Thesis Writing: Psychology of a Thesis

How does one begin to write a thesis? More importantly, perhaps, how does one keep up the strength to write the entire thesis through to its bitter/sweet end? These questions loom over all graduate students from Day 1 of their course. Some days the worry stands out more, on other days it’s possible to get distracted by actually doing the research and forget that one day it all needs to get written up. Some days one thinks about the writing process and tackles some small aspect of it, on other days the worry is there but we push the worry deep within us, very much like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand. There is, however, no denying that thesis writing causes grad students much stress. This was demonstrated by Izawa et al. in 2003, who wrote a paper showing elevated stress marker levels in students just prior to thesis submission.

Episodic stress associated with writing a graduation thesis and free cortisol secretion after awakening

There is an abundance of advice on the web for students about to embark on a thesis project. This includes advice to students by universities, such as these pages from Dartmouth and Yale:

Dartmouth: Writing a Thesis

Yale: Writing a Thesis

And, touchingly, there is this advice from the University of Oxford to advisors of students writing theses:

Oxford Learning Institute: Writing a Thesis

Then, depressingly, there are many companies that make money off students who use their services, because they don’t have mentors who have told them not to. Companies, such as one site I saw while researching for this blog post (but won’t deign to put a link to here), even claim that they can specifically help you write your Oxford thesis (with poor grammar, going by the standard of their website). But, more importantly, such companies not only take advantage of students who are psychologically vulnerable, they also damage the integrity of those students.
On a brighter note, there is a light at the end of the tunnel! Even though graduate students slave away at writing and research, one day that writing and research is all complete. Then, we stand at the exit from our cave, gazing out into the real world (hopefully with degree in hand). Some yearn to return to the days of flexible hours: sleeping in some days and pulling all-nighters and sleeping in the lab on other days. Some yearn to return to our graduate student stipends: not that the money was all that great, but rather that we could be paid to be students (who knew?!). But the important part is that eventually, despite our raised cortisol levels, most graduate students do finish….

Well… about 55-65% of them finish, as shown by the PhD Completion Project:

Council of Graduate Schools: Ph.D. Completion and Attrition


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