Yes, You Do Have a Thesis

You’ve worked for years, but can’t finish a final monograph that will earn you a degree. What’s going on? I’ve a few tips to help.

Monographs, dissertations, theses. People work for years, finish all the credits and courses, do all the lab work, but can’t end that damn final text that will grant them a degree.

I’ve known so many people going through such a situation that I think that I should come to their rescue, with few tips from my own experience.

1. Don’t ask about my thesis

What do lead people to keep postponing their monographs forever?

There are different factors: insecurity, pride, indiscipline.

People are often insecure of not having something good enough for presenting. They keep working and working, but always with the feeling that it isn’t enough yet. That’s sadly common among graduate students.

Be sure: if you’ve worked for three years on anything, you certainly have material for a thesis, even if it isn’t what you were expecting from beginning; even if most of your early hypotheses failed. You may have, however, to readjust your expectancies and rebuild a clear story about what you’ve been doing.

A lot of people also don’t have enough discipline to deal with the usual boredom of conventional academic work. Put some relative autonomy together with repetitive experiments and deadly boring papers and you have an irresistible temptation to procrastination.

People get stuck due to pride too. They have the feeling that what they have done so far isn’t at their level, that they could have done so much better, that it’s not good enough. I guess that this pride in fact is just another mask for insecurity. But since I don’t want to psychologize too much, let me just cut to the chase: this is bullshit. Good enough is to get your degree and start a new step in your career.

2. The minimum passable

Then, what should you do?

The secret of success is… go for the minimum passable.

Yes, I know, this sounds like an eulogy of mediocrity. Maybe it is. But there’s more: it’s also a strategy for achieving a goal.

Are you ambitious and does it sound offensive when I suggest that you go for the minimum passable?

I respect that, but I stand for my advice: have your minimum-passable thesis ready as a first step, as an emergency resource, as a plan B, whatever. Then, build upon it to get your dream summa-cum-laude thesis.

In any case, bear in mind that nobody is going to pay much attention to what you wrote. Probably not even your supervisor and the evaluation committee will. They have a lot more to do. Later, when employers check your CV, they will look which degrees you have and how long took you to get them, they won’t look at your thesis.

3. Just follow my lead

And yes, I can give some concrete tips.

What is essential is that you:

  • Do an honest work. Don’t lie, don’t plagiarize, don’t mask, invent or make up data. This is not only for not getting caught, but mainly because an ethical starting in your career will define you as a professional. If something didn’t work (or is unclear, or is still left to be done), state it clearly in your monograph. Rather than criticize, people will respect you for that.
  • Be pragmatical and focus on what is important: production and deadlines. Don’t waste your time on side projects with little chances of success. Get rid of unproductive activities. (Do you really need to keep Facebook open during working hours?) Don’t lure yourself into applying for time extensions “to get better results.” It won’t help. Most probably, the feeling that there’s still something missing will be there by the end of the extension, then what’s its purpose?
  • Discipline yourself. Have clear work schedules. Remember that remaining extra-hours in the lab is usually an unproductive self-deceiving mechanism. Organize your objectives and establish to-do lists and deadlines to fulfill each one. If you can’t keep up, reevaluate your strategies. Keep clear notebooks and optimize your work space (starting by cleaning up that messy desk and washing that disgusting coffee mug). These tips for an efficient academic work may help you too.
  • Get some expert advice to help you to organize your thoughts. This may surprise you, but your supervisor will be willing to do that (at least if you can catch them in the country). But if for any reason your supervisor isn’t an option, go for some senior staff.
  • Do an organized, clear, and well written work. If you’re writing in English, Pinker’s The Sense of Style may do wonders.

4. The mind bright, the spine right, and the heart serene

Be attentive to your emotions. What? Emotions?

All the pressure of the academic work may build up to a lot of stress. You will be tired, ill, and worried about the present and the future. You may be surrounded by colleagues who don’t do anything but to complain about the boss and the department. Your relation with your supervisor will probably become tense (every relationship tends to get tense after a few years).

If you don’t take care, you may easily spiral into frustration and depression.

Keep yourself cool. Make tight but manageable work schedules, without cutting out your family, friends, hobbies, and sleep times. Don’t feed persecution paranoia; don’t feel guilty for having a relaxing Sunday; don’t be another one complaining about the boss and the department; and most important:

Don’t Panic

5. Know thyself

Now, I have a final question: do you really want to finish the thesis?

You invested a few years of your life and now only a monograph stays in the way between you and a degree. From an economical point of view, the marginal cost of producing this last piece of work is so low that probably your best option is just to do it.

But be aware of the sunk cost fallacy, like when you go to a movie that you don’t want to watch just because you’veĀ  already paid for the ticket.

You shouldn’t finish your thesis only because you already put too much effort into it (or because of your intellectual pride). You should finish your thesis because the degree that it will earn you is relevant for the professional plans that you have made for yourself.

If you intend to go for the IT market in the future, don’t waste your time dangling around a physics lab, no matter how much effort you’ve already put into that damn beamline (which you don’t really care about, anyway). Just cut your losses and move on to the next job.

Of course, don’t make such a decision in the heat of a frustrating moment (and they’re many in the lab, I know). Give yourself some serious time to do some soul-searching. A professional career counselor may help you with that.


  • You may want to check these tips to prepare presentations;
  • And to write papers too.
  • Subscribe in the sidebar to know about new posts.
  • Did these tips help you? Or do you have other tips? Let us know in the comments below.
  • I thank Carla for the suggestions and discussions on this post.

Categories: Productivity, Work Organization

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