Can You Work ‘Too Hard’ on a Thesis?

Achieving a masters or doctoral degree is supposed to be challenging. It should take a lot of time and intensive effort. That’s how you gain expertise, and that’s how you earn the respect that comes with an advanced degree.

But there is a limit to how much you’re expected to do. While masters and (particularly) doctoral candidates are expected to attain a high of knowledge and make a contribution to the literature, you do not have to single-handedly solve a major problem or write the final word on a given topic!

As the title of one of my favourite papers attests, “it’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize” (Mullins & Kiley, 2002).

Some people work much harder than they need to in order to complete their thesis. Perhaps that’s not surprising – masters and doctoral candidates tend to be high achievers, and that can go hand-in-hand with perfectionism. While it’s completely understandable to want to do high-quality work, sometimes perfect really is the enemy of good.

Here are some warning signs of a postgrad research project that has become harder than it needs to be:

  • A thesis word count that threatens to drastically exceed the ballpark ‘limit’ for the programme.
  • An interdisciplinary thesis that includes as much detail on multiple research paradigms / theories / methods as a non-interdisciplinary project would include on just one.
  • A reading or literature review strategy that is so broad and ever-expanding as to seem unfinishable.
  • A research plan that includes so many participants, steps, or stages as to seem unfinishable.
  • A project with no clear, time-bound plan to finish (or that keeps on going beyond deadlines).
  • A project that keeps ‘branching out’ to include new elements.

If your project has become difficult to the point that it feels out of control, here are a few things you can do to bring it back to a manageable size.

Have a scoping discussion with your supervisors

A project that feels unfinishable may be a project that’s simply too big. Most research operates within a niche-of-a-niche-of-a-niche. Often the early stages of refining a research proposal involve narrowing the topic until it is small enough to be achievable. But sometimes the scope creeps back out again as the project proceeds.

Perhaps the topic is too big; maybe the planned research involves too many participants; maybe the research questions are too broad; perhaps there are too many intermingling paradigms and theories involved. Whatever the case, a frank discussion with supervisors can help to clarify what can be safely excluded or narrowed down in order to bring the project back down to a scope that is well-suited to the level of a masters or doctorate.

Play with the proportions of the literature ‘funnel’

A well-targeted literature review can be an excellent investment of time and effort, especially when it’s used to inform the rest of the research. But sometimes trying to be too thorough can stall progress. This can be particularly true for interdisciplinary projects — when there are multiple elements to your project, it can be overwhelming to try to cover all the related literature in great detail.

Ultimately, the literature review needs to show that you are engaging critically with other work in your field, and that you are aware of the context in which your research sits. But you don’t need to write essay-length descriptions of hundreds of texts.

Imagine that your literature review forms a ‘funnel,’ with the broader literature at the wider end and the more niche literature at the narrow end. One way to trim down an over-ambitious literature review is to thin out the upper levels of the literature ‘funnel.’

At these upper (broader) levels, the literature will have relevance to your project, but it probably won’t be the work that you engage with more deeply. By altering the proportions of your literature review, you can show appropriate engagement with all levels of the funnel, while prioritising the most important parts.

Benchmark your thesis

Sometimes it’s helpful to take a step back and reassess what your programme requires. By ‘benchmarking’ your thesis against other similar theses, and against the examination criteria for your programme, you can quickly assess whether you are holding yourself to too high a standard.

Check out similar theses in Tuwhera, and review the examination criteria in the Postgraduate Handbook. Are you doing more work than others at your level? Are you doing more work than you need to, in order to meet examiners’ expectations? If so, you’ll know that you can scale back without falling short.


Mullins, G., & Kiley, M. (2002). ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: how experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in higher education, 27(4), 369-386.

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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