Secrets from the Thesis Whisperer

September 2013


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DR INGER MEWBURN, better known as the Thesis Whisperer, shares three common mistakes made by fledgling postgrads, and how to avoid them.

Mistake 1: don’t write (nearly) everyday everyday?

Despite all the advice not to leave the bulk of thesis writing to the very end, many students do just that. To survive the ‘writing up’ phase you will need hard core writing skills, which you can develop by writing everyday (it’s a bit like piano practice). The best kind of writing is the sort we do for others: a blog post, a grant application, a long email – anything like this will do. Even taking notes is a great opportunity to sharpen technique. Pretend the notes are for a research assistant who doesn’t have the same background as you and needs to put a paper together in a hurry (your future self will thank you).

Some of the daily writing will end up in your thesis – but don’t worry too much if it doesn’t for the first year or so. For more severe cases of deadline-itis I refer you to the ever popular post: “How to write 1000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy)”.

Mistake 2: Don’t attend other people’s research presentations

When I was a PhD student I received a steady stream of emails advertising seminars given by other research students, visiting scholars, professors in the faculty and the like. Many of them offered a free lunch. The problem was the reminder email would inevitably arrive just when I was having a good writing moment and I would ignore it in favour of doing work. This felt good – virtuous even. I was denying myself social contact and having lunch with my thesis instead.

I could give you all the community-minded reasons why you should go along to these events, but I am going instead to appeal to your selfish side. You learn a lot from watching how other people present their work and even more from watching them being criticised. Let’s face it, it’s much better to watch someone else be torn to shreds than experience it yourself. If you watch enough of these you will start to work out, amongst other things, the devious questions which academics like to ask to trip new students up.

Mistake 3: Fail to attend to paperwork

Any university is a massive bureaucracy. At a university where I used to work, they even had a policy on policies (true fact). ‘Paperwork’ is not a minor irritant, it’s central to your life as a student and academic. Paperwork invariably takes time to process. Ethics committees and scholarship applications can get held up if you don’t fill in the forms properly. 

Make sure the form you are using is the right one and up to date. I can’t count how many people hand in their ethics application on the form the supervisor sent them, which is 3 years old, then get annoyed when they have to wait another month. Being angry at the need to do paperwork is like being angry about the weather – satisfying, but ultimately pointless. And while I’m at it: file that paperwork properly when you have finished. A well written ethics application can sometimes be fed right back into your thesis. Sometimes the writing you do on forms can be re-used on other forms, for example, grant and/or job applications.

Dr Inger Mewburn is director of Research Training at the Australian National University. Her popular blog can be found at

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