Welcome to Thesis Hell! This is what I like to call the three, five, six, maybe even more months you spend writing your Master Thesis. People have told you about this phase in your life, they have warned you, scared you and told you it will be the worst part of your student life. But The Euroculturer is here to help you survive Thesis Hell and enter Submittal Heaven with 15 easy tips.
It is really not that important
Most people will try to tell you otherwise. They will insist that this is the most important paper you ever write and if you cannot submit in time, you have to pay fees and if you do not submit at all, you will end up unemployed for the rest of your life.
These ideas are not helpful when you are already lying awake every night in a state of panic. Because really: it is not that important. Make this your mantra. Yes, you should care about your thesis – but it is not the end of the world.
You have done this many times before
…just with smaller case studies.
If you are panicking over the ground-breaking scientific contribution your MA thesis asks from you (and you will at some point), remember that you are not a freshman. Most probably you have written so many theses and papers in your university life that you cannot even remember a third of their titles. You have done all this before. A thesis is a thesis is a thesis. Your case studies might have been smaller, your literature more limited and your time frame only a few weeks, but you have done this work many times before and you have not failed. You know your craft and you will succeed this one more time as well.
Make it your project
Most teachers try to guide you into Thesis Purgatory by asking you to pick a topic you are passionate about and write your thesis about that. There might be a slight chance that your passions are actually outside the realm of your studies but even then you can make the thesis your project. Surely there is something you have been wondering about, something you want to dissect. Well, here is the good news: You get a few months of time, a fully-equipped library and two supervisors to help you find the answers to those questions you have been thinking about.
Don’t think: they are making me write this shit so that I get a degree. Think: Now I am going to find out about this, I have excellent prerequisites and I will even earn a degree for pursuing my interest.
Get a team
Everyone has two supervisors, some have the good ones that answer every email, give your tips and help you advance the project. (Like mine.) Other have more, let’s say, absent supervisors. But regardless of which one you have, think of your thesis as a challenge you will master in a team. Your supervisors are the more serious part of the team; you are the captain. But three is not enough for a team: get a pep talker and an academic guide.
When I wrote my thesis, I had a very patient friend who I could send all my angry texts to. She would reply with loving words of encouragement. Every evening, I would inform her how many words I had written today. Sometimes it was 34. She would say, “Every word is a step forward”. She would also feed me when I was unable to get my act together and she would go and party with me when I reached a milestone in thesis writing.
I was also lucky to be friends with someone involved and excited by academic research. Whenever I met her for lunch, I got a flow feeling afterwards. I could just work at the double speed because she had guided me and told me what my next steps should be. It is much easier to accept a friend’s guidance than the ones of your supervisors – who will in the end, grade you, after all. ¨
Find people who can encourage you during your thesis writing. Build your team and let them help you. You have to write your thesis alone but you can have company on the way. (Do not forget to mention these people in your acknowledgments though.)
Write for instant panic relief
Many of us read and research and think. We do not start writing because “I still do not know enough”. But your time is dedicated to thesis writing not thesis procrastinating so do not make this mistake. It leads to you stressing when others tell you they are on page 37. It makes you anxious because 60 pages seem so much. Stop reading right now and start writing. Begin with the easiest part, regardless whether that is the introduction of chapter four or only the cover page, but start writing. Having five pages down gives instant panic relief, I promise. If there is one thing that will be in the way of submitting your thesis it is perfectionism. Always remember: Done is better than perfect.
Don’t be scared of the fancy words
Establish relationships to conceptualize and theorize the pan-European issues of contemporary times in a broader perspective? The art of professional bullshitting uses a lot of fancy words and they can be scary.
Remember that a definition is not more than deciding what a word means, a concept is not more than explaining an idea and to historize something means you tell me how something was before today. They’re fancy words, but they will not bring you down.
Set the right margins from the beginning
In most social sciences and humanities, professors seem to think they will need a lot of space to actually write corrections on the sides of your paper. Regardless of the fact that we have long ago entered the age of digital theses, you are still obliged to leave some 3 centimeters blank on your paper and to format it 1.5-spaced. This is a good thing! Make sure to set every document you work in in the right margins and put in your correct footnotes from the beginning. This will make your paper look longer, make you calmer, and save you time in the end. Eighty pages sound way too much when you work single-spaced.
Use a citation software
Using a citation software is going to save you a lot (!) of time and energy. I do not see why you should manually manage 214 books and articles when there are excellent programs that can do it for you. At some of our universities, these programs are even free. Check with your library and take an introductory course in how to use Citavi, RefWorks and all the other awesome inventions that save you blood, sweat and tears. You will not regret it.
Do your share every day
If you are going through Thesis Hell, keep going. Do not take days off (except weekends), but do your share every day. It will give you a feeling of security that you have done everything you could. Slow and steady wins the race.
Count your pages
It is relieving to know how far you have come. Count your pages and feel free to share with your above-named team that you have a third already. But please, spare your fellow prisoners in Thesis Hell from your page numbers.
Separate work and play by studying somewhere else but at home
Some people say they can study and write at home. For the other 95 percent of the world’s population I suggest: Try simulating a work environment by studying somewhere else than your home. You go to your thesis every morning and you leave it there every evening. In the meantime, you are a free person.
Build in filters to minimize collateral damage
A lot of thesis anxiety is rooted in not knowing if what you wrote is good enough. We have all heard the stories about those that failed or got a re-write. If you want to minimize the risk of failing make sure you have a critical proof reader and carefully read through their comments. You might want to ask different people for different chapters: your maths student friend for the statistics and your English teacher aunt for the overall flow of your text. Also, ask your supervisors if they are willing to read single chapters before you submit the complete draft. A supervisor who has read and accepted single chapters will tell you before the final deadline if s/he thinks you are going down Fail Road.
Enjoy the privilege of being a student
Thesis Hell does not have to be the worst part of your life at university. On the contrary, it is now that you have so much experience that you easily navigate through the campus jungle and can take best advantage of everything student life offers. Work hard and play hard – it might be the last half year you can do that.
Put things into perspective
Do not think that Thesis Hell is a pleasant place just because you follow these tips. No, there will still be days with nervous breakdowns when you are crying in bed. There will be hours in which you are staring at your computer screen wondering why you chose this topic after all. There will be times when others have stolen your favorite library seat.
There are ups and downs. They come and go. There is no way to avoid them, make sure to keep a healthy perspective.
So you think you are the poorest thing on the earth because you have to write that stupid thesis. All your first-year-friends get to go out all the time and play.
Stop pitying yourself – it is not helpful. Put things into perspective. Do you know someone who is really sick? Heard of someone who cannot find housing? I assume you do know about people living in war-stricken regions. Yes, right: you do not have a problem! You have a challenge that you can and will master. And everyone is on your side.
Submit and CELEBRATE!
Submitting your MA thesis is a milestone in your life. If you are not pursuing an academic career, this is the last paper you ever wrote for university. You should treat this event accordingly. Have a graduation ceremony, throw a party, submit and celebrate like there is no thesis defense! (I mean, there isn’t at many universities…)
Helen Hoffmann, Creative Editor
Helen was part of the Euroculturer Cohort 2011-2013 and studied Euroculture in the University of Göttingen (DE) and Uppsala University (SW) where she was sufficiently “swedified” to today serve as the Country Manager of the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Germany.
Her interests are film, literature, the Eurovision Song Contest (and not ashamed to admit it), and everything printed – even TV magazines. She’s also fascinated with communication, marketing and commercials. And of course, her interests include the Swedish Royal Family.
4 thoughts on “How to survive your MA Thesis”
A master student from Lund here, hi! 🙂 Thank you so, so much for those tips! There is loads advice on writing your thesis on the net, but yours really spoke to me. I feel a lot better after reading this. ❤ Stort tack och kram!
Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon every day.
It’s always interesting to read through articles from other authors and use
something from other sites.
Excellent post. It resonates a lot with me. Thank you for your tips!
Master student from Gothenburg, Sweden, checking in. I’m going through thesis hell right now, with three months to go.
I constantly have this looming feeling that I don’t have enough data, and that I’m not good enough, even though I’ve completed all previous courses without a hitch. It’s a bit strange, isn’t it? Your post made me feel quite a bit better, so thank you 🙂