3) Glacial (almost negligible) progress on my thesis.

The worst part was, the harder I worked, the less progress I made.

In retrospect, this cycle makes perfect sense.

How can you be creative if your whole body is tense and your eyes are strained from staring at the screen all day?

In order to have the mental stamina to write your thesis, you must take regular breaks throughout the day (at least one 10-minute break every hour).

I used to feel guilty about taking breaks until I realized that my best ideas came to me while I was outside walking.

I wasn’t the only person who experienced this phenomenon.

Several studies have shown that the creative part of your brain is activated when you are not actively focusing on a task (i.e. sitting at your desk, staring at your screen).

If you feel stuck, go for a walk and most likely you will come up with an idea to help you keep moving forward.

5. Pick your work environment carefully.

The environment where you work may not be the optimal place for you to concentrate.

Many students notice dramatic changes in their performance when they change their environments.

A simple modification, such as working in a library instead of your apartment, can double your focus.

Keep in mind that an environment that works for your friends may not be the best for your thesis writing.

Some students work best in silent environments, such as a library, while others prefer a little bit of background noise, such as a coffee shop.

If you have to work from home, some rooms may be more conducive to working than others.

Try out different work environments (consider asking friends or family about lending you a spare room for thesis writing), before deciding which environment (and which time of day) is best for you.

Bonus: Surround yourself with positive people.

Surround yourself with positive people who can support you, both academically and emotionally.

One of the most common challenges that graduate students face is that they feel isolated and lose motivation to do work.

In colleges, there are support groups organized by the teaching assistants and the residential community.

In graduate school, many students do not have any type of support.

First-year students usually start out enthusiastically but, due to lack of accountability, many of them lose track of time and fall behind on their thesis.

In contrast, students who join a support group feel that being part of a community is one of the best ways to keep themselves motivated.

Simply knowing that someone else believes in you, and celebrates each milestone with you, will motivate you to finish your thesis, and move onto an exciting career.

Are you working to finish your thesis? If so, Dora’s Writing Accelerator Bootcamp is opening soon. This Bootcamp differs from other thesis writing bootcamps in that it is not just one weekend. Instead, it trains each PhD student to write their thesis in the context of their everyday life, no matter how busy they are, even if they can only squeeze in 15 minutes a day. It is for “real” PhD students with “real” schedules, who cannot put their lives aside to write their thesis. The Bootcamp is several weeks long and by joining, you will get support until you Finish Your Thesis. Learn more about the Writing Accelerator Bootcamp here.

Cheeky Scientist Association Learn More

Dora Farkas, Ph.D.

Dora Farkas, Ph.D.

Dora Farkas received her Ph.D. from MIT in the Department of Biological Engineering and worked for several years in the pharmaceutical industry as a Senior Scientist. Dora is a thesis and career coach and the founder of the online Finish Your Thesis Program & Community, which has helped hundreds of graduate students finish their thesis.
Dora Farkas, Ph.D.
  • Marvin D’Esprit

    You know what? Reading that story about being everyone’s helper was like deja vu to me. I definitely have that problem. Thanks for bringing up my awareness on that.

    • Cheeky Scientist

      You’re welcome!

    • Dora Farkas

      Hi Marvin, helping others (such as mentoring) can be very fulfilling, just make sure that you set boundaries – when can people approach you with questions, when you need quiet work time, and what events can you volunteer for. Thanks for reaching out!

  • Kathy Azalea

    OMG, I didn’t know I could just approach and bring up the date of graduation like that. Great tip!

    • Dora Farkas

      Hi Kathy, yes the students who have the courage to talk about their graduation with your supervisors usually graduate sooner. It can feel scary at first, but it is best to know their expectations sooner rather than later. It can save you months (or even years)!

  • Madeline Rosemary

    I definitely surround myself with positive people, and I recommend it highly. It’s something that helped me through grad school, but it’s also been super helpful throughout my career. Thanks so much for the reminders, Dora. 🙂

    • Dora Farkas

      You are most welcome Rosemary. Yes, surrounding yourself with positive people is one of the best things you can do throughout your life. I am so glad to hear you were able to find this support in grad school as well!

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    Great article. I found myself chuckling many times, but it’s only because there was so much truth in it! Many memories of working in the library and enjoying the quiet, but not the backaches that go with those hard chairs. LOL

    • Dora Farkas

      Thank you for sharing Carlie! Yes, the library may not have the best chairs, but the quiet environment definitely helps with the concentration!

  • Theo

    Beating yourself up with guilt never helps. It is probably the worst thing we do to slow down the process besides putting it off. You can’t think that way.

    • Dora Farkas

      Hi Theo, you are right that when you beat yourself up it only robs you of your confidence. Conversely, if you acknowledge all the progress you are making, that will increase your confidence and motivate you to make more progress!

  • Julian Holst

    I knew someone who got his law degree by listening to audio versions of his text while playing tennis. That wasn’t the only thing he did to study, but talk about a great way to get out from behind a desk!

    • Cheeky Scientist

      What a great idea!

    • Dora Farkas

      Wow, that is really creative! Thank you for sharing Julian!

  • Shawn Lyons, PhD

    The best thing that’s ever going to help you in school, on the job, or in life is a group of supportive friends. It doesn’t have to be a formal mastermind group, but your connections are going to give you everything you wanted. At least, that’s what I’m finding in my life.

    • Cheeky Scientist

      Yes, Shawn! Many of us would not make it through the arduous PhD process without strong networks (formal and informal).

    • Dora Farkas

      Shawn, you are correct. Having a support group is probably one of the most important factors that will help you through the PhD process. Great point!

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I don’t think most people have a plan. Whether it’s a plan for your thesis, your job search, or your career and achievement goals, most people don’t bother with it, and I think that’s a big mistake.

    • Cheeky Scientist

      You’re absolutely right, Matthew. PhD students need much more guidance (both in grad school and self-directed) to make sure they can create a plan and stick to it.

      • Sonja Luther

        I couldn’t survive without a plan!

    • Dora Farkas

      Hi Matthew, that’s a great point. When you make a plan, both your thesis and job search go faster. Thanks for sharing your insight 🙂

  • Harvey Delano

    These are great tips. My favorites are starting the day fresh and choosing your environment. When you’re trying to accomplish something extraordinary like achieving a PhD, every day counts. While a lot of friends are goofing around and having fun on the weekends, it really helps to find a quiet and/or inspiring place to work. Those extra hours are what makes you an expert in your field, so trying to start fresh every day and finding a work-inducing environment are so critical.

    • Dora Farkas

      Hi Harvey, you are most welcome! Starting your day fresh is one of my favorite strategies because it helps you to stay centered and focused on what you can get done today – and that helps a lot with your concentration!

  • Avlokita Tiwari

    I am in the second year of my PhD, and this article was brilliant timing for me! I can now already started making a plan and work on my thesis alongside my experiments and papers. Thank you so much Dora!