You CAN Write Your Thesis Without Writing Lists

I believe the world is divided into two types of people: those who make lists and those who don't. If you're one of the latter and have just read Andrea Lord's article, you will be quaking in your boots at the very thought that thesis writing could entail this amount of organisation. Nonlistmakers know that these organisational methods make a lot of sense. It's just putting it into practice that they find daunting.

I'm convinced that there is a gene for listmaking, and mine is either missing or mutated. My husband, on the other hand, not only has the gene, but it seems to be linked to a promoter sequence that is permanently set to "on." As long as I have known him (and it's a long time), he has been making lists and even admits, "I make lists about lists." Opposites do indeed attract! I even bought him a book entitled The Book of Lists once, such was my amazement with this obsession.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against listmakers. I'm just not convinced that it is possible to become one if it isn't an inherent trait. You see, listmakers are intrinsically organised people whose brains think linearly and who get to their goals as the crow flies. Nonlistmakers are intrinsically disorganised people, whose brains think randomly and who reach their goal after a few delays and wrong turns (but we do get there). Believe me, I have tried very hard over the years to become a listmaker and have even occasionally succeeded in crossing off the list of tasks for the day. Sadly, more often than not, I either forget or lose it. I never make shopping lists for exactly this reason. Hubby has found the perfect way around my inability to make lists: He makes them for me. You've got to admire his persistence.

What I'm trying to say is, producing lists for writing your thesis is a great idea and will undoubtedly increase your productivity, but if you fall into the slightly chaotic, nonlistmaker personality type, THERE IS STILL HOPE.

I can say this quite categorically because 10 years ago I did it--without the aid of lists or Windows software and with the added bonus of a 2-year-old child who provided no end of distractions from thesis writing. Had I made lists, they would only have ended up in the slot for the video or down the toilet (the favoured places for my toddler to dispose of all items of value). So if I managed it, SO CAN YOU. This assertion is not based on false modesty but on the reality that I don't have a great track record in finishing what I've started. Witness piles of half-read books at the side of my bed and shelved attempts at curtainmaking, not to mention uncompleted Next Wave articles.

So, what hope is there for the habitual procrastinator (who, ironically, has a list of excuses as long as their arm why they will start writing their thesis tomorrow rather than today)?

Remember that everyone finds the thought of penning the Ph.D. tome rather frightening, and most people procrastinate over starting, continuing, or finishing. Thesis writing is a multiskilled task, so it has a challenging element for anyone, depending on his or her particular strengths and weaknesses. Everybody has his or her own ideas on how and where to get started. My only advice is to start on the area you find least scary. If you enjoy researching the literature, collating information, and writing, start with the introduction. If you're a bit of a data head and like analyzing and number crunching, then head straight for the results section. If you're good on attention to detail, then begin with the methods section. (Previous theses from your department may help you collate this information quickly.)

Having gained momentum, you may be ready to tackle the bits you're not so keen on. So, don't waste any more time on self-help books, the witterings of motivational gurus, or advice from smug postdocs. Do read Andrea Lord's sensible advice, and to prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks, here is a LIST of reasons for completing that Ph.D.:

  • Your mum/dad/husband/wife/partner/housemates will be dead chuffed, although not necessarily as a result of bursting pride. The relief of not living with a neurotic, self-obsessed gibbering wreck whose entire conversation for the past 6 months has been prefaced with the line, "I've got my thesis to finish," may have more to do with it.

  • Being involved in the process is a great excuse for getting out of all those tedious household chores (you're working on your thesis). Do remember that this may wear a little thin with your cohabitees

  • You get to call yourself Dr. This is generally a good thing. I've found it particularly useful when dealing with doctor's/dental receptionists, who suddenly seem able to find appointment spaces at short notice (although it can be a bore when people think you are a medical doctor and launch into a long diatribe about their current symptoms).

  • People will think you are extremely intelligent. Don't spoil the illusion. (They don't need to know that you know lots of useless information on a very narrow area of research that may not necessarily be of any benefit, either now or in the future, to man or beast.)

  • You don't want a lifetime of guilt if you fail to complete it. Saying "I nearly completed a Ph.D." just doesn't sound as good as "I've got a Ph.D."

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