A few semesters ago my supervisor asked me to give a presentation to master students (political science) about my thesis-writing experience. I decided to share some of these insights for my students in a short list with helpful links in no particular order.
Workplace and time
- Find out what environment you need for working and work there! Some like libraries. I don’t because I cannot eat, drink coffee or listen to music. I also prefer home office because I can individually adjust my workplace. Wherever you work, I recommend a large desk where you can spread out your material. Although I often work with digital formats, printing out and arranging texts helps to get a new perspective and connecting new ideas. Your brain connects things it sees so be sure you literally see everything important at one glance! Have a clean desk and empty desk, at least at the beginning of your project. Looking for lost items wastes time. Get a good chair (working while sitting is bad for your back) and arrange your equipment ergonomically. If you write a lot, get a good, height adjustable monitor with a high resolution (more than 1080p if your computer can handle it). Also, two screens are better than one. I read on the left and write on the right screen. Get a good keyboard (most keyboards and trackpads on cheaper notebooks suck!) Some people write on small netbook keyboards. I don’t know how…
- I discovered that certain types of music help me to stay focused (basically everything up-tempo with no lyrics, soundtracks and classical music work great!). There are some cool productivity playlists on Spotify (but get premium or a plugin to mute the ads!). Also, some people like ambient noises (rainforest, ocean or the feeling of sitting in a coffee shop).
- Find out when you are most productive and do your work during this time slot. Some work at night, others in the morning. Statistically the few hours after waking up are the most productive. Do your creative work then and shift non-essential work to later hours (answering E-mails). This high-productivity time slot is now sacred for you! Make it clear to your friends that you are not available during this time and plan your social events accordingly. Turn everything (Facebook, Messages) off and avoid multitasking!
- The trick with creativity is that it is a constant process and no random or lucky incidence. You can trick your brain into being productive with routine. Almost every famous writer or genius had a working routine. This is where flow-moments come from. Establish a routine around your sacred time slot. Do not start your day with reading E-mails or checking Facebook. What helps though if you start you day with something positive such as a joke or funny images or workout. Starting the day with something positive sets the mood for the day. For example make coffee, read the news in the meantime and start working afterwards.
- Set yourself three goals you want to achieve during the day and focus on these goals (like read that paper, write 3 pages and go to the library looking for more material). This reduces the time that you think about your tasks and gives you a clear list of things you have done today. This allows you to account for your productivity, which will increase your satisfaction with yourself!
- It is recommended to include breaks in your routine. 90 minutes of hard work and 15 minutes breaks work for some. More so, work only during productive hours and stop when you feel that you don’t make any progress. If you are exhausted and tired (normally in the early afternoon) it’s better to relax (take a power nap) or do easy, administrative tasks instead of wasting time doing no quality work with only 50% brain power. I never do thesis-related work in the evening for that reason. Instead, I intentionally relax, watch a series, play a game etc. If you produce something during your sacred hours it’s ok to go out now and then, as long as you don’t waste time curing hangovers….
- Most papers have deadlines and you should set yourself deadlines for your tasks too! You work better if you have a goal! But do not think about the date, because this is to abstract for your brain. Instead, think about the number of days (!) until the deadline and calculate how many pages you need to write per day in order to reach this goal! A master thesis of around 80 pages during a six month period translates into 1,5 pages of text a day. During your productive hours you can easily write a couple of pages! Easy huh?!
- Anticipate holidays, birthdays and other events (FIFA World Cup for example). During those times you will have a hard time working. Be realistically about working on holidays. Every year I try to get some reading done during the Christmas holidays when I am with my family but I never manage to do this. Also, use holidays to get a break and meet some friends! This little time-out helps you to get a fresh perspective on your work! Explaining your friends and family what your thesis is about in 3 sentences also is a great focus-exercise. It helps you to sketch-out what really matters. Getting some distance from your text will change your mind about it and you will start to see new things, guaranteed!
- After initial research, write a short index of the stuff you want to do in your thesis and assign page numbers to every heading. Most people want to do too much in their work but you only have 80/40 pages! You cannot write about all the theories and make three comparative case studies in one thesis. Assignging numbers to your headings helps you to prioritize. If your theoretical chapter is already 50 pages long, you might need to rearrange something. Maybe the chapter on the historical background is not that relevant after all. Safe these chapters, maybe you need them later but exclude them from your thesis. This also helps you to avoid adding to many headers. This little exercise also works well with the text/day calculation a few bullet points earlier.
- Divide your projects into smaller, more manageable parts. Rene Descartes supposedly once said that if you cannot solve a complex problem, try to divide it into smaller pieces. This works because smaller parts are easier to manage. It also helps you to anticipate how long each part might take.
- Be aware that these parts may consume different amounts of time! Especially empirical analysis and working with sources requires large amounts of time, which you often do not anticipate in advance. For example, the thorough reading of a plenary debate and coding of this session may take a few hours. The problem is that to-the-ground empirical work often is repetitive and cumbersome. You get tired easily but this inhibits creative thinking, which you need for analysis. Therefore you need breaks etc.. For my master thesis I read and analyzed several dozen debates. You do the math!
- I also had to learn that in a thesis-process, the different sub-parts sometimes require different working-modalities. It sounds obvious, but researching theories is a different cognitive function as analyzing empirical data. This sometimes requires some adjusting time.
- Make notes, all the time! I did not follow this advice for some time and this is was a bad choice! Write everything down that comes to your mind during analysis and collect these memos, either digitally or in a notebook. Formulate these notes in a way for that you can understand them even after a while of absence. These things that pop into your mind, even while showering or going shopping, mean that your are indeed analyzing and thinking about your material. Put these ideas into your text! As I said earlier, even the most brilliant ideas do not come at once! Creativity is a step-by-step process, from smaller and seemingly unspectacular ideas to more complex ones!
- Visualize! Most of us are trained to think in text, which is not bad per se but in many cases linear text is not the best way to comprehend something. Circular causal dependencies (like the agent-structure problem) are cumbersome to describe in linear text. Therefore visualize, make sketches, network graphs, flow charts and diagrams. If you write about a process, draw the steps in the causal chains. If you are dealing with actor constellations (left vs. right wing) in discourses, draw a network of actors or statements. I do this during all the stages of research, in the very beginning of a project, while comprehending complex theories and while writing. It helps to see new aspects and the totality of your project itself. Most students hesitate to put graphics into their text because they are not sure if this is really necessary or relevant. It is, if it helps to understand your argument. See Miles and Huberman (1994) for how to do data displays or check out these cool infographics.
- Often our projects are over-complex! There are too many concepts or theories so that no one knows, what the argument really is. I often witness this during supervising sessions. To clarify what you want to write about, explain it to others! Talking to non-scientists about your project forces you to simplify which helps you to see what you really want to do. Explain you project to friends or your dog. Often they have an unbiased perspective (because they haven’t read all the stuff that you have) and can point you to other elements you have forgotten.
- Write down your research question and identify the components within it. Hang it besides your monitor. This is related to the complexity problem. A simple reminder of your question prevents you from drifting afar too much!
- Be specific about the research question. A common error is to confuse the topic with the question. For example “I want to write about ‘the role of Russia in the Ukraine conflict'” is not a research question! It is the topic! Questions have question marks (?) to begin with. They often start with W-questions: who is doing what, when, where and why? Each question has a different focus which implies a different research design. What and who questions often are descriptive and aim at explanation: who is involved in a terrorist network, what are the aims? When and how aim at process and the temporal unfolding of events. How did the new policy come into being? Why question refer to actual or social causality! What I also see often are questions like: How did Germany behave during the war in Afghanistan? It has a question marks alright, but it is still unspecific. It requires clarifications like: What does behave mean? Who is acting? What are the actions? Is about doing something, saying something or both or neither? What is the time frame and what is the location of analysis? Behavior in the NATO headquarters, or on the battlefield or in he parliament? Who is Germany? The chancellor? The parliament or the foreign minister? During which moment? Before or after certain events? So each big question requires several sub questions to be answered!
- When we are confronted with a complex problem we often invent stuff that we use to legitimize our laziness to our selves. For example, “I need this one book, it is not available, but without it I cannot start”. Often this is not true! We only make up an excuse for not working because we could simply do something else, like formatting or re-editing a chapter. Another variant of this is doing other stuff, like cleaning your room, starting a new art project or blog post about being more productive (cough, cough…) to simulate productivity. Be aware of these self-handicapping mechanisms that prevent you from working. However, dish-washing might be a good task for your low-creativity hours or to get some distance from your work when you are stuck.
- Be aware that there are ups and downs in every long-term project! At some point in time you will encounter massive doubt about your work, thinking it is rubbish or not good at all. This is normal! Do not delete whole chapters or kill the project during these times! Instead, get some distance from your project. After a few days things will look differently. Also, these doubts mean that you truly care about your thesis, which is always a good sign!
- One more theory, one more case…. MA/BA projects consist of different elements like research, theorizing, crafting methods, doing fieldwork, collecting data, writing and editing. It is tricky to recognize when one part is finished and it is time to start the next, especially when we are good at one part and lack motivation for others. I found myself adding more and more theories to my project wanting to theorize every nuance of my topic because I enjoyed reading theories. We cannot theorize everything! At some point it is time to operationalize the theory part and start doing empirical work! These transition periods are hard because we need to get accustomed with a new style of working! This ‘one more X’ problem will also occur when it is time to start writing or when it is time to finish the project!
- Closely related is writers block, a situation where we think we cannot write or what we write isn’t any good. The easy solution to this is adjusting our expectations. Kafka or Goethe did not write their masterpieces at once! Every piece of art is a process from rubbish to gold, but we must start somewhere, even if it is rubbish! Just write! I also found that ideas come while writing and editing your text! So you don’t need every aspect of the plan already prepared in your mind! Some things will come while writing. There is also a nice method called free-writing. Where you basically just scribble. This is all about psychology! A page of rubbish is better than a page of nothing! You still can edit it the next day, slowly refining your text! If you developed a routine out of this your text will significantly improve! Additionally, re-read the chapters you have already written after some time with fresh eyes and new knowledge! You will find ways to improve your text!
- Give yourself a treat when you have produced a few pages the day or read a few journals or chapters! Operant conditioning with dogs and (BA/MA/PhD.) students.
- Aim at at making the best paper possible and the highest productivity but be aware, that nothing is ever perfect! When you re-read your material you will always find ways to improve. You always could have done more research, could be more productive etc. but this mindset is a possible source of stress you should avoid. Even though this guide gives you tips for being productive, sometimes the best tips won’t help! I had many days where I produced nothing or got sick and therefore couldn’t do anything. That is okay, it happens! Do not stress out! Being stressed does not help your creative process at all.
- Turns out many of us never learned to read correctly or rather to adapt their reading for the task at hand (i.e. writing a thesis). First insight is that different texts require different kinds of reading. Unless you are engaging in detailed analysis of a qualitative text, you do not need close or word-by-word reading. Often it is enough to quickly flick through articles that might be interesting for your research but not necessary. Focus on introduction and summary first and see if the article suits your interests.
- You cannot read everything! This is a simple yet profound insight. It means you will have to leave things out, even if you are writing a Ph.D. and make a thorough literature review. Most of us learned that we always should read the entire literature or the lecturer will complain. While true in a seminar situation, this operant conditioning might not be useful for thesis writing. Skim-reading is totally ok!
- You will not remember everything you read (and that is a good thing). Although professors seem wise and almighty, they do forget stuff as well. That is what good note-keeping and excerpt-writing is for. Make detailed notes of those texts that are most important for your research. What also helps is to write quick summaries or key-words into your literature manager for that you know in 2 years what this one text you read 2 years ago was about. Additionally, not just write what is important, but also write a note why this is important, for example to underscore an argument in your thesis. Maybe write down for what purpose an aspect of a text is useful.
- Also, adapt your highlighting. Use color code for different sections of the material. Yellow normally is my all-purpose highlight. I use red for critical or counter-arguments, green for interesting literature to follow, blue for interesting methodology. Besides color-marker, I highlight key words in my documents. This makes it easer to re-comprehend them after a while.
Software and Computer stuff
- Back in my student days I photocopied a lot of my material and had a full array of colorful makers. I found it difficult to organize this and had several big folders with no particular order. This lead to the problem that I forgot which material I already had. Now I switched to 80% digital-only sources. The Internet made it really easy to find PDFs of Journals and Ebooks, if you know how to search online. Learn the key commands which work in most search engines since there are a boolean standard. Most libraries have many digital sources and archives, use them! Why digital? You can search it with your operating systems search function (You should familiarize yourself with search functions, depending on the OS, they can do a lot for you!). Also you can annotate and copy quotes from PDFs. If you read a lot you often remember only abstract concepts and maybe examples. The search function helps you to find documents containing certain concepts and ideas. However, physical books are good too because some people remember the location of an information on a page which is easier to see in books, unless you have a high resolution monitor that can fit one full book page onto your screen. Find out what suits you better! Maybe do a hybrid: digitally check the stuff and copy or print only the stuff you really need. Think about the environment!
- If you go digital and read a lot, think about a database tool such as Bookends, Endnote, Citavi, Mendele, Zotero and so forth. They cost a little or no money (BibTex) and all have their pros and cons. It pretty much depends on what you need. These tools are convenient, especially if you want to stay in academia. If you are writing a BA thesis and want to do a master afterwards, it might be a good idea to put your stuff into a database. It works like iTunes or Windows Media Player but with texts. These tools allow you to tag your texts with keywords or memos, rate texts and group them. It helps me to remember what material I have and what I haven’t read yet. They can create automated bibliographies in several styles and auto scan texts for references. Most of them have search features that allow you to find papers in bigger databases such as JSTOR or the Library of Congress.
- Find a good word processor that suits you! Most of us have become accustomed to Microsoft Word but for longer projects it is not the best tool. It tends to become sluggish with bigger papers and its linear nature, and the tendency to mess with your formatting is really annoying in bigger projects. The Windows Version might be fine but I found that it is more performative to run Windows in a virtual machine and office therein instead of Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac. It also doesn’t support OS X auto save feature and tends to crash without saving. Honestly, it s*cks! If you are skilled or curious, try Latex which is the best tool for formatting out there. For a non-linear perspective on text I recommend Scrivener. I do most of my shorter papers with Apples Pages. It is not as feature-rich as Office, but runs smoother and is less distracting (less buttons) and the new MS Office Ribbon interface is annoying. Additionally, the rental model of Office 365 is a no-go for me.
- Backup! Really, do backups! Most scholars I know are negligent about this but if your hard drive fails, you are lost! Also, this is the number one excuse students put forward to beg for more time and supervisors hear this a lot…. Mac OSX has Time Machine (just plug in any hard disk and let Time Machine format it. Plug it in constantly and it will update the backup) and a simple auto save function which lets you restore changed text, even after weeks. It’s actually pretty great but many people do not know how to use it. Windows 8 finally got an equivalent to Time Machine that is easy to use, so use it!
- Basic security. Especially if you work in libraries! Get a Kensington Lock to attach your notebook to the desk. When leaving you workplace, set up a password on the lock-screen. Encrypt your thumb-drives and external hard-drives that store your projects! In Windows (bit locker) and Mac (File Vault) this is normally done with a right click on the drive and then select encryption. Thumb-drives get lost and if someone finds your work and uses it, this can be bad for you (plagiarism).
- Stay updated! I use three tools to stay updated and get the newest stuff in academia. I installed Newsbar, an RSS feed reader that sits on the sidebar of your monitor. I follow the news feeds of all the journals and blogs I constantly read and/or their publishers. Whenever a new volume of a journal comes out, I get informed! The second way is old school E-mail newsletters from publishers which often let you compile lists of interesting topics to get news from. The third way is Twitter where I mostly follow other scholars, research institutes like GIGA or Uppsala Conflict Data and conferences (ECPR etc.).
- Some handy little tools, mostly for Mac OS X (sorry Windows guys). For those who work at night, Flux adjusts your monitor to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day. Timeout reminds you of breaks by turning off the screen after a while. Cinch simulates the AeroSnap feature on Windows which is great for working with several screens. Use OS X ‘Mission Control‘ and put it into an active corner. I do not know why Apple does not do this by default because this is one of the best features. OS X has a lovely dictionary built-in that can be beefed up by adding Wikipedia, translation and more. Just hover over a word and tap with three fingers. OSXs Preview App is a powerful PDF viewer which allows annotation and several editing features that you normally only have in costly PDF viewers such as Adobe Acrobat. If you handle a lot of scanned documents, you can make them readable by computers with OCR (optical character recognition) software such as Finereader (but it costs). Some universities have free student-licenses for Adobe or Microsoft products.
- Did I mention, that you should make backups? Seriously, make one, now!
Additional Links and videos for those to lazy to read
- The science of productivity
- Alternatives search engines for students
- Some other productivity tips
- IPSA Portal for Political Science (lists of databases, institutions, e-learning)
- How to do to-do lists.
- How to be productive without even using to-do lists (I use this myself and you will be shocked how productive one can be)
Do you have any recommendations? Leave a comment!