PhD Thesis First Draft: 8 Practical Writing Tips for PhD Students

by Jennifer Ulz
PhD thesis first draft: 8 practical writing tips for PhD students

Many early career researchers will agree that the most difficult step in writing a PhD thesis is getting started. Students often find themselves mentally unprepared to take on this challenge as most formal training revolves around conducting research with little focus on how to write a PhD thesis. Uncertainty about the guidelines for PhD thesis writing and how to present their study in an engaging, impactful way often results in procrastination, self-doubt, and anxiety among otherwise confident researchers. The fact is students need to write a PhD thesis to complete their doctoral degree, and as ironic as it seems, the only remedy to this inertia is to meet this challenge head-on.

This article provides young researchers with practical tips to help them deliver a successful first draft when writing a PhD thesis.

  • Create an outline and structure: A good way to start writing a PhD thesis is to first create a draft outline or structure of your thesis. Like journal articles, a PhD thesis must have an introduction that presents the key points of your study in a compelling way, a body section that contains the main aspects of your research along with supporting data and evidence, and a conclusion that summarizes the thesis and provides additional insights or suggestions for further research. This first step is important because once you have the right structure in place, summarizing your thesis can happen more easily.  

  • Adhere to university or institutional guidelines: A common mistake that many students make while creating an outline and structure is not keeping in mind the guidelines for PhD thesis writing set by your university or institute. It’s important to adhere to the university or institute’s guidelines, for example the preferred structure or style of references, when writing a PhD thesis. Be sure to check with your supervisor to ensure that the word count, structure, citation style and other key elements of your thesis meet the recommended guidelines for PhD thesis writing.
  • Use active voice and avoid grammatical and spelling errors: It is important to focus on using simple language that’s free of complicated jargon when writing a PhD thesis. To ensure better readability, use active voice instead of passive voice and avoid long winding sentences. Be aware of and avoid spelling and grammar errors such as dangling modifiers, subject-verb disagreement, and parallelism in your work. You can use AI tools like Paperpal for Word, which offers real-time suggestions to help you improve your language right from the first draft itself.

  • Maintain consistency in your writing style: One of the most useful writing tips for PhD students is referring to the preferred style guide to ensure consistency in spellings, proper punctuation, correct hyphenation, and the right use of technical terms and phrases. Also check for consistency when it comes mentioning organizations and institutions, affiliations, references, legends and other key elements when writing a PhD thesis.
  • Be careful when citing or quoting text: With the sheer quantum of research reading required when writing a PhD thesis, it can be difficult to keep track of sources of information. It is also quite possible for students to inadvertently introduce plagiarism in their writing by using chunks of well-written text as is or quoting information without citing it correctly. So be sure to properly cite any sources of data that you’re using in your thesis, including text, images and figures to avoid any ethical misconduct.

  • Set a target deadline for completion: Another top writing tip for PhD students is to set a delivery date and stay committed to it. You can also share this goal with a broader set of people (peers, supervisor, friends, etc.), who will act as catalysts on the journey of writing your PhD thesis first draft and in the time you’ve set for yourself. It is critical however that the final deadline be realistic and take into account challenges that may come in the way of you achieving your goals.

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  • Take time to make revisions and proofread before submission: This is one of the most important writing tips for PhD students, but one that often takes the back seat. Remember that no matter how clear your first draft seems about your research findings, argumentation and flow, there will always be room for improvement and especially to your first draft. Once you’re done with your first draft, be sure to revisit each chapter and make the necessary edits before sharing it ahead with your mentor for feedback. When planning your work, make sure to factor in ample time for editing and proofreading, so that all the work you put into writing a PhD thesis is polished before submission.

  • Remember it’s a first draft and not the final version: If you’re getting stuck with your writing, move on and start work on a different section; you don’t need to write in chronological order as long as you follow the structure you’ve created for yourself. Remember the cardinal rule when wondering how to write a PhD thesis – No one gets it right in the first draft itself. Capture your thoughts and findings as clearly and engagingly as possible in your first draft, don’t waste too much time striving for perfection at this stage. You can always fine-tune your writing and repeat this process as you go along, which can help you reach your writing goals faster.

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