Planning and writing a thesis with a table of contents

This is the time of year when our Masters students are starting to think about how they’re going to write their theses. It can be a daunting concept! Having essentially learnt what ‘not to do’ when writing my own MA thesis, I decided early on in my PhD to write and actively work with a table of contents. The idea for this came from several excellent books I read on writing, including Harry Wolcott’s Writing Up Qualitative Research, Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, and Laurel Richardon’s Writing: A Method of Inquiry.

To begin with, I spent one pomodoro (a 25-minute dedicated writing block) working on my table of contents every month. I would send it to my supervisors as a way for them to see how my work was progressing. Doing a table of contents helped me keep the big picture in mind and be a more productive, focused writer.

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It’s not just about the thesis…

Great post – wish I’d had these tips when I was working on my thesis.

The Thesis Whisperer

In a recent lecture at ANU, the esteemed research education expert Dr Margaret Kiley claimed that if we set out to design the Australian PhD from scratch we wouldn’t start from here. The PhD assessment (in most cases, a long form thesis), she argued, does not not necessarily develop the full panoply of skills we expect in a working researcher, inside or outside of academia.

One of the clever students in the audience absorbed the implications of Margaret’s lecture straight away and asked:

If that’s the case, what should I spend my time on? At the moment I spend most of my time reading and writing because that’s what I’m being assessed on. Should I be doing more?

Joyce Seitzinger and I being silly in a photobooth for the Canberra Tourist board. Joyce Seitzinger and I being silly in a photobooth for the Canberra Tourist board.

The student’s question went right to the heart of an issue that has been frustrating me…

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Write when the baby sleeps

I’ve just started a year-long professional development course for early career researchers* which has given me an opportunity to think about how my writing style has changed since I was working on my PhD. When I was writing my dissertation I had a fantastic writing habit and, inspired by Inger Mewburn’s tips on How to write 1000 words a day without going bat-shit crazy, was producing anywhere between 1000-2000 ‘keeper’ words (that would go directly into the thesis with minimal revision) every day. Things have changed a lot since then: I now have a wonderful, bright, inquisitive, 2-year-old and a job I love. Long gone are the days where I could dedicate all my waking hours to thesis-writing!

The biggest change for me is being a parent. In particular, being the parent of a child who doesn’t like to sleep unless it’s on or next to me. Like Ava Neyer, I read all the baby sleep books in first few months after she was born to try to figure out how to help her sleep. Nothing worked. Eventually we found our own rhythm: I wrote (or read) when the baby slept. Most days I had at least one 25-minute block (or one Pomodoro) where I couldn’t do anything except sit or lie next to my daughter while she slept, so I used this time to write, read, or plan out what I was going to work on next.

She’s getting the hang of sleeping now (we use the Wait It Out method, which works for all of us) but I still use the time just after she’s nodded off to read or think. One of my goals this year is to cultivate a daily writing habit so I can get back into the writing groove I had going as a PhD candidate. To do this, I re-read Charlotte Frost’s top 10 tips for forming good writing habits and joined the Savage Minds Writing Group for anthropologists, which has some fantastic  posts on ethnographic writing. The course I’m on will also help, as will Shut Up and Write sessions (in real life and on #shutupandwrite Tuesdays on Twitter).

I’m keen to hear how other early career academics make space for their writing. Who else does #shutupandwrite Tuesdays on Twitter? How do you juggle parenting with life as an academic?

* Dr Kathryn Sutherland studies the experiences of early career researchers and has recently published her findings: ‘Success in Academia? The experiences of early career academics in New Zealand’