Mistakes People Make Writing Their Thesis

There are all kinds of ways to write a thesis. And thus, there are all kinds of mistakes you can make in the process. Here are some that I have seen:

  • Starting too early
  • Starting too late
  • Not involving your supervisor
  • Poor backups
  • Delayed referencing
  • Not using a reference manager
  • Not knowing your word processor
  • Poor file nomenclature


Over the years, I’ve helped a lot of people write their thesis. Excuse my voice. I’ve got a bit of a hoarse thrown at the moment. Here are some of the mistakes that I see people make.

The first thing is starting too early. What I mean by that is that people set themselves up to write as they go which is perfect. But the problem is you end up having goals that you can’t achieve. You have these goals of trying to actually write your thesis. Whereas, what you should be trying to do if you’re starting early is to get into the habit of writing and get into the habit of writing well. So, the first mistake is starting too early, and having the wrong goals. The next mistake is starting too late. I think if people think I’ll write my thesis in 3 months which is perfectly doable but the problem is at that stage, you’re probably looking for another job. You’ve got so many other things to do. Whereas, there’s so many things that you can start to do before the last 3 months of your PhD. For example, you can write your lit review. You can bring your methods together. You can do a thesis outline. You can learn how to use the word processors. You want to use and learn how to use a well. You can learn how to use a reference manager. So, all of those things can mean that starting early. 

Another problem I see is that people don’t involve their supervisor well enough. So, they tell their supervisor, “Yes, I’m writing up”, and they tell their supervisor perhaps, “This is my broad outline”. But they don’t ask their supervisor well. What do you want to see? How do you want to see drafts? How often do you want to see drafts? What format should they be in? Who should I send my drafts to before I send them to you? All of these things are options that you should be looking at in terms of involving your supervisor, and then ask them how long is it going to take them to review a draft so that you can put that into your timeline. Regularly, I see people not backing up their thesis well enough. If you don’t have your thesis backed up, then I would tell you to go and make sure that you do have a proper backup plan. The easiest thing to do is to talk to your local I.T. department and find out how they encourage you to back up. It should be something based in the cloud, and it should be something that happens automatically. The good thing about using your university to help you is that they will know that they can restore from a backup. There’s no use having a backup if you don’t know you can restore from it. So, if you’re not using your university system, know that you can restore from backup, and please, please, please don’t use things like email or USB disks as your backup plan. Find something else out. 

The other thing that I see people do is and this is comes as habits from their supervisor is to not include references as they go. They put in bracket ref, and they put highlight that yellow is like, “I’ll come back and find this”. The problem is you forget your train of thought. You forget what you wanted to do, and you might even find it impossible to find a reference for that section. Instead, I encourage you to one, summarize articles as you read them. And by summarize, I just mean at most a paragraph ideally 2 or 3 sentences, and that’s it. Then when you can look through your summaries, and you can include those as your references. 

The other thing you can do is find your actual reference as you go and use a citation manager. If you’re not using a citation manager now, go and find one that works with your word processor, so that you can cite as you write. So, that means you can pop the citation in as you go. There’s no referencing later. You dynamically build your reference list that’s the best way to do it. I’ve already mentioned that you need to know your word processor. Not enough people know how to make their word processes work for them. If you don’t know how to make your word processor work for you, go and find out. Do a short course at your university about your word processor of choice. You need to know things like style sheets, cross referencing, and figure labels. All of those things are really, really important to making sure that you can write your thesis well. 

Finally, I see too many people using poor form nomenclature. So, they’ll call their thesis, “thesis draft”, “thesis draft final”, when instead 

what you really need to do is have your thesis name, “your name”, and then a then version or “v”, and then a two-digit number like, “01”, “02”. That’ll mean that you can get to a hundred different versions of your thesis. You don’t ever have to think about whether this is the final one. You know that the highest number is the most recent version. So, there you go. Some mistakes that people make, and how you can overcome them when you come to writing your thesis. And once again, thanks for excusing my voice today.