Why Being Almost at the Word Count Doesn’t Mean You’re Almost Done

Last week we posted about when to let your thesis go; about how to know when it’s good enough and when you can finally release it to the world.

It’s so, so tempting to start thinking these thoughts as you get close to the recommended word count.* As the thesis takes shape and the chapters start knitting together, you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That light grows stronger and brighter until, when you submit the first full draft to your supervisors, you think: aaaaaahhhh, I did it!

Sorry. Bad news.

For the vast majority of thesis-writers, the first full draft is still a long way from being a ‘final’ version. Even when you have all your chapters drafted, and the whole thesis is in one document and up to length, you still have lots of work to do.

That work could include some or all of the following:

  • getting and interpreting feedback from supervisors
  • negotiating feedback from supervisors if it is inconsistent (or if you disagree)
  • making changes in response to feedback – these may be minor or major, depending on the feedback
  • having supervisors re-review, and potentially repeating the steps above
  • ensuring that your thesis has a strong through-thread in the way chapters are linked; and potentially reconsidering or rewriting chapters that no longer fit well into the whole
  • ensuring that the introduction and conclusion reflect the body of the thesis, and redrafting if necessary
  • updating the literature review for any relevant materials published since you initially drafted it
  • ensuring that references are correctly formatted and cross-checking them against the text (so that everything cited in-text has a reference, and everything in the reference list is cited in-text)
  • proofreading and/or hiring a professional proofreader (which can take months in itself)
  • double-checking your formatting
  • adhering to submission requirements (e.g. paperwork, signatures, Turnitin submission if required)

All of this can take a long time. To give you an idea: I sent the full first draft of my doctoral thesis to my supervisor when all the chapters were roughly compiled. That was on June 27, 2014. The document was 199 pages and 82,000 words long. I thought I was nearly done.

I submitted my final version for examination on August 30, 2016, over two years later.

Granted, that’s longer than it takes many people. I was working full-time, and could only work on revisions during nights and weekends. Plus my supervisor hadn’t reviewed all chapters individually prior to that first draft. But still: I was shocked at how much I had to do to progress from a full-length first draft to a final submission version. There were many, many drafts in between.

It’s worth thinking realistically about how long it will take to move your thesis into a final draft, because a lot depends on that. Scholarships will end; student visas will expire. When you’re planning your submission, it’s crucial to budget your time to allow for all the work that needs to be done after the first draft has been completed.

How long will it take in your case? That depends. It depends on how stringently you have proofed and polished individual chapters before compiling them. It depends on the scale of the revisions your supervisors suggest (and what you choose to do). It depends on the overall quality of your writing. It depends on whether there are significant structural or conceptual problems that become apparent when viewing the whole. It depends on how much time you can devote to your revisions. It depends on how long your thesis is. And it depends on how long other people (supervisors, proofreaders) take to read it and provide their input.

There is no rule of thumb for how long it will take to go from first to final draft, because the amount of variation is so high between individuals and across disciplines. For a masters thesis, it could be just a few weeks (or much more). For a doctoral thesis, two months would be a low estimate. For many, it’s six months. For a few like me, it can take even longer.

After reading your first full draft, your supervisors should be able to guide you on how much work remains to be done. But whatever you do – don’t count on being fast. The timelines between first draft and final draft aren’t fully predictable, and rushing it puts you at risk of having a hard time in the examination.

If you can plan early and keep a good chunk of time ‘in reserve’ to produce a final version of your thesis, you’ll give yourself a good chance of a timely and successful completion.

*At AUT, the required word counts are circa 80,000 for a doctoral thesis, and circa 40,000 for a Masters thesis (though it’s a bit more complicated than that, especially if you’re on Format 3 – so check the PG Handbook p.107-8 for more details). Editor’s note: this article, published in 2019, referenced a previous edition of the AUT Postgraduate Handbook that is now out of date. The most recent edition can be downloaded here (student login required).

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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