5 steps to jump-starting your thesis proposal

One of the most exhilarating moments of my doctoral journey was finishing my coursework.  Suddenly my schedule was liberated from the weekly accountability that constantly loomed over my head for two long years.  This is fantastic! –  so I thought.  It was only a matter of time until I realized that the road ahead of me was an entirely different monster — one that was comprised of self-reliance, self-motivation, self-discipline, pro-activity, and ruthless time management.  Coming to terms with this was in itself the first part of the transition from coursework to writing my thesis proposal.

Four months have passed since I began and I intentionally waited to write this post because I wanted to truly understand the nature of this beast – the thesis proposal, the writing process, and of course, the obstacles.I feel that I can now confidently say that my work is advancing and I have adjusted to the new rhythm of self-accountability.

In this post I condensed what I experienced in the first 4 weeks (what I call the “acceptance period”) into 5 key steps. Perhaps if you can condense this advice into a week or two, you can jumpstart your writing a lot faster than I did.

Step 1.    Connect with your advisor.

Your advisor is one of the most important persons in your thesis writing.  From the very beginning, be sure that you are communicating openly and regularly with your advisor.  Your relationship with your advisor should be reciprocal in that both parties are holding each accountable to some degree.  You will count on your advisor for timely feedback and guidance as they will hold you accountable for setting deadlines to keep you on track.  It is important to have open, honest, and meaningful conversations with your advisor.  The more your advisor knows about you, your topic, and your reasons for pursuing your research, the better they can guide you through the process of writing your thesis proposal. Your advisor is one of your best motivators.  As you begin to submit drafts to him or her, you can then anticipate their feedback which in turn keeps your momentum going.

Step 2.    Pay attention to your habits, then adjust them.

Motivating yourself to start is the single biggest hurdle.

Four weeks.  That’s how long it took me to finally sit down and start writing.  In other words, that’s how long it took me to observe my habits and think about how I wanted to go about this process.  I think this is most important step in the process – and the one that took the longest for me to situate.

Spend some time observing your habits and pay attention to your energy patterns.  Working at home is ideal, but can often be limiting or distracting.  For example, I can work at home in the morning before the sun comes up with a strong cup of coffee.  However, if I try to stay home all day to write, I will start to get distracted by things that need doing around the house.  To combat this, I tried going to few places to write until finally I found the place I was best able to focus.

As you transition from your coursework to writing your thesis proposal, ask yourself these questions:  When do you do your best work?  When are you usually in the mood to write?  Where is your favorite place to write?  What temptations keep you from staying focused?   Asking yourself these questions early in the process can help you to adjust your surroundings and come up with a productive schedule.

Step 3.     Spend a day getting organized. 

When I submitted my first draft to my advisor, I was all over the place.  My thoughts were, my writing was, my research was.  I had folders upon folders of articles, reports, and notes that were semi-organized but not readily accessible.  This made writing horribly difficult because everything was as jumbled up in my head as it was in my office.  One day I got several binders, some sticky tabs, and page separators and I got to work.  I organized and categorized every piece of research in a way that I could find exactly the information I needed when I needed it.  I was able to think a lot clearer knowing that what I needed was easily accessible.

The next crucial part of getting organized was creating outlines for my writing.  My mind was spinning with everything I knew I needed to integrate in my proposal.  I began to make separate outlines for each section of the proposal to act as a guide when I sat down to write.  The outlines have been a crucial piece in giving me direction and confidence.  Seeing the big picture and scaling it down will help you to write cohesively.  If you dedicate an entire day (or two) to simply getting organized, you may sacrifice writing for a couple of days, but you are setting yourself up for more productive writing by doing so.

Step 4.     Set realistic expectations and deadlines.

I have learned that the thesis writing process is more like a marathon than a sprint.  Taking this into consideration, it is important to pace yourself and set realistic expectations.  If you feel like you hit a wall, speak to your advisor, share with them what you have written and count on them for feedback and guidance along the way.  No matter what, keep the momentum going.  Setting deadlines will help ward off procrastination and hold you accountable for reaching your goals.

Don’t underestimate the power of one hour.  I have found that writing even one hour a day on days when I don’t have much time is better than nothing.  In the end, you may only write a few sentences, but it is a few sentences more than you had the day before.  Go with the flow, if a paragraph is all you’ve got in you on a day where you hoped to write 10 pages, it’s ok too, be realistic and give yourself what you need if your mind isn’t in it.

Step 5.    Trust yourself and write.  

With many things in life, we have a tendency to overthink.  This can be truly detrimental if we are not careful.  At this stage in the doctoral process, you should be certain of your topic and the research problem you are proposing.  It is important to trust yourself and the hours and hours of work and thought you have put in to your topic.  You have something to say, so say it.  The writing process is daunting because we want our words to be a perfect mirror reflection of our thoughts.  Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Writer’s block will inevitably happen if you sit and overthink.  One of the best pieces of advice I got from my advisor was to just write anything and everything that comes to mind – afterwards you can eliminate the unnecessary parts and refine it.   Here is an excellent blog post that offers some great strategies that I have found helpful in my own writing process.  More than anything, I have learned to let go and trust myself.  Everyday it gets a little bit easier, everyday you get a little bit closer … you just have to keep writing.