How to finish a thesis when you’re strapped for time

TL;DR: Writing a thesis when you don’t really have a lot of time is quite the challenge. With the right strategy it can be a breeze. Simply talk to your supervisor more often, keep a personal log on hand, skim and tabulate sources, and finally, get a few proofreaders.¬†

Doing a thesis is a daunting task. Especially if you’re working full time and have to deal with commute traffic. It’s the final boss battle in graduating, but it’s packing a punch. You’re getting beat left and right, and can’t seem to get in a hit. It’s reflecting all your moves and you’re low on HP. You’re running out of potions and this is a solo battle. You have no party members to tank this thing and it just won’t die. You’re flipping through your inventory to see if you have any rare item left to use on it – it’s the end of the game anyway, might as well use all your special items. Sad thing is you have none left. You wasted all of that in the last two courses because you decided to skip a few classes. Suddenly, it raises its ugly tangled many headed form and comes at you …

The good thing is it’s not as hard as you think. It’s quite a journey and you get to level up and even see some cool places if you get a paper published. I completed my MSc last year at the University of the West Indies in Computer Science and had quite a blast doing so. I even got to travel to Vienna, Austria to present a paper that I got published. So how can you finish?


Talk to your supervisor often

Some of my friends have been doing their thesis and would leave talking to their supervisor until they have completed a significant amount of work. I believe this can cause a person to lose focus in the thesis or sometimes even go off in another direction or area that was not initially part of the plan. When I wrote my thesis, having weekly meetings really helped push me to complete a significant amount of work in the week before our next meeting. Even if I didn’t have much work to talk about during our weekly meetings, we brainstormed, discussed ideas, and even talked about past work.

While this may not work for all cases, I think that having a 20-30 minute meeting every week on average helps in many ways. Setting a dedicated day and time for this also sharpens your focus and sets the goal for the week. The feeling of accomplishing your own weekly quota of work and finally presenting it is great!


Keep a personal log

Writing some weekly notes is a great way to tracking your progress. This also helps with the communication between you and your supervisor. Many times, my weekly update emails to my supervisor came directly from these logs. For logging, you can use anything you like. I opted for a Google doc. Here I simply listed the date, as well as anything that I investigated, worked on, or completed. I also pasted any interesting articles or videos, as well as any ideas, that I wanted to come back to later. I also noted any questions that I may have.

Sometimes when you’re stuck writing, reading over your log entries can help with motivation. You get to see how far you came and everything you did.

Each log entry usually was divided into:

  • Updates or work done
  • New ideas
  • Next steps
  • Interesting stuff
  • Questions and issues

Skim academic papers

If you work full time, then you’re usually spending about 8 hours a day at work, with an additional 1-3 hours commute depending on your job. This really eats away from your thesis time. What about if you’re not working, or you took vacation to do the thesis? Well then you’re lucky and should use all the time you have!

Most academic research papers have an average length of 3-6 pages. With limited time, you can’t afford to read an entire paper in detail before realising that you probably won’t mention it in your thesis. When reading, try just skimming the abstract, introduction and conclusion sections of the research paper. After this, you can make a decision about the paper – If it’s relevant, read it further and start making notes (see the tip below). If it has nothing to do with your research, then you can drop it and move on to the rest of the research you have waiting.

I usually did my skim reading during breakfast or lunch and sorted the papers into sections, depending on my research needs. Later, I would come back and expand any notes that I made on each relevant paper. For reading and managing academic research papers, I used Mendeley. This cross platform tool helped keep my research and notes synced across all devices.


Tabularize your literature

If you don’t keep organized, your work can become a big ugly tangle of notes, snippets, writings, and data. Eventually you’ll have to sift through all the rubble so that information can be extracted to formalize your thesis. To keep all my research notes and sources organized, I again opted for a simple Google Doc word document. I formatted it to be in landscape mode, with a custom (long) width. I then created a table and entered data on each research paper that I read. Usually, I would have the document open while reading so that I can note stuff on the fly.

The following is an excerpt of the research sources document that I used during writing my thesis.


I utilized different colors and formatting so that anything important can stand out at a glance. This helped immensely to keep tracking of everything. Want to know the best part? When you’re ready to write the literature review, all you need is this table!

Everything is neatly laid out for you to compare, and contrast research sources for the literature review as well as the discussion. When writing the literature review, I usually stated facts from the Points of Interests column. I mentioned any open areas or new areas of research as I noted in the What is missing from this paper? What does not make sense? column. Furthermore, I also commented on ways my research / idea was different as noted in the What makes my project different column.


Get people to proof read your drafts

Ok so you’re almost finished writing. You’re excited. You can’t wait to have this submitted so you can leave your cave and get back to life. You printed some of your writing to read to yourself. You end up taking some of it to work where you sit with a grin reading it. Suddenly, someone comes by, picks it up, reads it, and asks why you mentioned that word so many times in one paragraph. You blink. How could you miss that? Why would you even use the same word over and over like that! The words all stand out now, staring at you…

Proof readers help a lot. They read and find things that you cannot see. During your thesis writing, you’re working so close with the material that sometimes you just can’t see the big picture. Sometimes things read fantastic, but in reality it may not be quite clear to a typical reader at all. This is where your proof readers come in. Try and get at least 3 proof readers to go over your stuff and leave comments. You can print out excerpts for them to read, or even send them the entire thesis to leave comments for you – just make sure and thank each and every one after! Proof readers really are golden. They help shape your thesis into something phenomenal.