Birthing the Thesis vs Birth

There is a common analogy between writing a thesis and giving birth. Several bloggers have talked about the long process of creating their ‘thesis baby’ and a their real baby.  And whilst I can relate to this analogy to some degree – it seems to me that a serious part of what it means to give birth, and to write a thesis, is left out. 

(I’d just like to note here that I have given birth but I’ve only written about ½ my thesis-and its taken about 2.5 years to get half away). 

As any good midwife will tell you – no two births are alike. Not even for the same mother. Each birth is unique and there is no real way to plan for what your birth is going to be like. Sure, you can have strategies and you can have a birth plan(s)  but these are idealised imaginings of what might work for you under certain circumstances. You don’t actually know till you’re in it what is going to work for you. 

You can attend all the birth classes (kind of like Library workshops to a degree – a whole bunch of diverse people sitting in a room for 2 hours talking about how in theory this tool/program/idea might apply to their research) and you can read books (if you want to read books on writing a dissertation or thesis there are dozens) but it still doesn’t actually allow you to know what is going to work for you in the end. 

For me, this has been the same as thesis writing. I’ve attended all the Grad School workshops (how to write your literature review, how to plan your thesis, how to structure your dissertation, how to be a good writer) and I’ve read the books from the flippant that offer cookie cutter approaches (write your thesis in 15 minutes a day) to the more considered (Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision) but ultimately, none of them told me about ME – what type of writer am I? How am I going to write THIS thesis?

They could only offer generic strategies that I could pick and choose from – and it took a long time to realise that the “must” advice (you must write each day, you must write for the 1st two hours of the day with no email) are actually strategies that helped OTHER PEOPLE write THEIR thesis – and that these are not universal truths, not universal laws, and the process of me giving birth to my thesis is totally different. 

And here in lies the crux of the problem as I see it. Many people I know in academia seem to think that because a certain practice or way of doing things worked for them, then it must be the RIGHT way. This is especially compounded if they already have their PhD.  (Not that its ever born out of malice, or ill-will, in fact, some people are kind of too helpful). 

It’s left me feeling like the overweight teenager who cried after attending one of the Subway Weight Loss Promotion Workshop-y things – she cried because she couldn’t afford Subway and thought that there was therefore no way she could lose weight. (Note: I can’t remember where I heard this story, so don’t quote me on it)

I’ve heard and read about other people’s thesis writing strategies – get up at 4am to write in the quiet, make sure your early mornings involve swims / runs / hard exercise, followed by healthy breakfast and writing two hours before 9am.  And all the while I’m thinking, hang-on, at 6am I’m in bed bleary eyed, one boob out breastfeeding and my next 2-3 hours involve soggy weet-bix, bribery over kids TV, checking if there is no mouldy bread to make breakfast (and frequently just cutting off the mouldy bits and the toasting the rest). 

I’ve heard about the financial sacrifices, the people who stopped work for a semester, or two, just to write. And my face starts to feel hot, flushed and uncomfortable, because stopping work means we can hardly afford to pay our housing and food bills, let alone if I want to put my kid into childcare so I can actually have some days to write the thesis. 

There is nothing wrong with all these strategies that other people use, but I’ve wandered around for about 2 years feeling like a failture because they were so impossible to incorporate into my life. The Thesis was looming as unwritable. 

So after feeling quite ashamed at my inability to adopt other people’s strategies and “get my thesis written” – I finally started to figure it out. 

It is like birth – there are no two experiences alike. It doesn’t matter what strategies you use – they have to be the ones that work for you.  There is no better or worse way  –  Doctoral Students don’t exist in void where just the student, a computer and whole bunch of data float around in space till the thesis is written. Like everyone, we have different lives, roles and responsibilities.   And just like birth, it’s not till it comes to crux of things that you can start to figure out what strategies might work for you. A supportive professional to guide you through is a bonus, but not always available. 

Most of us have never written 100,000 words on anything before (unless of course, this is your 2nd PhD) and it might take some time to explore the different strategies and find a rhythm that suits your individual style. 

My latest iteration of strategies that work for me include: 

  • Writing is thinking for me. I have to write down stuff, even ½ baked stuff (read: mostly ½ baked stuff) to then come back later edit, refine, figure out if its in or its out. 
  • I like to include the full proper reference as I go. I go to Endnote and find the right reference unless I have no idea who I might reference, then I just type in “(reference)”.  
  • I write best in block times and in new environments. Block times means at least 4 consecutive days in a place that I haven’t written much before (new library, relatives house, etc)
  • I can’t handle feedback as I’m writing my ½ baked version. I’ve got to ‘power through’ and feel positive. Reviewers comments bog me down when I’m in my 1st phase of writing. 
  • I like to write in other formats (Twitter, my blogs) from time to time- it helps me feel like I can still write. 

and there you have it.

Is my thesis progressing? Yes! Is it progressing as other people may imagine? No, probably not, but that is not the point. I’m not other people, this is not their thesis, the strategies aren’t all in a text book, but it is working for me and my family. 

Happy Thesis Writing!





About Sarina Kilham

I'm a Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney. Trained as a social scientist and with a Masters in Sustainable Agriculture, I'm interested in farmer's experiences of growing feedstock for biodiesel production. My research has focused on biodiesel production in Brazil and Timor-Leste. Also on Twitter @sarinakilham and blogging at
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