Ocean's Eleven your thesis
Form your own academic dream team
Image: Dane Deaner on Unsplash
Who doesn’t love a good heist flick? A team of misfits, each with their own unique specializations, gets together to pull off a seemingly impossible task – usually in a fast-paced montage set to slick music. They put together an ingenuous plan – which then inevitably hits various snags when put into practice. But the team finds ways to deal with each obstacle and eventually pulls off the heist.
When you write a thesis, you’ll want to put together your own team that will also help you do what can feel seemingly impossible at the outset: complete your thesis or dissertation. Just like in the movies, it’s best to draw on a variety of people with different strengths.
Why do this? Graduate school can be very isolating. For North American students, now is typically the time when, free from the distractions of teaching or research assistantship responsibilities during the summer break, you finally can expect to get some writing done. But even before “social distancing” was a concept, writing a dissertation was already a very lonely endeavor. You spend hours reading and writing on your own trying to find the ways ideas connect and then how to express them best. When you do speak to partners or family members about the struggles you face in your free time, they’re likely to nod politely without fully understanding what you're going through. This can make you feel very alone and may cause some of you to experience the long-term project blues.
What to do? Although many grad students’ first instinct will be to go it alone, we recommend considering seeking out support groups early on for each of the different problems you will face as you complete your thesis. Even if you're not having any trouble at all, it can still be useful to learn from others to become more efficient at research and writing, and it will likely make the whole process more enjoyable.
Explore what your university has to offer
Even in these strange days when many of us are not physically on campus, there are a number of people at your university whose job it is to help you, and their services are available online. So, make sure to take advantage of campus resources.
First, if you are part of an underrepresented group at your university or in your field of study, identify the resources that can help support you right away, such as campus centers of advancement. Both departments with university staff members and student-led social justice organizations will not only come to your aid if you encounter racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination, but they also can help you acquire leadership training and professional development skills that are helpful both in and outside the academy. The benefits are well-attested by many studies, such as this one looking at participation in Black student organizations. In addition to the offerings at your university, you can also join national organizations, such as the National Black Graduate Student Association.
Next, during your literature searches, enlist the help of your academic library. For example, if you are having trouble locating additional sources for a particular section of your thesis or need to do an exhaustive search on a particular topic, schedule a research consultation with the appropriate subject librarian at your university library. You'll likely come away with new resources you hadn’t thought of before and better search strategies for your particular research question. To get the most out of the consultation, let the librarian know in advance which resources you've already consulted and provide a detailed description of what you're searching for.
Having trouble writing? Many universities offer writing centers that can provide coaching services, help you out if you’ve encountered a structural problem in your thesis, and offer resources to help you improve your writing in general. Some even offer thesis bootcamps or “shut up and write” sessions, which can help you get some needed momentum if your writing output has stalled. Even if you’re not planning on or able to stay in academia after you graduate, writing skills you learn through them are highly applicable beyond the ivory tower.
If you ever go through a rough patch of more than a few bad days, don’t wait too long before seeking out a counselor if your campus has a center. They are specially trained to help students and are familiar with issues that many people go through. Just talking to an objective professional can be enormously calming. You also might learn more about what triggers the negative emotions associated with your thesis writing – and then be better able to take measures against them.
With all campus resources, don’t expect miracles from a one-time visit. The people you work with will be better able to help you the longer they know you and the better they understand your research. So, if a first meeting feels like it wasn’t that helpful, give it at least another two sessions before moving on to another option.
Also, make sure to maintain a good relationship with the most important person on your thesis journey: your advisor. Keep them in the loop. If you had a rough string of weeks, it’s better to acknowledge that rather than pretending that everything is fine. Catching delays before they snowball is important to make sure that your writing plan doesn’t go completely off track. Your advisor will be familiar with long-term writing projects and should be able to offer some good advice for revising your strategy or writing plan.
Some help from your friends
Try to find at least one other person who is writing a thesis on a similar timeline to commiserate and share your wins with. When times get tough, this thesis buddy can make you feel less alone. And, like having a gym buddy, they’ll help you stay accountable.
Beyond moral support, your thesis buddy can also help you in more concrete ways. For example, you can proofread each other’s work. Send your cohort your problematic sections and ask for specific feedback about whatever you're having difficulty with, whether it's the content or the writing style. Make sure to return the favor and periodically schedule time for calls or video chats to go over your progress. In this way, both people’s writing can benefit, and you won’t feel like a burden for asking friends or family members for help.
Socializing in groups is important, too, so make time for group video calls or set up a WhatsApp or Threema group to stay in touch with your fellow grad students. If you have a journal reading club or are working on a research project with a group, keep sources and insights organized by using your reference management software program. In Citavi, you can create a cloud project and share it with your group. Each team member can view each other’s comments and discuss important ideas from articles saved in the project. For more tips for successful group work, see this previous blog post.
Of course, time for family and friends is essential as well. Just don’t expect them to understand exactly what you’re going through and try to shut off as much as you can from your academic work during your time with them. It’s anyway not healthy to think or talk about your academic work all the time. Setting boundaries is important for not burning out.
Although personal relationships should form the core of your team, we also recommend seeking out online communities to have on your side, especially if you’re working on a niche topic or otherwise feel like you’re not meeting the right people at your institution. Seek out relevant Slack groups, discussion forums, and email lists on your research topic online. Or follow your peers and other scholars on Twitter when they have a presence there. Besides keeping up to date on recent developments, you will also be able to network with others in your field. Who knows – that star researcher whose work you commented on might just become one of your biggest champions later on. Just be careful to not let your online activity distract you from your writing. Schedule time blocks for work and for social media, and practice sticking to them.
Online social media platforms let you post your CV and research for others to see. They also offer opportunities for keeping up to date with new research in your field and networking. However, there are some things you should be aware of. Here’s a look at the different platforms, what they offer, and what to consider before you use them.
As a PhD candidate, you might feel intimidated by some of the big-name academics you encounter. However, many people like to help, and it never hurts to ask if you're looking for advice. Worried you'll come across as unprofessional? You can find our tips for online communication in our PDF guide Writing a Research Paper with Citavi 6.
Beyond these more direct ways of communication, it can simply help to make you feel less alone by reading about other people’s experiences. Online you can find a plethora of blogs and discussion groups created both by instructors and by students working on dissertations. Reading about the struggles others have faced and ultimately overcome can help if you're feeling isolated and overwhelmed.
Even forums for something unexpected like your reference management tool can be places for connection. For example, in the Citavi forum in addition to asking support questions, forum users sometimes will share their research workflows or provide helpful tips for achieving certain goals. If you’re not a big fan of forums, you can still become a part of the Citavi community by following us on Facebook or Twitter. We frequently share motivational and software tips, news, and blog posts, and we love hearing from and being able to help our users.
Whatever you do, don't try to go it alone. Follow the example of a great heist film, and build up your team to help you reach your goal – montage fully optional. It’s our hope that your community will help get you through the tough times, celebrate your wins and make the whole process of completing your thesis more enjoyable.
Who are some of the most valuable members of your thesis team? If you could pick one movie, which one would you choose as the model for your team and why? Let us know on our Facebook page!