Unlike achieving a bachelor’s degree, post grad studies often demand a dissertation or thesis component and the transition from student to researcher is demanding. Not only do you have to learn, you also have to do your research independently to answer your thesis question. Furthermore, you have to organize your findings in an academic paper worthy of publishing.

Writing a thesis is a lot like eating an elephant:

You have to tackle it in bite size chunks.

If your mindset is focused on The Thesis, in its entirety, you will feel overwhelmed and grow anxious by the enormity of the task ahead. That is why project managing yourself and having a structured approach to how, when and where you’ll spend the time writing your paper is vital.

READ: Project Manage Yourself to the Finish Line

But even the best laid plans can go haywire, because, well, life happens. This is even more true for post grad students with full time jobs and families to take care of. The most important thing is not to give up when you fall behind. Acknowledge that you’ve had a setback. Is it something that you can avoid in the future? Then dust yourself off, adjust your plan if necessary, and pick up where you left off.

It is critical that you engage with your thesis on a daily basis. This is what keeps the momentum going.

– Caroline Dale

7 things to do when you lose the plot

1. Shift your mindset from what you have to do – to what you want to accomplish

If your life is being dictated by a to-do list, you will always be trying to catch up. Instead set out three thesis goals for the day. This could be writing a section of work or creating a diagram. When you have a clear picture in your head of what you want to accomplish, you’ll be more focused.

Take a good look at your regular To Do list.

  • How many items on it are supporting your personal and professional goals?
  • How many items are supporting other people’s agendas?
  • Is there anything on the list that is not supporting you, but you feel “compelled” to do?

Eliminate the things that are not serving your goal to complete your thesis by saying no to invitations. Ask for help with chores and errands.

2. Resist distractions

When you are falling behind in your schedule it’s imperative that you remove the distractions that are eating away at your time. Switch your phone on silent and put it in another room. Social media and instant messaging notifications and email might seem to only take your attention from your work for a minute or two, but in reality, that ‘tiny’ ping costs you time in getting your head back in the game. You’ll be able to get the equivalent of 2-3 hours work done in just one hour when your work without distractions.

3. Focus on one task at a time

Running the dishwasher or washing machine while you work should be the extent of multi-tasking. Your brain can only focus on one task at a time. When you think you are multi-tasking (answering emails while working on your thesis), your brain is actually switching back and forth between the two different tasks. The result of multitasking is that your performance on both tasks is reduced and you will feel exhausted from the effort of continuously switching back and forth.

4. Work smarter not harder

Keep Fixed Work Hours

Sounds simple, but in practice this can be quite hard. Make sure that you are choosing hours in which you are naturally more productive. If you are a morning person, then setting time aside to work on your thesis in the afternoon makes no sense. Daily engagement with your work will create a rhythm which makes it easier to resume your writing each day. Physically block out time in your diary so that nothing creeps in and takes over that space.  If you do skip a day, make sure you catch it up!

Re-evaluate your Work Space

A tidy work space that is functional with the necessary IT support will help you avoid unnecessary distractions and stay focused on your work. READ MORE.

Stuck on a section? Move on

If you’ve hit a block on a certain chapter or section, just move on to the next section. You can always come back to that later. Also, don’t worry about writing in chapter order. The aim is always progress before perfection.

5. Be proactive with your supervisor

Does your supervisor keep raising the standards, so that no matter how much you do, it is never enough? If you feel trapped under a never-ending list of demands, get support from other committee members or your department chair, to clarify exactly what you need to do in order to be allowed to complete your thesis.

While conflicts with your supervisor can be very frustrating, keep all emotions out of your discussions. During your meetings focus only on the problem and not on your emotions such as anger & frustration.

Prepare well for every supervisor meeting.  In other words, make sure you’ve listed the questions and issues you have to ensure structure for the short time you spend together. This demonstrates enthusiasm for your work and respect for your supervisor’s time.

When your supervisor critiques your work, do not take it personally. Becoming comfortable with harsh criticism is part of the “Rite of Passage” to the real world, especially in academia. Use harsh criticism constructively to develop mutually beneficial solutions for you and your supervisor, and to improve the quality of your research and dissertation.  Never lose sight of the fact that you are still learning.

6. Ask for an extension

Not many thesis writing mentors will advise on this, but I want to. In exceptional circumstances asking for an extension is fair and acceptable. I recently had a chemistry session with a master’s student who in the year his thesis was due, got married (planned), moved country for his new job (not planned) and lost his mother. That’s a lot of life happening in the space of 11 months. Dealing with all these significant changes took its toll and he was eventually too far behind to catch up. At this point he was ready to just throw in the towel, but that would have been a waste of the previous years of work which he had passed cum-laude. The only option left was to ask for an extension. Given his circumstances, the extension was granted and now that the dust has settled, he is able to work consistently.

7. Find a support group or a coach

The number one complaint of grad students is that they feel isolated and have lost their motivation to do the work. Having a group of people to talk to who are on the same path as you are makes a world of difference. It’s a place to get and give advice as well as motivation. A feeling of accountability also goes a long way. Most importantly, it will put the setbacks you might be experiencing in context.

Sometimes it helps to take stock of just how far you’ve come and remember why you embarked on this journey in the first place. Everyone experiences setbacks, it’s how you handle it that will make all the difference.

Remember, you’ve got this.

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