TL; DR – Summarize your ideas on index cards, arrange them in order, then write them out into paragraphs.

A graduate thesis is difficult to write because of how daunting a project like that looks from a distance. Once you get your research topic approved (yay – that’s a huge milestone!), the chasm between where you are now and where you need to get to produce a piece of respectable academic work can bring on some serious anxiety. Below, I will share a strategy I used to complete my graduate thesis project in two months.

The analogy I like to use for tackling a thesis, or any big project, is the construction of an aircraft carrier. Once I visited a retired carrier that had been turned into a museum. When you are standing next to this enormous, complicated machine, which floats (!) despite its stupendous weight, it seems incomprehensible that it was built by mere mortals – and yet, ships are built piece by piece from a dizzying array of parts into cohesive wholes by people like you and me.

Photo courtesy of http://www.netmarine.net via Wikimedia Commons

The key to writing a thesis, as with any complex task, is to break it up into manageable pieces. While I was writing my own thesis in grad school, I found two things particularly helpful – outlining, which I already covered in a previous post, and using index cards to arrange my thoughts and research references in a logical order.

The general outline of my thesis consisted of the following chapters: Introduction, Research Questions, Literature Review, Research Methodology, Research Findings, Analysis and Conclusion.

You might be wondering, yes everyone knows that, but how do I fill in the outline with the constituent “bricks”? Again, we break it down into pieces. Take each chapter and divide it up into sections. For example, you can divide the Literature Review chapter into sections such as “Academic Journals”, “Books”, “Research Briefs and Abstracts” and “Conference Presentations”.


Now, at the level of a section you might have several paragraphs, each describing a single idea or referencing one piece of literature. At this point you might start feeling like you have too many paragraphs to keep track of – this is where the index cards come in.

Summarize each of your ideas into a sentence or a phrase, then either write it down on an index card or type it up. If you type these up, put several ideas on a single sheet of paper, then print it out and cut your ideas into individual strips that you can paste onto the index cards. The latter method is more labor intensive, but you get the added benefit of having a digital copy of the notes.

Once you have the index cards ready, you can physically re-arrange them on your desk and experiment with the order of ideas to see what works best. When you’ve figured out the order, start writing and expand each idea on an index card into its own paragraph.

All of this, of course, can be done digitally without having to bother with paper, glue and pens, but in my experience, being able to manipulate tangible idea “containers” is much quicker and easier than moving things around on a computer screen. Also, the process of making ideas fit onto index cards forces you to get rid of all the fluff and focus on the essence on what you are trying to say.

By using this system, I was able to write a literature review, conduct and organize my research, and compile everything into an academic paper in about two months. The underlying idea of this approach is very basic and almost self-evident – break up a complex task into smaller steps and use a consistent system to organize the information. If you are in grad school, and are having pangs of anxiety as you start thinking about writing your thesis, give this approach a try – it just might save you time and reduce procrastination.

How to write a graduate thesis