Training for the Thesis Marathon

A long-term project like a thesis is a marathon, not a sprint. This has been a difficult adjustment for me. In almost every other research project I’ve done at Princeton, I’ve chosen the last-minute sprint model, rather than a more organized long-term approach. Sprinting hasn’t worked well in the past, but it won’t work at all for a thesis. There’s simply too much involved in a thesis to cram it into the few weeks before the deadline.

My thesis buddy and me cheesing at the finish line of a 5K last spring. It’s never too early to start training for the thesis marathon!

The marathon approach is new to me, so I looked up some tips for how to train for an actual marathon. I was surprised how many were relevant for a long-term project like a thesis or a final paper. I’ve collected my ten favorites here:

Log your time. I often lose my sense of time when working on my thesis. Ten minutes can feel like two hours, and two hours can feel like ten minutes. Logging your daily hours in a spreadsheet—as you would for a campus job—helps budget your time and can also provide an easy way to measure your progress. Because thesis work involves so many different types of work (reading, writing, editing, scheduling meetings, etc.), it can be hard to quantify how much you’ve accomplished. Measuring (and recording) time spent isn’t a perfect metric, but it’s an easy and generally reliable one.

Set realistic expectations. Unrealistic expectations aren’t ambitious; they’re irresponsible. Be honest with yourself about what you can complete each week. It’s better to make slow, continuous progress than sporadic leaps. It’s much easier to return to a still-warm project than one that’s spent a week in the fridge.

Don’t think in terms of ‘all or nothing.’ It’s okay to not reach a weekly or daily goal. But that isn’t an excuse to stop work altogether. It’s much better to accomplish half your goal than none of it—not least because it maintains continuity in your thinking. It can be helpful to have two goals: an ideal goal, and a lower “stuff happens” goal. Having the option of an easier goal can help motivate you to stay on track during off-weeks.

Don’t get greedy. Getting ahead can be great—especially when you start getting excited about your work. But spending too much time on a thesis binge can interfere with your other coursework and threaten to burn you out. Try not to stray too far beyond your weekly or daily goal. Remember: marathon, not a sprint!

Put distractions away. When thesis work gets hard, it’s easy to find distractions: Instagram, friends, other coursework. To ensure you use your designated thesis time efficiently, it can be helpful to put these distractions away from the get-go. Turn off your phone, work alone or with a designated thesis buddy, and schedule your thesis time for a less busy part of your day.

Carry it with you. In addition to your daily scheduled thesis time, take advantage of unexpected free time—waiting for a friend at the dining hall, standing in line, lying in bed before the melatonin kicks in. Always keep a (lightweight) thesis source available in your bag, a notebook for random epiphanies, flashcards to practice new vocabulary (if your thesis involves sources in a second language). Minutes make hours and hours make a thesis.

Prepare for breaks and difficult weeks. Anticipate weeks like midterms or fall break. Adjust your goals for that week and make a plan ahead of time for how and when you’ll focus on thesis work. You don’t want to lose momentum. And just because it isn’t due soon doesn’t mean it isn’t an urgent priority.

Find a thesis buddy. Working with a friend can be a great way to stay accountable, and can make the whole process more fun. My thesis buddy and I don’t always work together, but we’re always sure to go to our college’s Thesis Fridays each week. Because we’re on similar schedules, it’s helpful to have each other as progress check-ins.

Mix it up. Do different things each day—read one day, write another, schedule an adviser check-in the next. This can help make sure you’re evenly dividing your time and also keeps things fresh and interesting.

Stay hydrated. Need I say more?

Of course, these tips are equally useful for non-thesis projects—though I think I was too stubborn to apply them in previous years. Stay in shape!

–Rafi Lehmann, Humanities Correspondent