For a few years now, I have been following high impact research in the field of photovoltaics. I have read hundreds of scientific papers and performed complex calculations. However, I have to admit that I found most of this work relatively straightforward. As a scientist, I am highly interested in new results in my field, especially topics I don’t fully understand. Hence, learning the complexities in the field of renewable energy was second nature for me.

I am currently facing the hardest part of the Ph.D. in my opinion: the process of thesis writing. Initially, I had a lot of difficulty in starting to write since there were so many other things that needed to be done! I concluded that I wasn’t going to write efficiently if I didn’t find a solution. So I stopped my daily routine, sat down and thought about how I could increase my writing throughput. And this is what I want to discuss in this short blog. Instead of writing about my research within the field of photovoltaics in Canada, I decided to talk a little bit about my own writing process, wishing that it might help fellow graduate students in Canada, and even possibly abroad.

To help my writing process, I had to start somewhere. I began some preliminary research online, but it did not lead anywhere. I then decided to change my strategy. I decided to just sit down, and read a book. But it wasn’t any random book. It was “How to write a lot; A practical guide to productive academic writing” by Silvia [1]. I was expecting a long and arduous read. On the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised to find the book written in a personal tone, which made it entertaining and easy to read. It is short enough to be read fairly rapidly, but it is packed with motivating tips and rules to become a good writer. Even though it is written by an academic psychologist, it is applicable to pretty much any field. I believe this book was the turning point in writing my thesis.

The book focuses on many writing topics, but the one I found most important part was creating a writing schedule so as to allocate blocks of time to write during each week. Before I read this book, I usually managed my time another way: I would enter the lab at 9am, sit down, and write a list of things to do for the day. For the last few months, there was always ‘to-do’ point that kept coming back to haunt me: “Start writing the infamous thesis”. However, the actual ‘to-do’ list always seems to be too long as there is so much lab work to be done; I have gradually developed a lot of responsibilities in the research group over the years fixing instrumentation, calling companies, lab mates stopping by to ask questions about general scientific problems, meetings to attend, papers to read, etc… So adding “Write thesis” to the “to-do” list every day achieved nothing. The key to my success was to change this behavior.

I decided to use the author’s advice: before doing anything in your workday, schedule 2 hours of writing. Hence, between 8 and 10am, I sit down in front of my computer at home and simply write. This made a huge difference. Forcing myself to follow a planned, scheduled writing time changed everything. Being isolated helped a lot, since working around my colleagues is very distracting. To make those writing sessions more efficient, I had to take it a step further. I personally programmed my computer to not have access to the internet during those hours. Getting lost in your emails and various websites is so easy these days, and with my tendency of having an attention deficit does not help. At the beginning, I thought that I needed the internet to write the thesis. After taking this drastic measure, I realised that it was both true and untrue. I actually know most of the important information to write my thesis on the top of my head. What I need to do is to write as much as I can during the 2 hours session, and note any parts that need some online research. I then write these points on my ‘to-do’ list for the day. Using this schedule, I realised that I was doing as much work in the lab as before, but with the added benefit that my thesis was advancing more quickly than I had initially expected.

One problem that I often faced when I was in undergrad was the ‘blank page syndrome’. I could watch the white computer screen for hours before starting to write. This time, it was different. I didn’t wait for the inspiration to come; I actually forced it on myself. Even though I had no idea what to write, I just wrote freely on the subject. Then, the inspiration came after a few paragraphs. And I have to admit that I was surprised on how the first draft was not as horrible as I was expecting. After a while, I started using a few tricks that worked well for me. Since I consider myself a good communicator, I started using this particular talent for the writing process. To organize my thoughts and the flow of each chapter in my thesis, I am creating a PowerPoint presentation just like I would present for a conference. I then write the chapters much like I would present in front of a crowd of scientists. I just have to edit to make it readable and professional.

I have to admit that here, on a computer screen, it might sound easy. It is not. And I realised that the motivation is probably the biggest driving factor in the writing process. We are human after all, and a little reward is always good. Hence, I decided that I would have the right to a very good bottle of wine after the final touches of each chapter. That makes 5 bottles for the Ph.D. thesis; a good reward in my opinion.

In this adventure that is the Ph.D, I have been very lucky to be a part of the PVIN network with plenty of very interesting people. I am certain that I am not the only one in the Network who is in the writing process. I hope these few tips might help some of you!

Olivier Theriault

Olivier Thériault

Ph.D Candidate, Year 4

Sunlab, University of Ottawa



[1]. Silvia, Paul J. “How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing.” American Psychological Association (2007).