How to carry out a doctoral thesis project

How to carry out a doctoral thesis project
How to carry out a doctoral thesis project

In many fields, you will be asked to produce a thesis the size of a book to obtain your doctorate. This process can be frightening at times, as you will need to develop a useful project, do your own research, and write a manuscript that offers an original argument and is a major contribution to progress in your discipline. Your individual experience will vary widely depending on your discipline, university, department, and project, but luckily there is some general information you can follow to make it easier for you.


Part 1 of 4: Finding a thesis problem

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Step 1. Start early

You need to start thinking well in advance about the research avenues that interest you. Make a list of your ideas. Ask yourself the following questions.

  • What aspect of my discipline needs more exploration?
  • Can I apply existing scientific models to new situations?
  • What existing scientific arguments could be effectively challenged?
  • Are there major scientific debates in my field that I could tackle, using a different approach?
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Step 2. Check with your laboratory

The same research area can be explored in different ways by different laboratories. Learn about the theoretical or current research models generally followed by your laboratory, this can give you new ideas.

  • Ask questions. Your thesis supervisor should be able to give you certain information about your department's standards and answer any general questions you have.
  • Review complete theses from your department. Several universities put doctoral theses online or have them on library shelves. Look for the most recent theses. How many pages are they on average? What type of research do they contain? How are they generally organized?
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Step 3. Ask for help identifying the best ideas

During the first stages of the thesis, do not hesitate to share your ideas with people who can help you, in particular your supervisor, professors who have some experience in your discipline, other doctoral students (especially those who accompany you in thesis process) and any other potential source of advice and wisdom. Be open to suggestions.

Remember that people who have been through this process before may be in a better position than you to recognize potential problems with your ideas. If they think a given idea is too ambitious or that you can't find the evidence to answer a certain research problem, take their advice into account

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Step 4. Be realistic

You must choose a project that can be processed within a reasonable time, taking into account the resources you may have. Unfortunately, sometimes that means you have to put aside some big ideas that make you more motivated. Remember this: if you can't complete your thesis due to time constraints, revolutionary and brilliant ideas won't be worth it.

  • Take into account the calendar of the doctoral school and the university. Most programs limit the number of years you can spend on your thesis. You must know the time constraints as well as the factors involved in the process of choosing a thesis project.
  • In several sectors, you will have to take into account your financing solutions. How much travel, archival research or lab work does your project require? How are you going to finance this work? How much, of course realistically, will you be able to raise? The answers to these questions will help you determine the level of realism of an idea you have.
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Step 5. Pick a topic that really interests you

After you've sought advice, considered the practical issues, and narrowed down your options, think about the potential project that fascinates you most. This process really takes a long time before you are able to present your thesis in the flesh. Make it something exciting for you.

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Step 6. Read

Once you have tentatively chosen a project, you should read any scientific literature that already exists on your subject (and even on subjects closely related to yours). Perform exhaustive searches of all databases typically used in your field. A literature review is a very useful exercise to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a field of research and to justify your personal contribution in this field of research.

Part 2 of 4: take action

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Step 1. Formulate your project as a question to be answered

Once you've decided on a theme and done the necessary reading, it can be difficult to determine where to start. You haven't yet conducted the research necessary to formulate a strong case, so, for now, think of your project as a scientific question that you want to address. Later, when you find the answer, it will become your thesis, that is, the original argumentation that will be the foundation of your thesis document.

In general, questions that start with “how” and “why” are more appropriate for briefs, as they will give rise to richer and more complex answers

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Step 2. Apply for financial support as soon as possible

Once you have considered some aspects of your project as well as the kind of work you will be doing, start making multiple requests for financial assistance, starting with your department, your university and then outside organizations. Funding for such research takes time. For example, you could apply for a grant in October, receive a favorable (or unfavorable) opinion in March, and start collecting funds in June. If you are not tapping into a wide range of funding sources and starting early enough, you may need to extend your thesis duration by a few more years.

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Step 3. Choose your thesis supervisor carefully

It is the person who will guide you in the research, will support you emotionally and mentally in the development of your project and who will validate your work. You need to choose someone whose job you respect, who is available to you, and who brings you constructive and caring ideas.

You will have to make the effort to find a thesis supervisor who is happy to support you, but who also leaves you the latitude to do your work according to your tastes. It might not be easy to collaborate with someone who is very demanding during the remediation phase or you might need to reorient your work

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Step 4. Choose your thesis jury wisely

Your thesis director can suggest certain professors to sit on the thesis jury. Usually, they are researchers who can provide constructive feedback to your work even if their discipline is different from yours.

Be aware that, depending on your institution, you may not be able to choose the members of the thesis jury. It is the responsibility of the thesis director

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Step 5. Develop strategies for bibliographic research and note-taking

It is important to use a system that has worked for you from the start of the thesis process. This will keep you organized and able to keep up with what will quickly become a heap of documentation. Your thesis supervisor and doctoral colleagues are good references for advice on the system that best suits your type of project.

Electronic note-taking systems like Zotero, EndNote, and OneNote are of great importance to many doctoral students. They will allow you to preserve, organize and code bibliographic references, while making it easier for you to find specific information. Unless you strongly prefer the classic system, one of these programs will come in handy. Try to identify which one is right for you

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Step 6. Follow the fitness recommendations in your industry

You should familiarize yourself with the document formatting recommendations in your discipline early on in writing. Using the correct format for writing, bibliographic references, works listed, and footnotes from the initial phase of your project will make the final step easier. Don't wait until the end to resume formatting the whole document.

  • The appropriate style varies from one die to another. The most used styles are APA, MLA, Chicago and Turabian.
  • In addition to the “core” style of your discipline, your institution may have specific formatting requirements for your thesis (such as the use of endnotes instead of footnotes). Some even provide students with models to use during the thesis. Contact your thesis supervisor or your doctoral school for more information on this before starting to write.

Part 3 of 4: show a lot of courage and tenacity

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Step 1. Be flexible

Know that even if you have the most detailed and serious plan there is, you might find that your project is on the wrong track. Maybe your pre-lab test isn't performing as expected, or the records you've visited don't have the evidence you plan to use. Perhaps after further research, you have found that you have an unanswered question. It is not necessarily a crisis. Many doctoral students adjust their thesis plan in one way or another.

It is very common to notice a clear difference between the final thesis and the original document. As you research, the focus of your work may change, which is not a bad thing

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Step 2. Keep in touch with your thesis jury

The thesis writing methodology could lead you to isolate yourself, that is, to research and write on your own, sometimes for years in a row. You might find that no one is interested in how you grow. Be sure to contact your supervisor as well as the members of the thesis jury to inform them of the progress of your work and any concerns that may come to your mind. This helps to avoid unpleasant surprises during work. For example, if a jury member doesn't like a new direction you put at work, it's better to know it early rather than noticing it at the last moment.

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Step 3. Divide the thesis into more manageable portions

It can be difficult to start the writing phase when your research will cover 300 pages (or more). Try to think of one chapter (and even a sub-chapter) at a time.

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Step 4. Write regularly

Even before your research is complete, you can begin to plan and write small portions of your thesis (eg, method, bibliography, general introduction, etc.). This will save you time and relieve some of the work during the final drafting phase which can be very intensive and exhausting.

Don't feel like you have to start with the first chapter you planned to continue the rest in the pre-arranged order. If your initial research yields results relating to Chapter 3, start from there! Go back to the other chapters and alternate between the headings if this is all the more effective for you

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Step 5. Set a schedule for yourself

You may be managing your own schedule, or you may need the help of your coach to plan a suitable schedule. Be flexible and realistic if necessary, but try to meet key deadlines.

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Step 6. Make the best use of the times of the day when you are most productive

Are you a morning person? If so, write for an hour or two when you wake up. Are you a night owl? If so, try to spend two hours writing during this time. Whatever time you're most productive, make the most of it for the toughest jobs.

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Step 7. Create a room dedicated to the work

If you try to work in your bed or on the sofa in your living room, you could be easily distracted. Having a space that is set aside for work can help you focus more and be in “work mode”.

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Step 8. Share your research results with people on a regular basis

Don't wait until you have a draft of your project before seeking advice. Send at least a copy of your draft to your supervisor as you finish the chapters. Better yet, share the chapters already being processed with other doctoral students or mentors on whom you can count in your field.

Several departments offer writing workshops to doctoral students. If there is one in your university, take advantage of it! It's a great way to get feedback on your work early on

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Step 9. Take time off

Ideally, you will need to take one day a week without touching your thesis. You will have time to regain your strength and you will come back with more energy and a new point of view. So spend time with your family, go to the movies, take yoga classes, bake or whatever gives you pleasure and allows you to rest.

Take breaks as often as possible. If you wait until your thesis is finished before celebrating your efforts and taking a break, you will feel like the process takes longer and is more difficult. Take a three day weekend every time you finish a chapter! Celebrate the end of a long and difficult research trip and take a week of relaxation! You might feel like you're lazing around and having fun, but isn't it necessary for your well-being to rest?

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Step 10. Stay Healthy

Many doctoral students fall ill during this stage of their academic studies. They suffer from anxiety, stress and depression, not to mention the fact that they eat very poorly and really lack sports sessions and sleep. However, you will be stronger and more productive if you take care of yourself. So do not fall into this trap!

  • Eat well. Get enough protein, fiber, and vitamins, and drink enough fluids. Avoid sugary drinks, fried foods and too much alcohol. All of these will only make your condition worse.
  • Establish a physical exercise program. You might think you don't have the time, but if you make it a priority, you could free up 30 minutes a day for physical activity such as running, biking, or even just walking.
  • Get enough sleep. Don't think of yourself as a thesis martyr. You can finish it without staying up every night. Get eight hours of sleep a night and you'll feel a lot better.

Part 4 of 4: overcoming the final obstacles

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Step 1. Work on becoming a professional in your industry

While you are still working on your thesis, take this time to take an active role in your field. Talk to your thesis supervisor about the possibility of publishing your research before completing the thesis. Actively participate in conferences. Give oral or poster presentations about your research. Discuss your work with others in the discipline and ask for advice.

  • When attending conferences, dress and act like a professional, not a student.
  • The prospect of becoming a professional can help keep you motivated during the final stages of your doctoral research.
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Step 2. Learn about the process of obtaining your doctorate

After you've come this long way and almost reached the goal, you need to know what your graduate school and university need in order to issue you with the degree. How and when to schedule the thesis defense? What are the administrative formalities? Once the answers to these questions are known, you will be able to plan the final phases of your doctoral program. Be careful: don't do it too late! Find out from your doctoral school about the deadlines to respect to set up the thesis defense (sometimes 2-3 months before D-day).

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Step 3. Discuss individually with each member of the thesis jury

Let them know that you are about to complete your thesis and ask them what they want from you. How long does it take them to proofread the handwritten document? How do they prefer to receive the thesis (electronic or paper document)? Do not hesitate to ask them as many questions as possible to plan the deposit of the manuscript as well as possible. Also be available to them as they may have questions in return.

This process will be easier if you keep in touch with the jury members throughout the process. Ideally, this should be a formality: there should be no surprises

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Step 4. Practice presenting your arguments and their importance

If you have to defend your thesis in front of the jury, practice briefly explaining your arguments and emphasizing the value of your work. This will be useful for the defense, but it will also be useful afterwards, particularly during conferences or recruitment interviews.

Specifically, do you practice answering questions like "what's next?" Imagine a member of the jury telling you this: "Okay, you have shown that [XXXX]. And after ? », What will you answer? Find out why your work is so important to your industry

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Step 5. Get help with the last step (proofreading and proofreading)

The process of writing a thesis takes time and you will likely be exhausted by the time you hit the home stretch. Have several people read your document before submitting it to your jury. This will allow you to eliminate unnecessary errors and identify problematic passages.

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Step 6. Remember that you are now the expert

As soon as you finish your essay, you might be stressed out about what your jury will think of the elaborate work. Keep in mind that you have more control over the content of your document than anyone. Have confidence in yourself. You are now the one and only expert on this particular aspect of your field.

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Step 7. Manage your stress

As soon as you finish your thesis, you might be particularly worried about your defense, worried about the quality of your work, stressed that you are finishing your graduate studies and entering a new phase of your life. These feelings are normal, but don't let them get over you. Talk to a friend and put the advice in this article into practice.

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Step 8. Take pride in your work

A thesis is a great achievement. A thesis defense is a unique moment to experience, one of the most important in your life and your career. Enjoy it, be proud of yourself. Share these moments with your family and friends. Celebrate your work. Welcome to the Doctors' Court!


  • Monitor your mental health. The process of writing a thesis is stressful and exhausting. It is normal to feel anxious and depressed, but if these feelings last a long time or become more severe, contact a professional.
  • Don't isolate yourself too much. Compared to the first few years of graduate school, when you were attending classes and working more often with fellow students, the last turn of a doctoral program can be a lonely time. There is no way to avoid the fact that much of the work will have to be done on your own, but there is no reason to isolate yourself more than necessary. Join an editorial group or stay in touch with friends and colleagues.
  • Manage your expectations. Your thesis doesn't have to be perfect, it just needs to be complete and satisfactory. Perfectionism will only be a factor that will simply prevent you from completing your job. Once again, remember that the best doctoral thesis is a completed thesis.

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