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I'm pretty sure that I'm among the last of my friends to do a thesis, but that's not going to stop me from handing out some good old-fashioned advice.

06 November 201703:41PMlifescicomm

Here are three things I wish I'd known when I started:

1. Write everything down.

One of the characteristics of a solo research project is that almost by definition it's far too big for all the details to fit in your head. I used a combination of an A5 hardcover spiral-bound notebook, and Microsoft OneNote, and almost every bit of my thinking happened in one or the other.

Not only is it good for helping you think, but being able to look back at all those thoughts later is a lifesaver when it comes to writing the thing up. There were several times I wished I'd done something at an earlier point in my research, only to flip back and find out that I had, in fact, done that very thing. So get yourself a notebook, and use it.

2. Don't underestimate your data.

Especially if your research involves people, because people are messy. I think I declared myself 'done' with my data three or four times before I actually finished it. Each time, I'd turn around and try to use it to answer my questions, only to find that it wasn't quite in the format I needed, or that I hadn't collated something I had planned on using, or that something in my labelling system was ambiguous or inconsistent.

I thought it would take me four weeks, while I worked on other stuff in the afternoons. It ended up taking more like two months pretty much full-time.

essentially this.

3. Maybe don't work?

I'm really torn on this one. On one hand, having some income to pay for things like food and rent is nothing to be sniffed at. On the other hand, especially with a casual job, I felt like as soon as I got a decent amount of momentum going for my week's work, I had to head to work and change gears again. It's less about the time, and more about the constant context switching.

Then again, some weeks I think I might've needed that gear change. It was nice, sometimes, to check in to a job that I knew I could do well, and have an excuse to leave my thesis stuff behind. And again, that's pretty specific to a casual job - if I'd had something else project-based that I was working part-time on, I think it would've driven me around the twist.

So that's what I wish I'd known when I got started. Some of it sure seems like it's stating the obvious. I might even have been told some of it by friends. If you did, and you're reading this now, I'm sorry - I guess I just needed to make my own mistakes on this one.

All that said? I think I did an okay job at not going crazy. I kept my thesis pretty compartmentalised and didn't let it take over my life. And I think at least part of that is that I figured these out earlier, rather than later, and left myself time and space to make those mistakes for myself.

I guess that's the meta-advice here. A thesis is a self-directed learning experience, not just about your topic, but about how to keep yourself astride a project that's far too big for you and is moments away from throwing you off. Give yourself tspace to make, and learn from, those mistakes, and you'll have a much easier time.

Heck, you might even enjoy yourself.

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