Tips for Surviving (and Thriving in) Your Psychology Thesis
A little planning and consistency can make it all a lot less painful.
Posted May 08, 2020
Writing (and defending) a thesis or dissertation can be a daunting process. However, some careful planning and consistency can make it all a lot less painful. Better yet, it can be actually pretty rewarding.
Having just gone through the writing and defending process myself, I’ve reflected on 16 of the lessons I learned along the way:
1. Read other theses and dissertations. I cannot stress enough how helpful it is to scan other finished documents to get a sense of what makes a strong (and less strong) body of work. You’ll also learn about different ways to structure your document and what kinds of sections to include. Search for research that is related to your topic, methodology, and epistemology to see how other students have approached these areas.
2. Don’t underestimate the literature review. By the time students reach graduate school, it’s expected that they know how to write a solid literature review. However, Boote and Beile (2005) argued that many students have never actually been taught how to compose a critical synthesis of the literature. They argued that students need to become “scholars before researchers”; that is, instead of offering simple summaries of existing studies, it is important to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the body of work. They proffer further that this step is critical to identify important research problems.
Not totally sure where to start with your review? Don’t be too hard on yourself – Boote and Beile argued that few faculty members have even mastered the task. I recommend tracking down some resources on how to write a good literature review; try Galvan and Galvan’s (2017) book, Writing Literature Reviews: A Guide for Students of the Social and Behavioral Sciences.
4. Cite mindfully. Your supervisor can help you identify a few key articles that will be critical to cite in your document; for example, seminal works or the most recent contributions to your area. While it’s important to ensure that you’re citing the most up-to-date studies in your literature review (e.g., those published in the past 10 years), it is also essential to acknowledge the early scholars who paved the way for your work. Be careful to not only cite “supportive sources”; your committee will expect you to discuss opposing views. Carefully explaining how your work intentionally departs from these studies will strengthen your arguments.
It has been well-documented that women and authors of colour are cited less frequently than men or white authors (Davis & Craven, 2016). Thus, as feminist anthropologists Davis and Craven (2016) argued, “it is important to keep in mind that who we cite – and equally important who we do not cite – shapes our projects in important ways” (p. 66). Especially if you are engaging in feminist or critical research, it becomes “our business to seek out, and incorporate, innovative research from scholars whose work is often ignored because of structural inequities” (p. 67).
5. Try not to over-quote other authors. I used to be a chronic over-quoter. However, I received enough feedback from enough different professors to finally quell this habit. Using too many direct quotations not only prevents you from using your own critical thinking skills, but it also reduces your credibility as an analytical, innovative researcher. Save your direct quotes for the real “gems” and remember that paraphrasing is your friend.
6. Remember that editing is easier than writing. Get your thoughts down without worrying too much (at first, that is) about style and grammar. Author Anne Lamott (2005) wrote that perfectionism is the “main obstacle between you and a sh*tty first draft” (p. 27). And that’s what most first drafts are. But once you’ve crossed that first big hurtle, it’s easier to face the less-daunting task of editing and fine-tuning.
7. Craft your document like you’re preparing for your defense. With every decision you make (e.g., how many participants to include, your methodology, even your title), ask yourself why. Even if you’re not including these “whys” in your document, jot down your answers and save them to refer back to when you are prepping for your defense. You’ll thank yourself later on!
8. Update your reference list as you go. Nothing is more frustrating than forgetting where you found a certain reference or from which page you took a quote. Keeping up with your references diligently as you go saves unnecessary work later on (again, your future self will thank you!).
9. Overcome procrastination. Unfortunately, waiting to feel inspired to work on your dissertation is (typically) a futile exercise. Instead, scheduling time to work each day helps keep you on track and your mind in the game. Princeton University has offered some good tips for understanding and overcoming procrastination; I also like the Pomodoro technique and ensuring at least some of my work time is “unplugged.”
10. Refer to your epistemology throughout. Your epistemology shouldn’t just be something that is stated in your intro and promptly forgotten about. It is the heart of your research; your understanding of what makes something true. As such, it should inform everything from your methodology to your epigraph to how you position yourself in your work.
11. Keep a research journal. Jot down all of your decisions and “aha” moments. Document the things that challenge you, the things that surprise you, the things you’re proud of, and the things you would have done differently. You never know what might be useful material when it comes to crafting your discussion or preparing for a conference presentation.
12. Prepare your elevator speech. Be able to discuss your topic in layman terms in three minutes or less. This exercise is incredibly useful for understanding your work in a concise and useable way.
13. Proofread with fresh eyes. Once you’ve finished a draft of each chapter or section, leave it for a day or two (deadlines permitting) to review it with a new perspective. Do the same once you’re done the entire document. Proofreading printed pages is often easier than electronic versions to catch those pesky typos.
14. Find some editors. We can get so “close” to our research that we miss our blind-spots. I recommended asking (or kindly bribing) both “insiders” (like a classmate) and “outsiders” (like a friend in a totally different field) to read your work, to get a different set of perspectives.
15. Be kind to yourself. It’s a cheesy but important one. This is likely your first time tackling a research project of this size. You’re going to feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and confused at times. Take a deep breath and keep in mind that this is all part of the process. Remember that writing your thesis or dissertation should never trump all other aspects of your self-care; taking care of your physical wellbeing, relationships, and mental health are always priorities.
16. Find meaning in the process. It’s OK if your thesis or dissertation doesn’t represent your lifelong passion or ultimate life purpose. If academia is your long-term goal, you have your entire career to refine your program of study. And if research is absolutely not in the long-term cards for you, then seeing your thesis as a means to an end is OK, too. That said, finding a way to make the process meaningful will makes things a lot more enjoyable. Although a good thesis is a done thesis, your research also has the opportunity to contribute to theory, practice, and policy in important ways – so try not to underestimate your ability to create a really meaningful body of work.
Boote, D. N., & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher, 32(6), 3-15. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X034006003
Davis, D., & Craven, C. (2016). Feminist ethnography: Thinking through methodologies, challenges, and possibilities. Rowman & Littlefield.
Galvan, J. L., & Galvan, M. (2017). Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences (Vol. 7). Taylor & Francis.
Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. Anchor.