How to get (and stay!) organized while writing your thesis or dissertation
By Lauren Cerretti
This article may not be perfect advice, depending on your discipline, but for my English Masters thesis, these strategies certainly worked. Some of the advice is also about surviving the writing process. I suggest reading it through and then taking what you like and changing any methods to suit your program or personal organizational style. Let me be clear: I am not a type-A personality; organization is effort for me. Writing a thesis is the most intense piece of work you are in the process of researching and writing thus far in your academic career. It’s big and important and therefore seems very overwhelming throughout. Being organized can help curb those feelings of anxiety and help you succeed.
1. Start researching early. As early as possible, really, because this will give you more time to barter with inter-library loan or beg other students via email for their books. The more you research, and the earlier, the more refined your argument will be and the faster and easier the writing will go. If you have lots of research to choose from, supporting your argument becomes monumentally simpler.
2. Buy or inherit many folders, binders, post-it notes of various colors, and a black marker. Divide your research into categories by author (either who wrote it or who it’s written about), subject, or type of research (article, medical study, interview, equations, charts and graphs, etc.). Label everything. Color-code chapters or paragraphs in books with post-its for quick access to the information. Do this because it saves time and anxiety when you’re looking for a particular piece of information to show to your advisor or to insert into your draft. Tip: often other students or GTAs have more leftover folders or office supplies than they know what to do with, so ask around before purchasing some. This saves you money and helps out the environment at the same time.
3. Meet with your advisor as often as you can both handle. This step keeps you working toward your goal because you have to have something to show your advisor at each meeting. It’s also helpful because it keeps your advisor updated on what, exactly, you’re working on, which can save you valuable time if the scope of your work gets too big because he/she can pull you back.
4. Take notes at each meeting with your advisor. When you’re in that room, everything he/she is saying makes perfect sense and seems easy enough to remember, but once you’re back on your own, it’s hard to recall with all those other thoughts rolling around in your head. Show up to meetings with questions and write down the answers. Keep all your notes in the same place, in the same notebook, even.
5. Make a list of all your due dates and post it above where you usually work. My list was above my computer desk. This helps you be realistic about revisions and work to be completed because your time frame is always readily available. I also wrote all due dates in my planner (using one color for this particular project) so I saw them all the time. This kept me working instead of slacking.
6. Try to remember those stress-buster strategies from undergrad and use them. Remember during finals in undergrad when student services was offering all of these strange events to supposedly bust your stress? They were events like movies, massages, going out to eat, getting a drink (OK, that is a new addition, probably). Take advantage of Bozeman and do some of those things. You won’t necessarily forget about your project while you’re out, but you’ll succeed in being a person for a night out with friends and that is a big stress buster during grad school. Yes, you want to work hard and do well, but you don’t want to look back at grad school and remember all the good times you missed out on.
7. Remember that the work will most likely get done. You’ve made it through grad school so far, right? Most classes want you to write or complete a big project, so just think of your thesis as four classes put together. Doable, in pieces. Stay positive and don’t let your work crush your spirit. You can do this. MSU didn’t admit you into one of their programs because you’re a long-shot; they believe in you, so you should believe in yourself.
In undergrad, a professor told me that grad school was the hardest I’d ever work and the most fun I’d ever have. While this was perhaps hyperbole, his advice turned out to be fairly accurate. As graduate students, we work very hard. It’s easy to forget the fun part when every move you make seems like it could affect your academic future. Of course you should work hard, but don’t forget to live your life outside of school, either.
About the author: Lauren Cerretti is the graduate writing tutor at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.