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Time-saving tips for a Master’s thesis (or PhD dissertation)

              If you are currently doing or are contemplating doing a thesis or dissertation as part of your Master’s or PhD program, then the tips below are to help you finish with less stress and fewer premature gray hairs. If you’ve done a thesis or dissertation, congratulations! I welcome your comments below for any future students about to embark on this journey!

I was one of the few in my Master’s in Applied Linguistics program who tackled doing a thesis.  Most others shook their head and said, ‘No way!’  I had a burning question that needed to be answered though. That burning is what kept me going through the long process. I hope you also have a question you want to answer to badly it keeps you from quitting (yes, it’s true! Most people I talked to who did a thesis or dissertation wanted to quit at some point in the process, including yours truly). Recently I completed and defended my thesis (yaa!) and want to share what I would do differently and also what I learned about the process.

1) Take good notes of articles or books you read

  • Put a summary on each hard-copy for easy referencing
  • Summary should contain this information: authors, 2-3 line synopsis, how it supports your thesis, pages for quotes

When I say ‘take good notes’ I don’t mean you have to spend hours taking down quotes or taking detailed notes while reading, although this is great if you can (and using a Smart Pen while note-taking just makes it that much easier!). Sometimes the volume of reading doesn’t allow for very detailed notes. Read on and I’ll explain...

One of my biggest regrets was not taking the time to either learn a database program like Access or set up a spreadsheet to keep track of the articles I was reading. I would have a mountain of nickels for every minute I spent looking for an article that I knew had a point I needed...but I couldn’t remember which one. When you’ve read 50 or more articles on the same topic they tend to blend together. It’s worse when some of them are digital and some are in books that you may or may not still have. It turns into searching for a needle in a haystack at times.

Detailed records also have another benefit: it makes it easier to pick and choose which articles or texts you want to use in your thesis/dissertation- and not forget any! It is embarrassing to admit that I forgot to add articles to my thesis simply because I had a badly organized file-keeping system. By the time I rediscovered the articles it was too late to add them; my argument had been set up and my thesis advisor would have been incensed if I’d wanted to change the structure at a late stage of writing.

There are a couple of simple questions you can answer after reading a text which will save you time and energy later. If you can input this information into a database or spreadsheet then so much the better. If you can’t keep an electronic record, then staple half a sheet of paper to the front page with the necessary information (or if it is a book, make a separate loose-leaf page for each book).

Here are useful questions to answer about the article or book you are reading.

Answer each concisely:

- What keywords describe this article? List 5-10.

- What is the take-home message of this text in 1-3 sentences

(or a very short paragraph)?

- Does this article support or counter your hypothesis/thesis?

- What section does this article fit into or what argument point does it support?

*If you don’t have sections or argument points yet, keywords help jog your memory later.

- What pages have quotes you might want to use later and for what section?

* Keeping track of quotes while reading is very time efficient!

Mark them in the column or on a separate sheet then transfer them to your planning document.

2) Name your digital files with author, year, subject

  • Name each file with author_year_title
  • Makes searching later more time efficient

This step is crucial to organizing your digital files well. It will help you find the article you need quickly and also lets you see the chronological order of the articles. For books, create a word processor document named the same way with any relevant information, such as quotes, saved.

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For example, if you are reading about, early childhood development you might read 10 or more articles about how children learn through play. If all of the articles are named ‘learn_through_play_#’, with the # being the articles you found and named in sequence, it is not going to help you to find the article by J. Jones which has a quote you need. You would have to go through the time-consuming process of opening each separate file to search for the article you need (speaking from experience here!).

A better way to name your articles is ‘Jones_2001_learn-through-play-games’ or something to this effect.

3) Organize your digital articles/texts into folders by subject

  • Avoid multiple sub-folders
  • Group articles into large umbrella topics
  • Leave unclassifiable articles as a list in the same location of your folders

There are many different ways you can organize digital files and I’m only going to suggest the one that worked for me. Let me start with a warning, though. It is so tempting to have multiple sub-folders within each folder so you can micro-file your texts. If this works for you, fantastic! However, I found this more time consuming than I expected and deleted almost all of my sub-folders.

It was easier to have each folder named with a broad general category containing all the relevant articles in one big list. My thesis was on incidental phrasal verb acquisition through second language reading. Hence my folders had names like ‘incidental learning’, ‘reading-graded-extensive-intentional’, ‘phrasal verb avoidance’, and so on. It sped up my search time immensely to find articles.

What to do about articles you just don’t know how to classify (or in the beginning before you know how to classify any of them)? I left those unclassifiable articles in a big list under the folders. However, those articles were well-named so I knew exactly what they contained. As my folders developed I was able to move some of the unclassifiable articles, but I still have quite a few I left out.

The key is to find a time efficient system to find the article you need. If you make one system and it doesn’t work, think about why it didn’t work, then rearrange things and try something else. It might be that having a big list of articles works best for you. Keep efficiency of retrieving articles in mind as your goal.

4) Plan your argument before you start writing

  • Write each point including supporting articles or texts
  • Put 2-3 word summary along with each supporting article or text
  • Find out the writing structure required by your department right away, e.g. funnel, to aid planning

Before you can plan you (probably) need to complete a great deal of reading first, sorry! If you keep track of the points being made in each text as I suggested above, it will be much easier for you to select the sources you want to use.

Planning an outline may dredge up painful memories of high school English class but, as the adage says, ‘if you fail to plan, you plan to fail’. Learn from the many hours I lost that planning your points as I’ve outlined below can really save you time in the end.

Planning the points

Use cue cards, a spreadsheet, a word document, whatever you use, put down the point being made and how you are going to support it with what you have read (the sources with a one to three line description of what the source says). Do this for each point you want to make in your argument, in sequence, then leave it for a day or two. When you come back with fresh eyes you’ll be better able to see if the argument structure is sound and where it needs adjusting, if at all.

By using point form, it will be easy to see if things are flowing smoothly when you go over your argument. Including the sources for each point means that you know there is a reference you can use (it sucks wanting to make a point but not being able to back it up-unless it is to point out a gap in the body of research you are filling). By the time you start writing, you know exactly which sources to go for and where and how you are going to use them.

Listing the sources you want to use also helps weed out any weak ones. In some cases there is only one source available and it is weak but at least you are aware of that and can write about it in your paper. Remember when you list the sources to put the author, year, and title of the article/book as well as one to three sentences about the main point that article makes.

Again, from experience I know your advisor may not know all the sources you want to use just by looking at the names. Having the few sentences explaining why you want to use a source for a particular section will really help make the initial meetings with your advisor more productive-and save you from wasting time writing material that will be discarded later because “it doesn’t fit the argument”.

Planning the structure

Check with your thesis advisor about how to structure your argument. Is it a funnel? Or some other kind of structure particular to your discipline? What I mean by a funnel is going from broad points and narrowing down closer to your main point as the paper progresses. Don’t feel stupid asking your advisor what structure is expected; knowing from the beginning helps focus your planning.

I had been out of school for many years when I did my Master’s so I learned this point by having my advisor rip apart my original argument structure and put it back together, which was painful, because of the time I had invested in writing and needed to re-write, but effective, since it made my thesis so much better.

5) Buy a style guide and use it

  • If you don't know, ask your advisor what style is used in your department, e.g. APA, MLA, Chicago
  • Buy your own style guide and use it for all formatting (title page, margins, tables, figures, references, etc.)

I think my thesis advisor almost bought me my own style guide because I was so bad at applying the principles of APA to my thesis. She was (sometimes) humorous in pointing out that whatever APA guide I was following, it didn’t match hers. Since my own pocket copy of the APA guide was across an ocean, I was using an example of APA corrected papers I downloaded from the internet. It took me a lot of careful examination to figure out all the mistakes she told me I was making. Oh, to just be able to flip and look it up is so much easier!

Whether you think that APA, MLA, or whatever style your discipline uses is a useless waste of time, your thesis advisor probably doesn’t and the academic world certainly doesn’t. Save yourself a headache and learn how to format your paper (the entire thing, not only the reference section). It only seems finicky until you learn the rules and then you can just format properly as you go.

6) Edit, revise, edit some more

  • Consider reading about academic writing requirements before you start writing your thesis
  • Use the school's writing or help centre if one is available
  • Consider hiring an editor

You may have been born with the gift of the written word or, like me, you may have to really work hard at it. Academic writing is not like writing an email. There are expectations of language register and format which need to be adhered to. Thankfully, there are lots of books to help you learn academic writing and editing.

If your school has a writing centre or help centre, utilize it. The writing tutors can give you a second set of eyes before going to your advisor. Remember, the tutor may not be able to give you feedback on whether the information you have included is pertinent or not. They should be able to help give you feedback on whether your writing is clear and concise or too wordy, etc. Writing tutors can also give you some tips on how to edit and revise by yourself. For example, read backwards from the last line to the first line in order to check for verb tense congruence and sentence structure problems. When you read from beginning to end, it is easy to skip over misspelled words or clumsy sentences that you can pick out if you start reading from the end and work towards the beginning.

Often there are people available at your school to edit papers for a fee(check the English department especially). If no one is advertising, ask your classmates and friends if they know anyone. Prices range depending on if the person charges by hour or by page but a good editor is worth the money. There are also professional proofreaders and editors for hire on the web at places like or Again, these people may or may not have familiarity with your subject matter so they will only be able to advise on your writing itself; any feedback about content will have to come from your advisor.


So in summary,

1) Take good notes as you read

2) Name your digital files with author, year, subject

3) Organize your digital articles/texts into folders by subject

4) Plan your argument before you start writing

5) Buy a style guide and use it

6) Revise and edit thoroughly

Even though at times you may want to rip your hair out while writing your thesis, it is worth hearing the words “Your thesis has been accepted.”

I hope these tips will keep more of your hair on your head than the floor, though!

Happy writing and good luck!

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Balaji on December 30, 2019:


Pipit on April 07, 2018:

Thank you very much. It is very helplful!

James on April 07, 2018:

Mendeley is better at reference management.

Amanda Hare (author) from England on December 05, 2013:

I'm really glad this will help! Good luck in your studies!

Ainslee on February 25, 2013:

Thanks so much for this information. I'm doing my honours in anthropology at the moment and have been reading articles to try and get an idea of what my argument is going to be (it is very vague at the moment, which I'm told, is normal for this stage. With your tips however, I think it will be focused sooner and much more easily.

catalinafr on August 27, 2012:

Interesting idea of naming digital files! Great hub. Voted up!

Alan on August 21, 2012:

I agree with The Rink. Mendeley is a supuerb tool and best of all its FREE!

The Rink on May 04, 2012:

Use Mendeley software to organise all your research papers or book automatically ...

Amanda Hare (author) from England on March 27, 2011:

I'm glad you found it helpful, Fatima!

Fatima on March 18, 2011:

Thank you for your help

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