As post-graduate students, you will have listened to lecturers or Professors talking about how to manage the complex of tasks that is a Masters or Ph.D. degree. This includes fundamental suggestions about how to manage your supervisor (including becoming aware of your own responsibilities), basic advice about the structural differences in science and arts theses, suggested time frames for when to end the research phase and begin the writing-up phase and so on. All this is helpful, even if only as a means to thinking anew about these problems. And suggestions made (to overseas students, especially) in regards to attending writing courses, if taken, will ease the burden of the writing-up phase enormously. If you are not a natural writer (by this I mean someone who thinks in sentences and paragraphs, and has no problems in envisaging the larger structure into which this will all fit) then please avail yourself of this service. It is often argued that attending to the details of the writing craft is the surest way to hone your thinking skills – and my experience in writing a couple of books and editing quite a few theses strongly supports this position.
Once the supervisor is under control…
However, I am going to assume that all this is under control. In this short note, I will address another set of problems – problems that I argue are even more fundamental than the ones mentioned above in respect of successful completion of your thesis – and that is the problem of how to look after yourself and those around you in the process. I will address this by considering how best to ensure that you are getting enough physical exercise (what kind, how often, and so on), how to best feed yourself, and how to manage the personal relationships you have, from friends to lovers (but not including supervisors).
Reducing the effects of stress
Many students and post-grad students have come through our courses run at the Sports Union over the last dozen or so years. We teach strengthening as well as stretching exercise, so when I recommend the latter over the former, it is not because of bias. There are many reasons to stretch, but two are highly relevant to you. The first is that efficient stretching is simply the best way to rid the body of the effects of stress. And who of you is not, or will not be maximally stressed by the research and writing process? Certainly no one I have met here, including myself: we all need this. It is partly a matter of being able to sleep well – who has not had the experience of having eight hours sleep, yet waking up feeling exhausted? This occurs because your body is not sufficiently relaxed physically to take full benefit from the sleep. The second reason is to prevent – or fix – any overuse problems in the neck, shoulders and arms. These problems are rife among research students. If untreated, a minor annoyance can become a major health problem, and such problems have stopped many a thesis from completion. I recommend a few simple exercises be done at the computer while you are working and one proper stretch session a week. If you do some kind of aerobic exercise, the time to stretch is after the activity. Keep warm while you do this.
A diet of convenience food will hinder your research efforts considerably. The short suggestion is small meals more often – the harder you are working the more important this is. This means the right kind of snack at morning and afternoon tea, rather than the sweet biscuit you may be having now! And beware the recommendations about increasing the proportion of complex carbohydrates in your diet (in relation to fats and protein) – for at least half of you, too much carbohydrate is the reason you feel sleepy an hour after lunch, and for many others it is the reason you are putting on too much unwanted body weight. This is also an explanation for mood swings in some people, too. Increase the proportion of protein at each small meal, decrease the proportion of carbohydrate, and feel your energy return. The reasons for this recommendation are too complex to go into here, but a good place to start is Enter the Zone, by Dr Barry Sears, if you are interested in understanding more.
All I want to say about relationships is that you are well advised to discuss the implications of the sort of pressure you will experience with your partner before it happens. Many relationships founder on the rock of writing a thesis, as I am sure you have heard. Suggestions include making sure that you have one day off a week (no matter how hard your supervisor expects you to work – he or she may not have a life, but if you want your relationship to survive, you will need one outside the department) and spend a good fraction of it with your loved one. Another is to make sure that you have a quiet place to work. Yet another, perhaps paradoxically, is to avoid working late into the night.
When to work
Many will tell you that this is the only way to get on top of the work, but for most people getting to bed at a reasonable hour (11:00 p.m.) and getting up early (although I did not like this myself, in the beginning) will yield more productive work by week’s end. It is true that you get the impression that you are working well as time passes into the wee hours, but so doing will guarantees a late start the next day, and after a month or two your health will suffer. From experience, it is possible to write a Masters’ thesis in three or four months, and only writing from 08:00–12:00, six days per week, assuming that you know what you want to say before you start writing. Read in the afternoons, go to the gym late afternoon, and don’t work at night. Sounds radical, perhaps, but your effectiveness will be maintained and so will your health and your relationships.
My final suggestion (made to me by my uncle) is, moderation in all things. Especially moderation! The point here is that, every now and again, especially if you are organised and being effective, you need to break out. The thesis process can be enormously enjoyable and rewarding, too, if you feel that you are (more or less) on top of all major aspects of life.