Thesis Panic.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about time and work; specifically how there never seems to be enough of the former to do all of the latter.

The reason for all this angst is that I’ve been negotiating to do a book with Dr Sarah Quinell, of “Networked Researcher” fame. It’s a very exciting project, which I hope to talk more about in the coming months, but as the negotiations went on I noticed that I was getting increasingly anxious. How was I going to get this thing done? Life is full of family, work and side hobby projects as it is.

Luckily I recognised this feeling straight away because for years I felt it as a constant, background hum to my life. Thesis Panic.

Thesis panic is caused by what seems like an impossibly large and difficult project coupled with a fast approaching deadline. Reactions to Thesis Panic vary. Some people are good at calm acceptance, while others, like me, walk around with stomach churning anxiety which makes us distracted, irritable and hard to live with.

As soon as I diagnosed my problem I implemented my tried and tested “1000 words a day” method. I get up a little earlier in the morning, have breakfast and then write a subsection of the book. One of the many wonderful things about Scrivener is that it displays a bar with the word count I have set for the session. When the little bar goes  green I stop. Then I have a coffee, relax and start nagging at Thesiswhisperer Jnr to get ready for school. I’m pleased to report that the sense of panic has all but disappeared. I feel in control because I know, if I keep it up, I will have a draft of my 25,000 by the middle of next month.

So is the “1000 words a day” method some kind of a cure for Thesis Panic? Unfortunately, I don’t think so.

Certainly it does help to adopt structured work habits when you are doing a thesis. When I was studying friends and colleagues with PhDs advised me to treat the whole process like a job. “Keep regular hours” one person said to me at a party – “and write everyday”. “Treat your supervisor like a boss” recommended another over a cup of coffee, “think about what makes them look good and do it”. I took this advice to heart, put it into practice and found it worked: I finished in three years, while working part time for most of it.

But treating the thesis like a job didn’t minimise my anxiety very much, if at all. While I was going through these ‘job like’ motions at no time did doing the thesis really feel like a job – at least not a job as I understood it. For one thing I thought about my thesis all the time, even in my off hours – and the thinking made me either excited to get an idea on paper Right Now, or anxious. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between the two feelings, but towards the end the anxiety took over and didn’t lift until the day I got my examiner reports back.

It is hard – very hard – to talk yourself out of Thesis Panic, but it can help to talk to other people about it. While you might think the best people to talk to are those who are the calm types, I’m not so sure. They say the worst students make the best teachers because they really know what it is like to struggle. I found it far more comforting to talk to other sufferers – at least I felt less alone with the feeling.

Of course in my work I see lots of cases of Thesis Panic, but only in a professional setting. At the moment I’m lucky enough to have three people very close to me, including my sister, who are doing research degrees, which has given me the opportunity to observe the phenomenon close up and personal. I’ve murmured a lot of soothing words in phone calls, had many therapeutic cups of tea and proof read many paragraphs which the writer was too anxious to show their supervisor. Along the way I’ve been able to talk to each of them about what they are feeling and why. This has helped me to understand the phenomenon a bit better.

For instance, I was telling my sister how implementing my 1000 words strategy instantly calmed me, whereas when I was doing thesis, it didn’t have the same soothing effect. She pointed out some fundamental differences between work – which the book is – and doing a thesis.

Firstly the book wont be examined by my peers – although they may write reviews about it, they are only offering an opinion, not making a summary judgement about whether or not I get a PhD. Secondly the agreement between me and the publisher sets out the nature of the book I will write, how many chapters are in it and so on. In other words, the boundaries of a book are known and agreed on in advance.

Most thesis writers don’t have the luxury of certainty: experiments may fail, data may be useless, theories may not hold together and so on. It’s possible to find yourself staring down the barrel of the deadline with no thesis, multiple possible theses or a very tenuous thesis. The anxiety is not something you can necessarily get rid of because most of the reasons for it are external and, to some extent at least, out of your control.

Treating problem of doing a thesis as just a matter of ‘work’ explains why productivity techniques only go so far in helping people overcome Thesis Panic. Time management is a concept invented in the industrial age and designed to help people run factories, not intellectual work. Although I am a big fan of productivity literature and the tools it describes, such as the pomodoro technique, they don’t necessarily hold all the answers.

Time will tell if I can write my half of the book in within the next 5 weeks. I will be pleasantly surprised if I can, but if I learned anything while doing a PhD it is not to over estimate the impact of any one technique of time management. What do you think? Is it possible to treat a thesis as ‘just work’? Have you suffered from thesis panic? What did you do about it?

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29 thoughts on “Thesis Panic.

  1. Kelly Dombroski says:

    I have tried to treat my thesis as work most of the way through, except while on maternity leave when it was something I did for fun in between breastfeeds 🙂

    I even treated my final year of undergrad study as work. I’ve got used to the get up, get dressed, go to work style of thesis writing and researching. I’ve also had two kids during the PhD process (6 years — on my final chapter now) and I use various time management techniques to get stuff done.

    But the reality is I can really only put in about two ‘quality’ hours a day writing, and almost everything on top of that feels like timewasting. But I can’t predict very well when those two quality hours will come — sometimes its first thing in teh morning, but more often it’s after 2 hours of faffing around. Unless I am writing ethnographic description, I rarely feel like the thesis is a job, but more of a problem I have to work out. more often than not I work out the problems while breastfeeding a baby to sleep in a dark room!

    I find limiting myself to two hours writing a day makes it more exciting too! I have really struggled with guilt after starting a full time job that gives me two days a week thesis writing because I have signed a contract saying I will work 35 hours a week. Yet I clearly do not work 7 hours a day, at least at a desk. If you think of it as a real job, then the hours breastfeeding in the dark probably don’t count despite how productive they are.

    My supervisor swims regularly and recommends I do the same, as she gets lots of thinking done. maybe when my youngest weans I will have to take up swimming during work time!

    • ingermewburn says:

      You’re right – there is certainly different kinds of writing. Theoretical writing is the hardest and actually requires a lot of concentration. 2 hours a day is sensible – I think it’s all most people can stand.

  2. mel says:

    ahhh, this post couldn’t have come at a better time, just as thesis panic was starting to set in, thank you. I think hearing about others’ experience helps. I like the pomodoro/treat it as work techniques, but they don’t go the whole way for me. The chaotic, inchoate feeling-concepts, like smoky wisps at the edge of knowing are not always ready to be structured into a writing session. They seem to run on their own time (sometimes a dream time), while the thesis and its linear argument must run on the clock. Anyway, a vigorous yoga session zaps anxiety momentarily for me..

  3. Bettina says:

    I think I’m (kinda) resigned to thesis anxiety being my constant companion for the just under a year remaining before I have to submit (yikes!). The thing is, I really do enjoy my research when I have the chance to fully immerse myself in it and have had great success with the 1000 words a day technique in the past. But, the demands of earning a living, being a mum, partner and the rest don’t always leave the space for the kind of immersion that can look like a luxury. So it’s time to loosen up on the super-mum bit, be poor for a while, give up on some material luxuries so I can have a bit of intellectual luxury and get this &@$#@?! thing finished!! And I plan to weed my garden when it’s done :))

  4. Holly Oberle says:

    thank you thank you thank you for this post. i’ve had thesis panic for about a year now. most of the PhD hand books i’ve read give exactly the advice you mention: 1000 words a day, treat like a job, etc etc. this is good advice but is also unrealistic. most of us started a phd exactly BECAUSE we were trying to avoid the workplace, so we don’t want to treat it like a job. and 1000 words a day implies that you have something to write, and sometimes you simply don’t. sometimes your time is better served reviewing what you’ve already written, rechecking your results, or revising your coding scheme. i don’t have the answer as my own tactic for handling thesis panic–avoidance–clearly isn’t good advice. i was just so happy to see someone with a more realistic view of thesis panic and a very practical response to it. if you come up with a great way to handle thesis panic, please post!

    • ingermewburn says:

      Good point – we wanted to escape work. And I agree – reading, thinking etc is all ‘work’ – I only use the 1000 words a day when I have a deadline on…

  5. mel says:

    As far as tools go, I think Scrivener is great (though I am still unsure how it will all play out in the later part of the thesis). I am also using Bean ( — a simple, free, text editor that has a live word count at the bottom. I find it’s useful for targeted bits of writing that can later be dropped into Scrivener and worked up from there. The simple lines of Bean have coaxed more from me than Word so perhaps I can say it has been a bit of a thesis balm.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Panicked. Yep, that’s me. I need to generate about 20,000 words in less than two weeks. And I refuse not to have a life. Hmm. I’ve just resigned myself to cramming now. It was never going to be a perfect dissertation, and the best one is the done one, as one of my committee members likes to intone. I have been toiling far too long, so now it’s down to this. Today, I have managed 245 words, so I need to do at least 800 more. I have been averaging about 600 or so a day, or 2 pages. Very poor showings. I have no sage advice, I’m afraid. Just trying to make it through to the other side.

  7. Alan Han says:

    I think the source of thesis panic depends on what stage of the thesis you’re at. My quirk is not so much not being able to write the thesis due to constant mental blocks, but throwing things out that I’ve written and starting again. I have to submit the PhD in December this year and I’m always stressed about how to revise. What to throw and what to keep are my constant sources of panic. It’s good to have techniques and rules like the 1000 words a day tip, but there doesn’t seem to be much advice for the panic stricken student who has to revise 70,000 words. I’ve had to unlearn things and to remind myself that starting again and falling in love with new ideas is more stressful than working with what I’ve got. We are probably all familiar with this feeling: falling in love, trying to make things work, and when things don’t work out, realising that the relationship was never going to work in the first place and all that you were doing was avoiding commitment with your previous ideas. As one of my supervisors put it, I’ve given them a snapshot over 4 drafts of 10 different theses! So, what rules are there for dealing with thesis panic at the so-called ‘revising’ stage? How does one cope with the anxiety that they might not actually have a thesis or that if it’s there that they feel unable to express it clearly enough?

    • ingermewburn says:

      That’s a hard one, I’ve seen students suffering from this before and have real difficulty in finishing. I think you need to explore the source of your urge to throw out and start again. The way you describe it, I wonder if you are suffering from a version of perfectionism? The myth about perfectionists is that they keep tinkering with something until it is ‘finished’ – really the problem for perfectionists is a fear of failure. You mention commitment, but can’t fail if you never commit, hence starting again all the time. You see where I am going with this? Perhaps you need to have a talk with a counselor at your university; ours are well trained in dealing with these kinds of issues and can help you with developing some working strategies. Best of luck.

  8. Ashley says:

    As much as I’ve always tried to treat the PhD as a job, putting in 9-5 hours where I can, I’ve found that the 1000 words a day doesn’t really work for me, I need different kinds of deadlines. I set up a schedule for myself every three months and give myself things to do on certain days. If I finish something early, I try not to move on to the following days tasks and just myself the rest of the day off. A little treat for my hard work. If I don’t finish my daily task, I try not to beat myself up too much (as with weight loss) and just try to get it all done the next day, or maybe reshuffle my schedule a bit and fit it in later.

    As regards to ‘thesis panic,’ my boyfriend once observed that I had gone all ‘thesis pieces’ and it made me laugh really hard on a particularly bad day. So now I always say that I’ve gone to ‘thesis pieces’ when having thesis panic, possibly even quoting roughly how many thesis pieces I am currently in (usually ranges from 100 to 1500 – today being at about 1100, ouch). It always makes me smile and gives my boyfriend an idea of how crazy I’ll be on any given day.

  9. A new Dr says:

    In my final year, I set very firm goals of what I wanted to acheive each day. I usually did plan for two weeks at a time:

    Day 1: Finish section writing ‘sample’, ‘methods for previous studies’ and ‘conclusion for chapter 4’
    Day 2: Complete chapter 5
    Day 3: Start chapter 6
    Day 4: Chapter six
    and so on…

    day 14: revise first half of chapter one


    I even broke various tasks down to minutes in the last few months. I guess in some ways that’s like ‘work’, because I do that for work – tasks could take 10 minutes (eg. re-write a particular paragraph, or check out/ skim an article for something in particular or something) or 3 hours (writing a ‘chunk’), or 12 hours (editing a chapter). Obviously I had to schedule the 12 hour ones and allocate a couple of days for them, but the 10 minute tasks, I could easily do that before checking facebook, heating lunch or moving on to the next big job. Planning was always the last thing I did each day, so I could wake up and start.

    And I loved crossing things off. And with my two week schedules, sometimes I’d get something done faster than I anticipated and I could do the next day’s task. This meant that I’d eventually get to re-do the two week schedule. I always celebrated on those days.

    And I kind of miss the structure I had in place. I knew each day what I had to wake up and do. I probably need to re-implement that.

  10. afcw says:

    This is great. It pretty much encapsulates what I’ve been trying to explain to my (wonderful, wonderful, wonderful) supervisor when he asks if I’ll have the same difficulty writing when I’m (hopefully) an academic as I’m experiencing now.

    I do treat this as my job, and work regular hours, but this does not stop me from procrastinating or staring glazed-eyed at the screen instead of writing.
    I believe it’s exactly for the reason you say – people will read this and judge whether I’m worthy. There is so much riding on it – my future career. I honestly never really thought that I’d HAVE a ‘career’.

    I’m 2 weeks from submission, with… a bit left to write… so I’m definitely well into the grips of this ‘thesis panic’. (And procrastinating again!)

    I think one of the things that makes it infinitely worse is having people constantly asking me how it’s going. Mostly they get a pained look as an answer. My mother gets a ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ – but still asks every time. The anxiety feels like I’m being slowly squeezed to death from the inside out.

    I think that the reason I will actually (hopefully) finish is because my supervisor makes me put deadlines on all chapters or sections – which go into both of our calendars, and understands if/when I have to push those deadlines back. He walks the fine line of pushing me without having me burst into a weeping mess. Not that I haven’t been a weeping mess – but surprisingly not lately!

    Anyway, I don’t have any answers, but I wanted to say that even if this doesn’t help me much in terms of productivity – we all have our own processes – mine is procrastination and anxiety with brief spurts of productivity – it’s always great to have someone put into words how you feel. Knowing that you’re not alone in things helps you feel less crap about yourself!

    Thank you!

  11. BUN-SONG-PA-YAT says:

    I am in Thesis Panic now. I have to submit the paper next month but I am having second thoughts on my data. I keep coming back to my operational framework and can’t seem to move on anymore. The start is always the hardest for me. The overwhelming feeling of the thesis prevents me to start. There are times when I managed to start and get on with the thesis but that will take me 3 hours of reflecting around the same ideas over and over again. And then after 3hours, I will find myself writing nonstop. I guess it is very important to observe when and how you feel more comfortable & productive in writing your thesis. With me, I always have to free up my evenings so after 3 hours of wasting time, I will eventually get to the mood of writing.

    It’s refreshing to learn that this panic I feel is normal and just have keep on pushing. Thank you!

  12. professionalworrier says:

    This is still relevant. I submit my MPhil thesis at the end of January, and man oh man am I panicking. I have already had two extensions, and I simply do not want to extend again. I want it done. I want it out. I want to move on to a PhD (because I am a masochist but also genuinely passionate about my discipline). But I’m still writing. NEW THINGS. ARRRRRRRGH

  13. Anonymous says:

    Wow was I ever relieved to come across this article. In the midst of a severe case of the panics right now. I’m trying to deny my way through it, but there’s no doubt that I’m stressed and having trouble sleeping. I’m in the life sciences so I also have to do lab work as well as writing the thesis. I’m not entirely done with lab work, and every time I start writing I find more experiments that I should have done for the results to be convincing enough.

    I’ve tried to stick to 500 words a day because the deadline I’ve set for myself is to submit a manuscript in July and my thesis in October. It’s hit and miss. On the days that I do get to 500 I feel ok, but when I don’t hit the target I’m panicking. But, like others already said some types of writing are easier than others. My materials and methods section was done in a day, but the results and discussion are taking very very long, and the word count in poor. Anyway, it helps to know others were/are in the same boat. Thanks for the article and to those that commented!

  14. Karen says:

    Oh do I hear this! I have a research job as well as a part time 99.9% finished PhD. NHS ethics panels, book chapters, conference panels, teaching, paper writing – NOTHING gives me the anxiety like the thesis.

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