In this guide, we present a list of principles, activities, and steps that will help you to write your thesis at Bachelor’s or Master’s level in four weeks.
Can a thesis be realistically be written within 4 weeks?
Absolutely. It will probably not be an excellent thesis, but it will also not be a bad one, if you stick to the principles, activities, and steps below.
What I’ve learned supervising hundreds of theses and producing masses of scientific publications on my own is this: Parkinson’s law works—writing a thesis essentially takes as long as you think it should take.
In institutions, where students are given three semesters to work on their theses, the students take three semesters.
In institutions, where one semester is the norm, students need one semester.
If there is no time at all alotted to it, and students are assumed to write their thesis next to their full load of coursework, they just write it next to their other coursework.
So what if you decide to write in in four weeks, no matter what your institution says?
Principles for productive thesis writing
There are three essential principles to adhere to in order to write your thesis productively:
- Think 80:20
- The best thesis is a done thesis.
- Full accountability.
Principle 1: Think 80:20
In business, the 80:20 principle (the Pareto principle) is the theory that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. The principle is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed in 1906 that 80% of Italy’s land was owned by 20% of the population.
The 80/20 principle can be applied to almost anything. In fact, it’s been used to describe everything from how societies are organized to how people use their time. But what does it mean for you and your thesis?
Simply put, it means that 20% of your efforts will produce 80% of your results. You can even get more excited about that, because you could apply the principle on itself—that is, you could focus on the 20% of the 20% that will produce the greatest effect.
But, of course, there is a problem. How should you know what these 20% are, if you have no previous experience in doing research?
Principle 2: The best thesis is a done thesis
Thesis writing is like attend driving school. Completing it will not make you a competent research. Completing it will merely give you the license to learn more about it.
In that sense, the counter-intuitive truth is that you increase your learning potential by focusing on performance and speed. Even if you are set on an academic career, every week you unnecessarily spend on your thesis will keep you from making the learning experiences you need to have to build a solid foundation for your career.
So, for the (arguably very short) time of writing the thesis, put performance over learning. Because in the long term, this will be the actual key to learning.
What does this mean for you and your thesis?
Stick to the things you have some idea about. Do not engage with qualitative research if you have no previous background in qualitative research. It is a common mistake of students to believe that they can lead interviews because they have experience talking to people. Many underestimate the challenges that an explorative, very uncertain research project brings—and how impossible keeping deadlines suddenly is.
Go for standardization. Most research studies take incremental steps. That is perfectly fine and a feature of how science works. And yet, thesis students often try to do it differently. And fail. So take my word for it: use as much of existing procedures, methods, measurement instruments, etc. that you can. The less unknown variables, the better for you and your thesis project.
Principle 3: Full accountability
There’s a popular saying that goes, “actions speak louder than words.” If we want to be successful in anything, including our personal lives, we need to take seriously the reality of this statement. It’s easy to tell other people what we’re going to do and then not follow through with our plans. But if we truly want to achieve our goals, then we need to be personally accountable for our actions.
To be personally accountable means taking responsibility for what we do and putting ourselves in a position where we can actually see and feel the results of our decisions. It’s not enough to say, “I’ll make the effort.” If we want success in our lives, then we need to show that we’re willing to do what it takes.
Because it is one thing to know all the principles and activities presented here. It is an entirely different thing to actually do it. This is why we include accountability coaching with all our programs.
Bonus principles: Motivation & Well-being
Without mentioning two other factors that need to be considered, I think, the list cannot be complete. One is motivation. Basically, this is your gasoline for the thesis journey. So we want to make sure that you do not run out of it.
The other one is your personal well-being. We are in this for the long run. Even if you complete your thesis in a minimal amount of time, you do not want to burn out in the process of it—because in all likelihood, the thesis is not your end goal.
There are only three things you need to do in order to write an awesome thesis in a minimal amount of time:
- Write daily
- Get feedback on your work
- Follow the guide
Why do academics write?
HInt: It’s not because we are super old-school and think that writing is the only valid form of communication.
Instead, academics acknowledge the fact that scientific thoughts are quite complex. Too complex to merely think about it without writing anything down. And this is why we write. We write to communicate our conclusions to others (your thesis), but we also write to communicate the idea to ourselves (everything you write before the final version of your thesis).
Hence, writing is probably the most important skill you need to master in order to be a good academic (and to produce a great thesis). Fortunately, it is also a fundamental life-skill; investing some more time here will allow you to reap the benefits also in other domains of work and life.
Write, because writing is really the best way to learn writing.
Write, because writing is an excellent way to clarify your own thoughts. Often, it actually generates thoughts; it is a vital part of many creative processes.
Write, because in the end you will be forced to put all your work into a form that someone else needs to understand.
The only reliable way to achieve your goal of completing your thesis in minimal time is to write daily on or about your thesis: Write the next section of your thesis. Make a freewriting session about the relevance of your thesis. Write as part of the Research Question Workshop to clarify the importance of your research question for your life. Write a research diary about your thoughts and actions you undertook working on your thesis.
It really does not matter that much what you write. Just… write.
Without having experience in academic writing, the above may seem excessive.
Do you really need to write that much? Research papers are usually quite short, right?
Yes and no. They are short when it comes to communicating to the reader, typically less than 6,000 words—and this even includes the references. But as I have shared above, there is also substantial work that goes into explaining concepts to yourself or into trying to find the best wording for a definition. If we include these, you can easily 3x to 10x the word count.
So the excessive production of words is essential. Note that I focus exclusively on production here. As Ernest Hemingway allegedly said:
Write drunk, edit sober.Attributed to Ernest Hemingway
This is the state we aim for—in a metaphorical sense only.
For more inspiration about the different types of work you engage in when talking about (academic) writing, see my video here:
@drdominikfroehlich #1 scheduling mistake of students while writing their thesis #thesis #research #writingtips ♬ original sound – Dr. Dominik – Thesis Coach
Get feedback on your work
In the first activity above, writing daily, I suggest to produce an excessive amount of words for your thesis. And that’s a great start. But you also need to have some understanding which of these words are really moving your project forward, and which ones have been necessary as a crutch at one point, but which may be discarded now.
And the easiest activity to find out about this is feedback.
Seek feedback often. Seek feeback from multiple people. Talk about your thesis and aspects of your thesis as much as possible. Note any reactions that your audience has. Note any reactions that you yourself have (any uncomfortable feelings of insecurity creeping up?). Work with this.
Always reflect back what the feedback means for the course of your thesis. You do want to produce “an excessive amount of words”, yes—but you also want to produce them into a certain, meaningful direction. So seek feedback often and ghet it from multiple viewpoints in order to steer your course.
It will cost you some time and resources to get the feedback and reflect on it. However, in my experience, you will easily make this up because you will also notice a bit quicker if you have been working in a wrong direction. Also, it creates a sense of accountability, which is of great importance.
Follow a guide
Doing research always means stepping out from what we know and trying to uncover something new. This can be a scary process.
Take any structure you can get. Apply a known structure of how to present research papers or specific research results. Do not reinvent the wheel. Apply a time-tested strategy to develop a sound research question. Follow an overall roadmap or tasklist that shows you what tasks are really necessary and which one are not (remember the 80:20 principle?).
“What about my supervisor?“, you might ask. Of course, your assigned supervisor could be your guide. But in my experience—and listening to thousands of bits of feedback I have received about this talking to students around the globe and across disciplines—there is only a slim chance that your assigned supervisor can fulfill that role.
This is nothing personal, this is systemic. Thesis supervision is not a task that is usually appreciated; many need to do it “for free” or even if there is compensation, it practically never is enough to cover the supervisor’s costs. So this is why supervisors have all the reason to make minimal investments in your growth.
What is more, thesis supervision is a highly complex task. Realistically speaking, there are not many people around that can do it right. You need to be both a good researcher and a good teacher. And while both are available in heaps in higher education institutions, they often not to be found within a single person.
Steps & Milestones
Apply the principles and activities mentioned above along a process of six major steps:
- Ask a well-defined research question (Week 1)
- Prepare your measurement instruments (Week 1-2)
- Get data (Week 2-3)
- Interpret results (Week 2-3)
- Discuss results (Week 4)
- Edit your thesis (Week 4+)
Ask a well-defined research question
Your research question will be the fundament of everything you do. So you better make it right.
I frequently find it puzzling how overconfident students seem to be about their research questions. More often than not, the typical research question that I am presented with in coaching is less than perfect. Actually, they are not even mediocre, they are mostly not useful at all.
A research question is not about articulating some random idea that seems slightly interesting to you.
At the point where your interests and those of the field collide, a research question needs to be carefully positioned.
And this is hard to achieve by just thinking about different forms of questions. It needs a structured process. You can find all the knowledge I’ve gained from the beginning about formulating productive research questions and setting you up properly in this session. So, adhering to the core activities mentioned above, I advise you to follow this (totally free!) guide and do not further comment on the perfect research question here.
- Week 1
- Day 1: Start the Research Idea Journal provided as part of the Research Question Workshop.
- Day 1: Clarify your commitment to the thesis.
- Day 2: Complete the research topic part of the Research Question Workshop.
- Day 3: Complete the MINERVA part of Research Question Workshop.
- Day 4: Get Feedback on your preliminary research question.
- Day 5: For each major concept, write a paragraph to properly define it.
Milestone 1: You now should have a research question that you feel (moderately) confident with. You can explain it to others well (and it does make sense for others). All concepts are clearly defined and connected to existing literature.