12 20 Dissertation Proposal

At 100+ pages, writing a PhD thesis paralyzes the bravest student. Breaking writer’s block for PhD students is possible and easy. Keep reading to know how.

One of the most important and terrifying experiences in graduate school was writing my thesis proposal in my second year. The average length of our program was 6 years, so the proposal I was putting together would be the blueprint for my research (and most of my waking hours) for the next four years.

My thesis focused on studying liver toxicity in cell cultures and I had already collected promising preliminary data for a doctoral thesis project. Yet, as I sat in front of the computer ready to plunge into the writing of my proposal, my hands paralyzed.

My data opened up several new doors for research, perhaps too many, and I felt hesitant about which direction to commit to. There was no guarantee that any one of those directions would lead me to a doctoral degree in 4 years. There were too many unknowns (that is why it is called research) and I knew that in order to graduate I would need to collect publishable data.

The indecisiveness about which path to take weighed down on me for several weeks. The deadline was approaching quickly and I had not made any significant progress on the proposal. It felt like someone had pushed the off button on my brain as soon as I sat down to work on my proposal.

Every once in a while I managed to put a paragraph or table together, but the closer the deadline was, the more I panicked and the tougher it was to continue writing.

In my desperation, I began reading articles about how to write a thesis proposal and I came across a term that I had only vaguely heard of before: writers block for PhD students.


I was an engineering major, so I did not have to write long papers in college. The term papers I wrote for humanities classes were usually straightforward research projects, and certainly did not require a commitment on my end for the next four years of my life.

It is amazing how much relief can be found in having a name for an” ailment” such as a writer’s block. As weeks had gone by without any significant progress on my proposal, I began to think that there was something profoundly wrong with me. Maybe I was not smart enough for a PhD, or not cut out for research. We all have those worries in our minds, don’t we?

Once I realized that I was going through a writer’s block for PhD students (something that all writers experience) I started researching ways of breaking it. I discovered some strategies to open the flood gates of my creative mind and let the words pour onto the page.

Two weeks later I submitted my thesis proposal to my committee and I successfully defended it a week later. The rest is history.

These writing strategies allowed me to finish my doctoral dissertation and to write 3 papers in graduate school. Let me share these strategies with you to overcome writer’s block for PhD students (or prevent it in the first place), and make consistent progress daily. If you implement these writing tips, you will probably notice tangible progress in your writing in seven days or even less.

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1. Join a support group (or find a writing buddy)

Do you know what PhDs would change if they had to start graduate school again? Among many other things, most of the PhDs wished they had joined a thesis support group to help them stay motivated.

Some universities or departments have support groups, but if yours does not, find a writing buddy who will keep you accountable. It turns out that people are much more likely to follow through on their commitments if they write down their goals or say them out loud to someone else.

Ideally, your writing buddy will be another student, so you can read each other’s drafts periodically. It does not have to be a student in your field who understands the nitty-gritties of your research. Just knowing that you will need to hand a draft to another person by a certain date will motivate you to keep writing.

Note: Your significant other can support you in graduate school, but he/she might not be the best choice for a writing buddy. A writing buddy needs to be completely impartial. Also, as graduate school puts a strain on most relationships, it best to enjoy your time together free of any worries about your thesis.

2. Begin writing about anything that comes to mind

This strategy is particularly useful if you have written very little so far. Think of it as a warm-up exercise to get your creative juices flowing.

As an example, begin writing about your preliminary data, data published by others, or the goals of your research. Do not worry about grammar or even accuracy. Just get words on the page for about 15-20 minutes.

Ideas are born with writing, and the more you write the more ideas you will have. Even after I got back into the rhythm of writing, I always began my day by just jotting down ideas for the first 15-20 minutes.

Remember, ideas are useless inside your mind – they need to be on paper and explained well so others (particularly your thesis committee) can understand them. Most of this writing will not make it into your final draft, but it will help you to create new ideas.

3. Write about the big picture of your research

What is the question you are asking in your PhD? (It is amazing how many 5th year students do not know what question their thesis is trying to answer.) Why is this research important and how will it contribute to your field and society? How will it support your career development?

The purpose of this exercise is to get you excited about your research again, so you can stay motivated and keep writing. Let your writing be loose at this stage, do not worry about grammar or style, just focus on the importance of your research, and why it is essential for you to complete this project.

4. Identify the gaps or where you are stuck, and get help

Writer’s blocks for Phd students are frequently due to a psychological block such as fear. Perhaps the project you are trying to tackle is too big, or there are too many gaps to pull a cohesive story together.

The only way to get unstuck is to identify where the gaps are, or which part of the project is too big or unrealistic. If you schedule a meeting with your PI and tell him/her that you are stuck, he/she will not be able to help you unless you have more specific questions. As you start writing you will see where you are lacking details or information.

Some student panic when they find a gap in their research. Finding gaps is a good thing. Most research projects (even published papers) have gaps in their arguments.

The only way to fill the gaps is to find them and if you cannot resolve them on your own get help from your PI. The sooner you get help (and the more specific your questions are) the sooner you can pull your proposal, paper, or thesis together.

5. Review similar papers or doctoral dissertations

I remember being terrified by the thought of writing a doctoral dissertation that was over a hundred pages long. As I was nearing the writing stage I had to look through the dissertations of previous students to compare my data and conclusions with theirs.

When I read their dissertations I realized that I already had a lot of the elements in place for my own thesis, such as the introduction, the methods and significant amount of data.

Suddenly I felt more confident about being able to finish my thesis by the deadline. This realization was incredibly powerful. Due to scheduling issues with my thesis committee, I only had 20 days to write my thesis, and it was a relief to know that I did not need to start a 150-200 page document from scratch.

Reading similar PhD thesis is a great tip not only for the writing phase, but also for PhD students starting in their projects.

6. Write daily

High quality writing requires daily discipline. If possible, write at the same time and place daily. If your schedule varies due to other commitments, set up a weekly schedule where you block off time for writing daily. If you are very busy (with classes, part-time job, family), you might only be able to commit to 15 minutes on some days.

Daily writing (even if for short periods) will keep you from catching the writer’s block bug again. Of course, you will need to schedule of large chunks of time eventually to pull a high quality manuscript together, but in the meantime make sure to get your 15 minutes of writing every day.

7. Write first

About 99% of people say that the first thing they do when they turn on their computers is …check their email!

Even prior to turning on their computers they might check their text messages and send dozens of replies before they get to their office.

Writing requires focus and creativity and many people are at their peak productivity level in the morning. Checking email and text messages can overwhelm your mind with information and interfere with your writing process, especially if you receive an unsettling message.

I recommend writing for 45 minutes prior to checking email, but if that seems too long start with 10 minutes and gradually work up to 45 minutes.

During the crunch time of writing my thesis (which was 20 days), I checked my email once a day in the afternoon, and I had already completed at least 5 hours of writing by then. I knew that if there was a family emergency I would be contacted by phone and I could not think of any email that would be higher priority than getting my thesis done by the deadline.

8. Clear your conscience and start fresh every day

Did you ever have a New Year’s Resolution that you did not keep? If you have, you are in good company.

It is estimated that only 2% of people follow through on their New Year’s Resolutions. One reason that people fail is that they give up after the first mistake, such as eating a donut when they committed to losing 80 lbs.

Setting up a writing schedule can help you to manage your time and progress, but life happens, and you will probably not be able to follow through with it 100% of the time. Some students are very hard on themselves when they “mess up” and these feelings of guilt lead to even less productivity.

The best way to make consistent progress is to start fresh every day by committing to follow through on your plan to your best ability, regardless of whether you were able to follow through on previous days.

If you realize why you were not able to follow through before (eg. unrealistic expectations, conflict with other commitments), then you can use these lessons to develop a more realistic plan.

9. Keep notepad next to you to jot down ideas and errands

In spite of our best intentions to focus on writing, our minds wander. You might realize that you need to run an errand, look up something unrelated to your thesis on the internet, or send an email to someone.

If you stop your writing to take care of these items, you will lose your train of thought and it will be more difficult to get back into writing.

At the end of the day you might have completed 10 errands, and made little or no progress on your writing. However, not taking care of errands can also lead to problems such as unpaid bills and missed medical appointments. There are students who are so focused on their research that they are chronically late in their credit card payments or do not have a physical checkup for years.

An approach that worked well for me is to write down any intruding ideas on a notepad which I kept next to my computer. My notebook allowed me to get ideas out of my head and recorded in a safe place so I could address them later. Most ideas were not urgent and could wait to be taken care of until I had finished a certain number of pages or hours of writing.

10. Build your writing from the inside out

One of the reasons that PhD students experience writer’s block is that they feel overwhelmed by all of the data and details that must go into their manuscript.

A good way to lessen to load is to start with an outline of the different sections you will include. What is the core of your paper? What questions are you asking? What is your hypothesis? If you have data, what are your conclusions?

Begin by writing just a few sentences for each section to capture the essence of what you are trying to show. As you proofread your writing in the upcoming days you can embellish each section by adding more data, references, or any other information that will support your arguments.

11. Alternate 45 minutes of writing with 15 minutes of rest

Most writing projects will require large blocks of time, but few people can sustain their focus for several hours in a row. Taking regular breaks will allow your mind to rest and get a new perspective on your writing each time you sit down to type again.

Your creative mind works best when you are not at your desk staring at your screen. Thus, taking a 15 minute break to walk or get a drink might give you new insights on how to resolve a problem you had been struggling with previously.

Students who work from home sometimes use the 15 minute breaks to do minor chores such as changing/folding laundry or washing the dishes.Imagine killing so many birds with one stone – by the end of the day you will have a well-written manuscript and clean clothes and dishes!

12. Let it go when it is good enough

Perfectionism can kill your creative spirit. While GPAs and SAT scores can be perfect, there is no such thing as a perfect thesis. You can work on your thesis for 100 years, and professors will still question some of your arguments during your thesis defense.

If you try to make your thesis too perfect and re-edit the same paragraphs over and over again, you will lose precious time and possibly lose motivation to continue writing.

I usually tell my students to let their thesis (or paper) go when they feel it is about 95-98% right. In my experience of scientific writing, I find some things to improve each time I read my draft. However, the revisions become more minor after every phase.  If you are confident in the accuracy of your data and content, spend little time on word choice, sentence structure, or colors in your illustrations.

Every student I know had to make revisions to their thesis based on feedback from their committee. No matter how perfect you try to make your manuscript or thesis, be prepared to receive (sometimes highly critical) feedback that could take weeks or even months to implement.

Where to start?

If you are experiencing writer’s block as a PhD student, don’t try to implement all twelve strategies at once. However, it is realistic to get back into the rhythm of writing within one week. If I had to choose my top three favorites, they would be #s 2, 3, and 6:

  • Begin writing about anything that comes to mind
  • Write about the big picture of your research
  • Write daily

If you need to write a manuscript or thesis over the course of a few weeks or months, you need to make writing a daily habit. A strategy that works well for students who dislike writing is to set a timer to a very short amount of time such as 25 or even just 10 minutes and to do nothing but write during that time. It is amazing how a short chunk of time such as 10 minutes can lead to several paragraphs when you are focused.

To help you get into the rhythm of writing schedule 2 or 3 writing bursts of 10 or 25 minutes each day. Gradually increase the length of time until you are able to write for about 45 minutes, and then you can begin alternating that time with 15 minutes of rest.

Are you ready for this? I was an engineering major and I really disliked writing as a student. To my utter astonishment, once I developed my own writing habits I started to enjoy writing! I began writing articles about my experience as a graduate student, which eventually evolved into my book “The Smart Way to Your PhD: 200 Secrets to 100 Graduates”  and my weekly blogs on my site, FinishYourThesis.com.

Do you want to be better at Academic Writing?

Is “Write Better Scientific Papers” one of your goals? Do you have trouble writing your PhD thesis?

If the answer is yes, I have something good for you. Keep reading..

Marialuisa Aliotta is a scientist, blogger and creator of the course  Hands On Writing: How To Master Academic Writing In The Sciences.

She has helped hundreds of scientists to write better, specially PhD students. She knows exactly where you are struggling with your academic writing.

With this course you will be able to:

  • learn how to ban procrastination and stay on track with your writing project.
  • finally complete a chapter of your thesis in just a few weeks.
  • draft your paper without struggles or anxiety.
  • improve your productivity and experience a sense of real achievement.
  • write efficiently without wasting hour upon hour.
  • gain confidence and enjoy your writing project.

If you want a summary of the details of the course, this is what you will get:

  • All the academic writing know-how you could image delivered via video in easy to follow modules.
  • Worksheets and templates so you don’t have to start writing from scratch.
  • Supporting materials to create tables and figures, because an article is not just text.
  • Plenty of bonus materials (for instance on productivity) for the academic writing die-hards out there.

The response from everyone has been incredible. This is the course I wish I had followed at the beginning of my PhD.

Click here to get the Hands On Writing course now



Your Thesis Proposal Isn’t Just About Getting Your Degree

I remember the time that I was in the process of writing a thesis proposal in my second year of graduate school.

It  had to be 10-20 pages long, which was short compared to the length of the  actual  doctoral dissertation (close to 200 pages).

Yet, I found myself stuck because as a relatively young student I had to propose how to do an extensive research project that would take years to complete.

There was so much information in the literature and so many directions in which I could take my research, that it was challenging to nail down one project that would have a high chance of success.

The irony of graduate school is that you are there to become an expert, but how do you come up with a plan for your thesis if you do not have any expertise to begin with?

How are you even supposed to know what “acceptable” thesis proposal is?

After many discussions with my supervisor I finally selected a topic that:

  • Was well-known to many faculty at my department so I had many resources
  • Was realistic for my time frame
  • Great learning experience to help me learn many different skills
  • Had a relatively high chance of success.

While writing my thesis proposal brought me face to face with the worst case of Writer’s Block I had experienced until then, I also gained a deeper understanding of the process of academic writing.

Through my years of helping graduate students finish their thesis on time, I realized that we always used the same process for writing a thesis proposal.

This process is designed to help you draft a thesis proposal that can be completed on time and prepares you well for your ideal career.

Invest sufficient time into the process because the more you polish your proposal, the better you will understand the background, the methods, and the research questions.

Depending on your school your thesis proposal can range from 5 to 80  (yes, that’s not a typo) pages, but it needs to answer the following three questions

  1. Where is the other side? (What is the purpose of my thesis? )
  2. What resources I need to get there? (funding, expertise, information, equipment)
  3. What steps do I need to take (and in what order) to get to the other side?

It is very rare for students to have answers to all three questions when they begin graduate school, but through structured research the answers become clear with time. 

Read on and find out how to write (or rewrite) your proposal so that you get approval from your committee and you get the experience that you want from graduate school to help you move on with your career.

Five Steps To Writing a Thesis Proposal

Is your thesis proposal already finished? No worries.

You can still rescue yourself from the vicious cycle of diving into one dead-end project after another and getting more and more frustrated with each passing year.

So, how do you write your thesis proposal so that you can graduate within a reasonable amount of time and get the training you need for your career?

An ideal thesis proposal is one that is robust and flexible.

You need to design your research so it is not easily swayed by Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong will, and usually at the worst time).

Your thesis proposal is the blueprint for your thesis (and your life in the next few years), so plan a project that can be completed with the available resources in a reasonable amount of time.

Number 1: Choose an area of research that you are excited about

When you begin writing a thesis proposal, your advisor might give you a choice of dissertation topics.

What criteria should you use to make this decision?

The most important advice that former graduate students have given is that your thesis topic should cover an area that you are truly passionate about.

Regardless of your field, you will have good days and bad days.

On good days you will be enthusiastic and motivated to work.

On bad days, you might question whether your research makes any sense, and you might even doubt your ability to graduate.

If you pick a meaningful topic, the daily setbacks in your research will not bring you down.

You will still be working in an important field, and you will be learning the skills and expertise necessary for your career.

Number 2: Select a project which balances novelty with established research

Given that you want to finish your thesis within a reasonable amount of time, should you research a novel or “hot” area, or to go with a “safer”, better-understood topic?

One way to answer this question is to visualize yourself at every stage of your thesis.

How will you make it happen?

Can you gather the resources and complete the work by your proposed graduation date?

Most likely your project will take longer than you anticipated, so allow some flexibility to account for contingencies.

The general rule of thumb is that things take 2-4 times longer than predicted.

If you have little expertise, begin your work by exploring questions in well-understood areas.

For example, you could learn the basics of your field, by extending the research projects of previous students, or trying to reproduce their data.

Starting your research in an area where the methodology has been established will teach you the necessary research skills for your field. 

Once you learn the basics, you can expand your research by exploring novel areas, and build your own unique niche.

Number 3: Ask well-defined open-ended questions for your thesis

One of the mistakes that some PhD students make while writing a thesis proposal is that they ask  “High-risk” questions.

The most common type of high risk question is a “Yes/No” question, such as “Is this protein produced by cells under these conditions?”

The reason that Yes/No questions can be “high-risk” is that sometimes the answers are only publishable if the answer is “Yes”.

Negative results are usually not interesting enough for publication and you could have spent months or years researching a question that has a high chance of not being published.

For many students open-ended questions have a much higher likelihood of success.

In the case of one student in Biology, he thought about asking a question such as: “Do cells produce a particular protein under these conditions?”

However, if the answer had been “No”, it would not have been publishable.

Instead, he phrased his research question as follows: “What proteins do cell produce in these conditions”? or “How does XYZ influence the production of proteins”?

Be sure that your question is well-defined.

In other words, when you ask your thesis question, think about the possible outcomes.

What results do you expect? Are they interesting and publishable?

To summarize this key point, consider the following when constructing your thesis question:

1)    Ask open-ended questions

2)    Be sure that your possible outcomes are interesting and publishable

Number 4: Look for projects that are educational and incorporate marketable skills

Think about your progression through graduate school as a pyramid.

As the years pass,  you become more and more specialized with fewer and fewer people being experts in your field.

By the time you graduate you will be part of a small community of people who specialize in your particular area.

On the other hand, you will probably need a diverse skill set after graduation, so it is important to avoid the common mistake of narrowing your pyramid too quickly.

It is not necessary to learn all the subspecialties, but do familiarize yourself with the background literature and technical skills in your field.

Some students make the mistake of focusing only on finishing graduate school quickly, rather than taking advantage of the learning opportunities.

One way to add marketable skills to your resume is to collaborate on a side-project.

For example, if you specialize in cell culture then it would be advantageous if you collaborated on a project that added a different but related skill set such as DNA/RNA work, liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry or imaging.

If you browse through job listings you will get an idea of which skill sets employers look for.

Collaborating on complementary projects will help you to broaden your marketable skill sets, and also help you in deciding which career path is best suited for you.

Number 5:Visualize your finished publication(s)

A physics PhD student I worked with had an advisor who outlined each paper even before the research was started.

He wrote down what questions he wanted to be answered, and what each graph and table should show.

This method was so helpful for the student, that he still designs his research papers in advance.

As you are in the process of writing your thesis proposal draft some preliminary answers to the following questions:

  • What is your central hypothesis or research goal?
  • What is the motivation for this study?
  • What have other groups contributed to this research?
  • What methods do you need to learn to complete this project?
  • What are the possible outcomes, or results, of this study?
  • What will your tables and graphs show?
  • How does this work contribute to your field of research?

Visualizing your publications while writing a thesis proposal will motivate you to work, because most graduate students feel a sense of pride when they hold their very first published paper in their hands.

Most likely, the answers to the above questions will change with time and you might have several setbacks or forks in the road.

Fortunately, most students become more efficient as they progress through graduate school.

Your cumulative experience will pay off during your last year when you are racing to finish your research and your dissertation simultaneously. 

In the meantime, work on defining your questions and methods meticulously, so that you will have a realistic plan to work with.

The last step in the process, “Visualizing your finished publications”, is probably the most important one in the 5-step process of writing a thesis proposal.

First, visualizing the end result of a major project is very motivating in itself. Second, publishing a paper is one of the most important steps towards earning your graduate degree.

Most PhD programs require at least one publication.

When you structure your research, and the writing of a thesis proposal, by asking the right questions, you will be able to design a realistic project that can be completed in time and provides you with marketable job skills.

 ….and finally remember that:

The perfect thesis does not exist.

We are usually our own worst critics.

This is ironic, considering we are the only ones who know how much work we have put in already.

Give yourself credit for all the work you have already done.

Yes, there may be a long road ahead of you but consider this inspiring quote:

“You didn’t come this far to only come this far.”

If you made it this far, you have what it takes to go just one step further.

Everything that you have accomplished have brought you to this point in your studies and career.

All of us wish that we had accomplished more than we have, but genuine confidence will come from realizing how far you have already come. 


What is the biggest challenge you face when it comes to your thesis proposal?

Leave a comment below and I will reply to you directly. 



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