The Study Dude—Six Common Mistakes

Ones I Made with my Master's Thesis

You want a thesis that makes Mom and Dad beam?  A thesis that churns out multiple publications? A thesis you conveniently store on the guestroom bedside table?  All grad students want that quality—at first.

But once the grind begins, some students stumble, lose focus, or just give up.  Let me reassure you, your thesis will shine.  That’s because I’m going to share with you five common mistakes I made that gave me a pass, but not firsts.  That way, you’ve got guidance to write, not just a pass, but an award-worthy thesis:

Mistake #1: Don’t make your thesis topic as broad as the Bible’s.  According to The Open University, “it is your responsibility to narrow the project topic down, which [is] something that you can and want to do, and it is your task rather than [your supervisor’s] to carry it out” (35%).

Ah!  I came to my Master’s supervisor with a grandiose idea.  Was it about love?  Peace?  God?  I don’t recall.  But my prof, overwhelmed, stepped down as my supervisor.  Regrettably, she later got demoted from professor to instructor.

So, I searched for another supervisor, which took nearly two years.  You see, you have to fit your idea into the constraints of not only your department focus but also of a supervisor’s know-how with your topic.  Don’t make your thesis topic as broad as the titanic!  Narrow it down to something manageable, and you’ve overcome your biggest hurdle.

Mistake #2: Expect to extend your thesis due date by years if you work a full-time job (and frequent the cinema).  The Open University says, “Since your PhD project is unique and only you know the pressures on your life, there is little point in other people providing you with a rigid timetable.  This is why one of the first things you must do is to develop your own work plan” (26%).

My plan evolved around working full-time making lots of money while writing my thesis.  To calm my nerves, I frequented the cinema.  Thus, my master’s thesis took five years to finish.  I begged for this extension, but I was only allowed one extension.  So, ask for the maximum extension because your department won’t give you a second chance.  After all, it’s your one chance to capture the glory of yet another degree.

Mistake #3: Don’t Wing it.  Plan it.  The Open University states, “At the start of your project, it might seem very hard to make a detailed plan, because you yourself do not have the experience to know how long some activities will take” (28%).

Uh, I wrote my thesis over ten years ago—and don’t recall that stage.  Planning?  Luckily, I had a supervisor who broke the thesis into chapters and said, “Do this!  Do that!”  The guy was sharper than an accountant with a business and math double major.  So, seek out a supervisor who’s either highly structured in her thinking or well-experienced with supervisory roles.  That way, you’ll steamboat to the prize.

Mistake #4: Expect to juggle.  The Open University claims, “research is seldom easy or straightforward.  You may have to repeat some activities several times and your work may overlap across the phases so that, at the same time as writing up one experiment, for example, you may be completing the field research for another” (28%).

My supervisor asked me to restructure a section.  So, I spent two weekends doing just that.  When I showed it to him, he told me to restructure it like it was at the start.  So, I did.  And then the guy told me to restructure it again!  Argh!

When we did the final run-through before my defence, he told me to restructure it yet again.   I burst into tears.  Thank goodness, he dropped the subject!  Despite how crazy this sounds, juggling is the norm.  Welcome the sticky points, and you’re certain to succeed.

Mistake #5: Pretend You’re Stephen King.  According to The Open University, “one of the activities that we specifically recommend you plan for is writing up your research, both during your research and at the end of your project.  We emphasise the need to write because it is often put off to the very end of the project, when in nearly all cases it is required right from the beginning” (31%).

Write as well as Stephen King.  I mean, read every book on academic writing you can find: Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword, Writing Science by Joshua Schimel, most anything by Roy Peter Clark.

While you’re in writing mode, keep a daily journal—both to get you writing and to get you documenting your research.  My supervisor recommended I keep a research journal.  That’s because excerpts from your journal can end up in your thesis.  Plus, you might forget steps in how you gathered and analyzed your data, so a record in your journal will surely rescue you.  Also, with a detailed journal of your research process, you’ll have ammo come oral defense time.  Your journal will bring you the best of success.

Mistake #6: Plan for the big “D’Oh!” The Open University says, “One way of dealing with the unpredictability of research is to ask yourself, during your planning, ‘What can go wrong?’ This question, in turn, highlights some of the tactics you could employ in these instances, so that if, say, there is a delay in negotiating access, you will have allowed for this and will have an alternative plan in which you can substitute another task in the meantime” (41%).

My big “D’Oh!” struck as panic attacks, which consumed most of my waking life.  The attacks made me so spacey I could barely grasp a sentence.  I couldn’t write; I couldn’t read—when braced by anxiety.  So, I worked on my thesis weekend mornings and afternoons.  Plan around those soul-crushing “D’Oh’s.”  With wiggle room, you can break through any barrier.

If you’re in grad studies, the Corona virus might extend your time for writing your thesis.  If so, get a head start now.  Every minute matters when it comes to feeling accomplished as you reflect on your grad degree(s).

Open Learn: Free Learning from The Open University.  (2016).  Postgraduate study skills in science, technology or mathematics.  The Open University.  E-book excerpt.