How to write a PhD thesis: 10 top tips

Written by Kathryn Green, Final Year Ph.D. Student at the University of Nottingham.

The prospect of writing up your Ph.D. thesis can be quite daunting. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the idea of writing up years of hard work, then you certainly are not alone.

1. Organize your literature search and reading.

The introduction of your thesis is likely to contain an extensive literature review that sets the scene for your research findings. Having an organized reading system that works well for you is a valuable way of keeping on top of papers you have read that will be important for your literature review. There are many ways in which you can organize your reading, such as keeping folders of papers that you have read. One tip is to have a document with keywords and findings from each paper so that you can easily search through it to find the paper you need when writing up.

2. Use a reference manager.

Speaking of reading, keep on top of your references! Using a reference manager can save a lot of time and ensure references are written correctly. There are many free referencing tools available, but your institution may have subscriptions to specific software, so it’s worth checking these out too. It’s a good idea to learn how to use your reference manager of choice before you delve too deep into writing. Plus, many reference managers have ways of making notes on each reference you use, meaning they’re a great way of keeping on top of your reading too.


Table: Summary of the most popular reference management tools used by researchers and students.


Free web version


Browser-based with a useful extension for grabbing references and PDFs


Free desktop-installed software


Free version up to 2GB. Useful citation plug in for internet browsers.

3. Check the guidelines of your institution.

Most universities will have specific guidelines for referencing and formatting a thesis. Make sure you check these before you start writing!

4. Plan your structure early but be open to change!

Getting the overall structure of your thesis planned out early will help to guide your writing. A thesis plan does not have to be a formal document and can just include bullet points of headings and subheadings, along with a general idea of what will be in each chapter. By doing this you can roughly visualize how your thesis will look once written, and hence make it appear a little less daunting. It may also help you to identify any gaps or areas you’d like to improve or focus on. But remember that as you write, the overall structure may change. This is very common as you will identify new links in your work and may find that the story can be told from multiple angles. Discussing this plan with your supervisors and the supervisory team can also be beneficial.

Infographic with 10 tops for writing a PhD thesis

5. Your environment plays a significant role.

Everyone has a preferred way of writing and so there are no rules as to where you should write your thesis. Some people prefer to write at home, while others may prefer the lab. What is important is that you get the setup right for you. Make sure your writing space is comfortable and that you have access to everything you need to keep yourself happy and productive (yes, that can include easy access to coffee!). It can also be really beneficial to switch up your environment when writing as seeing the same space day after day can feel tiresome. Try going to your favorite coffee shop or library, or if you are lucky to live somewhere warm with green space, a local park.

6. Thesis writing is rarely linear.

There are multiple correct ways of writing your thesis, and many of these are not linear. At a glance it may make sense to write your chapters in order – so introduction first, then methods, followed by results and discussion. However, most people end up writing chapters in a completely different order from how they will be structured in the thesis. Additionally, splitting your writing up into manageable chunks can allow you to move around from section to section as you write. This may encourage you to stay motivated, instead of working on the same topic constantly, which can be quite draining. 

7. Set mini-deadlines for yourself.

Setting yourself small goals and deadlines is a good way of keeping track of what you have done and what you still need to achieve. It will also give you something to aim for, instead of constantly reminding yourself of how much you have left to do. After achieving these small deadlines, make sure you reward yourself!

8. Take breaks.

Giving yourself a break from time to time is essential when writing your thesis. No one can stay in a constant state of productivity. It may be beneficial to have scheduled set breaks throughout your day such as lunch, a mid-morning coffee break, etc. This will give you set times to aim toward. Or you may find regular breaks help you stay focused, such as the Pomodoro (Tomato) method or 25 minutes of work, followed by 5 minutes of downtime. It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut when you’re writing and before you know it, you’re going around in circles and losing productivity. Often when this happens it’s best to just stop, step back, and take a break. You will feel a lot better about it once you return.

9. Productivity does not always equate to words written.

We often like to visually see what we have achieved that day so that we can be satisfied with our productivity. But it is crucial to remember that when it comes to thesis writing, productivity is not always visualized by the number of words added. Don’t put yourself down if you only write 50 words in one day, compared to 500 the day before. Productivity can come in the form of figure-making, critical thinking, reading papers, and drawing together conclusions. So, if after a long day’s work, you see your word count has barely changed, don’t kick yourself for it!

10. Make time for yourself.

Thesis writing can be tough, so taking time for yourself is vital. Try your best to keep up with the things you enjoy in life, whatever these may be. Whether it’s going for a run/walk, seeing friends, playing video games, watching sports, or reading a good book. It doesn’t matter what you enjoy, just keep making time for it. It’s very common to feel exhausted during the last few months of your Ph.D., so it’s really important to look after yourself during this time.

You have already done so much of the hard work; this is just the final push toward the finish line. Just remember to be kind to yourself and believe in yourself!

Related Content

How to make a scientific conference poster

Example PhD interview questions and answers

How to succeed in an interview -  Academia vs. Industry

How to start  your own business after a PhD: An insider's perspective





Pathway Posters Library

Early Career Researcher Hub


Newsletter Signup

Stay up-to-date with our latest news and events. New to Proteintech? Get 10% off your first order when you sign up.