How I Survived My Master’s Thesis: Productivity Tips and Research Hacks!

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Mood during and after thesis

Writing my Master’s thesis was an immense undertaking and I will continue to reflect on the process over the next few weeks because I realize that it doesn’t “end”, one only stops writing it. I enjoyed the process, as strenuous as it was. There were moments when I was awash with a sense of triumph after successfully grappling with difficult concepts and intellectual puzzles. There were (many) other times when I audibly howled out of frustration. Overall, I felt like I did something, I made a contribution, however insignificant it may be in the grand scheme of things.

And, I learned a lot. Working with various theories, philosophical orientations, methods, and styles involved trial-and-error and, ultimately, it helped me learn about myself as a researcher and a person. That was the most difficult and rewarding part of this process. I also learned that adrenaline is far more effective at keeping me awake than caffeine; towards the end I stayed awake for a straight 36 hours just because I could not sleep from the excitement of wanting to write, write, write! Needless to say, the subsequent proofreading process was not fun, but the reward of writing close to 12000 words in that time was worth it.

While I don’t recommend injecting yourself with an adrenaline needle, I have, like most students, collected an arsenal of other tools and resources to aid in the writing process. In writing my thesis, I picked up some new tricks on time management, technology, and self-care, and took notes so I could keep track of the resources I found useful. Regardless of where you are in your academic or professional career, I hope you find them useful too.

Technology Tips and Research Hacks

Use the Cloud/Microsoft OneDrive: Avoid losing your data! Instead of constantly saving your files on your hard drive or an external hard drive/flash drive, save them directly to a cloud service. I saved every single file for my thesis to my Microsoft OneDrive account on my computer which automatically uploads files to the OneDrive cloud. You can also use Dropbox or other similar services. I am never going back to relying solely on physical drives! Find out more about using OneDrive.

Use the Notes App or Evernote App to jot down ideas, especially if you are using participant-observation/ethnographic methodology. I did this often to take down fieldnotes or any random thoughts that popped in my head (usually as I was going to sleep!). Just like OneDrive, the Notes App on the iPhone or iOS can save your notes directly to the cloud, and the Evernote App automatically saves your work to your account which can be accessed from any device.

Folders and labels are your friends: When I found a new article I knew I was going to use, I saved it in a folder designated for a particular chapter (i.e. Method, Theory, Discussion etc.). But, be sure to organize the articles within, as well!

unorganized folder

Messy and confusing 😦

Name each pdf in a way that will help you recognize it. For example, some people find it easy to identify papers by using the author’s name for the filename, while others prefer the title of the article. For shorter papers and reports, I name my pdfs by the first author’s last name and date.

For historical research, I name the file by year first so I can quickly locate the article in my folder of articles and view them in descending order from oldest to newest and vice versa.

organized by author and year

For my thesis, I preferred the filenames to be article titles to quickly distinguish each one as I was working with over 350 (very) similar articles by many of the same authors:

organized by title

Make sure you do this from the start to avoid hassles down the road!

Zotero: I used the FREE citation software Zotero, which I have used throughout graduate study thus far, to store and organize article citations (there are many, many other options like RefWorks, EndNote, Mendeley etc.). It works in my preferred browser, Google Chrome, and the integration between browser plugin and the Zotero desktop program is essentially seamless. Clicking on the Zotero icon in Chrome automatically uploads the bibliographic information of the article, book or website (in most cases) into the desktop program. Not only does this make the laborious task of organizing and generating your bibliography so much easier, it also helps with compiling your literature review and research notes (see image below).

  • Once I save an article, I import it into Zotero and organize it into corresponding folders. For instance, if I am researching immigrant mental health, I designate a folder in Zotero “Mental Health – General”
  • Next, I export the bibliography list from the entire “Mental Health – General” folder from Zotero into a word document and go through each article one by one. I use the reference from each article as a heading and summarize the findings from the article. I include in-text citations as I write. In my experience, students tend to leave in-text citations until the end of the writing process – this is bad practice and can easily result in missing citations or accidental plagiarism.
  • I also highlight various sources by priority. If a source is important or highly relevant to my argument, then it takes precedence over other sources, so I colour code them accordingly.
  • I use the headings styles in Word in the initial stage of a draft so that I can work and rework my outline in Outline view (under the view tab), as necessary. This also helps me find different sections of my paper more easily.
zoterolit review

Literature list and notes – colour coded

For bibliographic information that cannot be exported into Zotero, I use Google Scholar to find the citation information for the source. I also do this for hard copies of books and conference papers. Using Google Scholar to cite can also help confirm bibliographic information. Still, errors are commonplace and using Zotero, Google Scholar or any other software or website is definitely not foolproof and requires verification.

In my browser (Chrome), I bookmark all preferred websites on a given day or week in one folder. Then, at the end of the week, I organize the bookmarks into subject-based bookmark folders in my browser. I am a huge fan of folders!

Managing Time and Distractions

It can often be difficult to stay focused and on-task. I found the following strategies helpful for maintaining focus and decreasing distracting behaviours.

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Pomodoro/Tomato Timer Technique

The Pomodoro Technique: this technique is based on segmenting time into intervals of 25 minutes followed by a 5 minute break. After 4 intervals of 25 minutes each, you get a 15-minute break: 25 > 5 > 25 > 5 > 25 > 5 > 25 > 15 > 25

This technique works really well if you are prone to procrastination (like me) and have a hard time starting tasks. A number of apps are available to track your time and I recommend: Pomodoro Time by Denys Yevenko or Be Focused. It lets you customize the amount of time for each interval, the number of intervals and length of break times. After using this technique for a few years now, my time-management for tasks is so ingrained that I can now work for longer intervals and automatically know when to take breaks. Now I typically work in 1.5 hour long segments and take 15-20 minute breaks. However, I still go back to the original formula from time to time if I am absolutely dreading starting a task.

Rewards: For me, breaks are rewards. In my breaks, I typically check (non-research related) social media or watch something on Netflix (I watched Friends and The Office for the 800th time during my thesis). I also played a lot of Candy Crush. I grew to despise the game a long time ago but something about crushing those stupid candies was so satisfying after slogging through tough writing spots that I found myself coming back to it again and again.
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Treat Yo self: Those who follow me on Snapchat are aware of the concept of my “reward muffins”. After I finished writing a whole chapter, I would reward myself with the cheat of all cheats: a double chocolate-chip muffin. This was, unsurprisingly, highly effective for me. Find your reward muffin! It could be bingewatching a show, online shopping, anything that is actually highly pleasurable for you, and use it to your advantage.

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Beware of Distractions

Put distractions on paper: When writing about my theoretical framework, methodology and literature review, my head was so full of information that I was worried I would forget useful pieces of insight. So, anytime I had a thesis-related idea, to-do list item, question or even an unrelated worry or concern, I would type it up in a separate document or write it on my handy dry-erase board. This way, I was free to return to whatever task I was doing and avoided getting bogged down with stress, confusion, or forgetting any ideas. Then, only when I was finished with a task would I revisit the compiled list. 

Keep a tally: Another trick to become more aware of distracting thoughts or tendencies – like repeatedly checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. – is to keep a tally of the habit. Overtime, noticing the frequency with which you do them can help you curtail the habit because you are better able to recognize the pattern and consequences of these distractions.

Tell Yo friends: To keep yourself accountable and help minimize distractions and FOMO, tell your friends and family that you are studying for exams/writing papers/a thesis/an article etc. I am lucky to have very supportive friends and family who were there for me when I needed them, knew to be considerate of my time, and knew when to leave me alone! I also avoided social media as much as I could (I tried okay!). If necessary, deactivate accounts or delete the apps. Your account will still be there when you’re done.

Put your phone on airplane mode: It’s easier to avoid social media apps than it is to keep yourself from texting back friends and family. I would often put my phone on airplane mode (without wi-fi), or turn on the “do not disturb” mode, so I wouldn’t see tempting notifications.

Self-care

My thesis is on student mental health, so I would be remiss to not mention the importance of managing stress and practicing self-care during stressful work periods!

Know when you need to take breaks: While the Pomodoro technique and others like it are helpful in training you to work consistently, it is also important to be mindful of your state while working. Pushing yourself beyond your limit is not going to do anyone any favours, least of all you. While writing, I would suddenly just get up and walk around, stretch and leave the room, because I needed to get away and just couldn’t look at the screen anymore. That was when I knew that I needed to adjust my breaks and take them more frequently.

Vent: Whether it’s a trusted friend, family member, social media, advisor, counsellorHow-you-feel-pretty-much-every-day etc. – talk to them. Writing a paper, studying for an exam, LSAT or MCAT, working on a big project or a difficult work task, can be very frustrating and, sometimes, an emotional process. It is ludicrous to keep all that stress “inside”. Our culture emphasizes individualism and valorizes “the stoic, independent survivor,” especially in academia, but that’s a fantasy and highly unrealistic and unsustainable in practice. Use the people and resources in your life for support when you need it, even if it’s just to grumble for a little while or to distract yourself.

Beware of Imposter Syndrome – don’t compare yourself to others: This may seem obvious but academic and professional culture can be so competitive and demoralizing that it’s hard not to question whether you’re good enough. I was certainly not immune to Imposter Syndrome while writing my thesis. I often found myself reading other people’s theses and comparing mine to theirs. Of course, usually, I would eventually realize that this was a ridiculous endeavour as, in one case, what I was reading was a.) a PhD dissertation b.) written by a now-expert in the field, and c.) irrelevant to my current research or life in general. But that’s Imposter Syndrome for you, it’s a tricky beast. This article by Stephen Aguilar is a great read for other students who feel like imposters from time to time.

So there you have it. Some quick tips for productivity that I found useful. I know everyone has their own system and I’m always fascinated by productivity hacks. I look forward to hearing about some of yours, please share!

*The thesis was danah boyd’s brilliant examination of American teens and social networking!

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