Planning your thesis

Once you have a supervisor/s in place who approve of your research project concept, you will be ready to begin work on your thesis. Understandably, commencing this process can feel daunting to new HDR students; key to remember is the fact that the work you are undertaking is a process. You are only at the beginning of your journey now; you are not expected to have all the answers! That said, your journey ­– the process of researching and writing something as long and complex as a Masters or PhD thesis – will unfold with far less anxiety and far more meaningfully and effectively if you undertake some planning before you begin.

Establish the university’s requirements for completion

In order to work out how you are going to construct your thesis and deliver it in time, you need to ensure that you know what is required by the university in the context of a successful, examinable thesis. Ascertain a sense of the required word count; the required component parts; formatting specificities and other style and content requirements for your discipline, so that you can plan your work accordingly. The HDR Theses Examination Procedure and Policy might be useful to you. Likewise the Graduate Research School booklet, ‘How to present your thesis’.

Develop a plan for your thesis structure

Once you know what is expected of your completed thesis, you can set about working out a strategy for achieving your objectives. It can be challenging to know how to begin when you are at the very beginning of your research and may still be unsure what direction your thesis will take. That’s okay! You’re plan should be a living document, added to and amended as you go along and your project comes more clearly into view for you.

Even at this early stage it is useful to commit to paper some ideas for the structure your thesis so that:

  • you can see what the overall thesis might look like
  • so that you can begin to organise your workload
  • and so that you have something to show your supervisors in order to get their feedback

Your preliminary structure might include:

  • Your thoughts for the sections or chapters you will write
  • An imagined / targeted word count for each
  • A possible chapter or section title
  • A short description of what the section will include

Develop a plan for your writing and research

Conventional wisdom regarding the best way to manage the writing and researching of a thesis can offer a range of suggestions for how to go about the task depending on the type of thesis you are trying to produce. Most likely your writing will not flow along a linear trajectory, however. Remember – producing a thesis is a process – and that process might involve some writing that gives rise to the need for more reading which in turn influences what you write next, and so on. If your thesis involves the collection of data, then your collection and analysis may also inform both your reading and writing, and so the process goes.

Given this, students often find it useful to maintain a regular writing practice from the outset, rather than trying to amass all of their research first and then sitting down to write. Each student much find their own way of navigating the task, but certainly breaking it down will help.

Generally speaking, working on your thesis will involve a combination of these tasks:

  • Reading: finding, comprehending, organising and collating literature
  • Research: collecting and analysing data
  • Writing: taking notes, brainstorming, writing thesis section drafts
  • Meeting with supervisors: discussing your research and ideas; taking and incorporating feedback

Develop a timeline

It is important to be realistic in your work plan. You can’t spend all day, every day, doing only one of these tasks – each is taxing (and also invigorating!) in its own way.

Given that you have some sense of the sections you are hoping to write, and their corresponding word counts, you should be able to ascertain which parts of your thesis will take the longest to deliver.

Constructing a timeline, like the other aspects of your plan, might be a fluid process. You ma need to have a plan for:

  • The overall 3-4 years it will take you to produce the thesis: this will be a broad-strokes plan outlining your key tasks and milestones, and when you hope to meet them
  • The year at hand: this will be a slightly more detailed timeline, outlining the tasks or milestones you hope to achieve in the current year
  • The next several months: In detail, what are you focussing on in the current period? What do you need to do to deliver?
  • The given week and day: Your timeline and planning can be as specific as is useful to you. When you are planning a day of work, schedule in plenty of short breaks so that when you are at your desk you can focus, knowing that opportunities for rest are a given. You might find the pomodoro technique useful for maintaining focus while writing.

Manage supervisor meetings

It is important that you manage the time you have with your supervisors to ensure that you are getting the support you need to keep your thesis on track for completion. Aside from scheduling and attending regular supervisory meetings, it is good practice to submit something to your supervisors in advance for discussion and feedback at your meetings. You can also provide your supervisors with a list of questions, queries or concerns in advance of your meeting, so that the time you have together is as productive as possible. Ensure that your supervisors are aware of your timelines and approve of them; prior to each meeting, you may like to send an updated timeline demonstrating your progress to date so that your supervisors can gain a sense of where you are up to when you meet.