Skip to main content

Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin

Trinity Menu Trinity Search

You are here Your Student Journey > Postgraduates

Planning your thesis

At postgraduate level an even greater emphasis is placed on self-directed learning and the acquisition of academic skills. The thesis is not the end of your study but your first piece of academic work. Completing it is both a contribution to new knowledge and a learning process for you. Click on links below for tips and advice on completing your postgraduate thesis.

Common Problems

Most problems you will experience as a postgraduate student, have been experienced before. They include:

  1. Poor planning
  2. Methodological difficulties
  3. Writing
  4. Isolation
  5. Personal Problems (e.g. family, financial, jobs)
  6. Supervision

Getting started

“the knack for all research students regardless of discipline is to pinpoint what is required and model your work accordingly”             (Burnham, 1994:33)

Find out what you are expected to do by:

  1. Attending departmental orientation and technical programs
  2. Course handbooks
  3. GSO guidelines
  4. Books and websites
  5. Read excellent theses

Past Theses

Copies of dissertations are deposited in the library so there are examples of what you have to produce there. Try searching the web for guidelines from other universities. This is an example of taking control of your own learning.

Course Handbooks

Well prepared course handbooks that address some of the transition, orientation and control issues above are very useful. If your course does not have one perhaps a group of graduate students could offer to draft something for your course based on your recent experience. As a minimum this will clarify issues for you and be of immense help to students in later years. They can do the up-dates as part of their structured learning plan to keep the document relevant. Departmental staff is usually so focused on their own work that they jump at the opportunity to have graduate students do some of this work.

Managing yourself

Because postgraduate study largely involves self-directed learning – self-management is critical. it is an opportunity to develop an effective and highly efficient process for working. 

  • Estimate how long each task will take
  • Use planning tools to establish important sequences
  • Enter start dates, milestones and completion dates in your diary
  • Review and revise regularly
  • Write down everything you can so that you do not need to keep it in short-term memory
  • Hopelessly inaccurate estimates are much more efficient than no estimates at all

Technological needs

Make a list of your technological needs now (e.g. laptop, knowledge of Endnote, SPSS) and work out how you’re going to get them. 
For Endnote training visit:

For most software training visit:

Managing your writing

Writing is one of the most challenging tasks you will have to undertake. Make sure you start writing early on and regularly throughout your thesis. See our section on thesis writing.

What is your thesis about?

Write your research statement now (25-30 words). It will change over time but it is important that you formulate what it is, discuss it with your supervisor and reach an agreement on your research direction.


Use SPQR to help structure your research – it can be quite helpful in writing early versions of your abstract:

  • How would you describe the current situation?
  • What is the key problem your thesis addresses?
  • What questions arise from problem?
  • What did you do to answer the question? (response)

Click here for a PDF explaining the SPQR method.

Managing content

Having short-term and long-term goals as well as a realistic plan will help you manage your progress and ensure you generate effective content.

  • Set task targets with your supervisor
  • Make maximum use of resources
  • Get your material reviewed by peers (seminars, conferences, publish)
  • Make contact with people doing similar research (network)

What can I do now?

  • Make a plan
  • Establish a routine / rhythm
  • Start writing now
  • Read one book on writing
  • Read one thesis
  • Set long-term / short-term goals


Much of what can be learnt about the graduate student experience can be accesses through discussions with other students. Other help can be accessed through the Graduate Students' Union, the Postgraduate Advisory Service and the Graduate Studies Office.

The Centre for Academic Practice and Student Learning (CAPSL) provides support for graduate learning and teaching support under the Dean of Graduate Studies. Teaching and learning are not the same things. The skills a teacher uses to guide a student’s learning are not necessarily the same skills that students use to learn. CAPSL hopes to set up systems that promote both teaching and learning. The Graduate Student’s Union is represented on CAPSL so if you want your concerns or ideas expressed, speak to your delegate.

Your supervisor

The issue of supervision in specialised graduate areas is complicated and places high demands on interpersonal skills of staff and students. Use existing resources on communication, negotiation and conflict resolution. Try the library, SCS or talk to other students about how they did it. Remember, the content of your thesis is only part of your learning process. What you have learnt from how you went about researching, structuring and writing your thesis is just as likely to get you a job as the content.

Your relationship with your supervisor is the most important academic connection you will have throughout your Phd. It is critical that you learn to manage it efficiently:

  • Distinguish between what you want to do and what your supervisor wants you to do
  • Work out the best way of getting in contact with your supervisor
  • Know your supervisor’s strengths/weaknesses
  • As soon as possible find out your supervisor’s:
  1. Research Interests
  2. Recent publications
  3. Experience supervising
  4. How much time they will have
  5. Will you be able to get on?
  6. What kind of role does your supervisor expect?

Peer support

Some of the support that students feel they need from their supervisor can be obtained more effectively elsewhere. Your struggles to come to grips with the subject matter, define what you are trying to do, get yourself motivated, get over writers block, comprehend the demands of your supervisor, develop new insights and depth of meaning, vent your frustration at how long everything takes or getting over the latest computer crash, are all important parts of the learning process but not something with which the usual supervisor is going to have the time or skills to deal. However, there are two simple forms of peer supervision: the learning pair and the study group.

Learning in pairs

These are usually formed from within your own discipline and are generally content based. You form a partnership with someone with whom you want to work closely, agree on meeting times and what you are going to discuss. The content could be "what do you think my supervisor meant when he/she said I should be doing x. There is no data in this file. Can you see what's wrong with it?"

You can also set yourselves research tasks and provide summaries to each other.

Study Groups

Study groups are a way of addressing the issues involved in doing research work. They are relatively informal groups of students from different backgrounds and disciplines and different stages of completion. Maximum diversity ensures a breadth of insight and experience. There needs to be commitment to attend regularly and ways of managing meetings. You raise and discuss issues of mutual interest such as the supervision process and how to deal with interpersonal problems. Study groups can be where you try your ideas out on fresh minds to clarify things for yourself. You can make it more formal if you like e.g. researching a topic, finding out about Graduate Student Union activity in other Irish Universities, looking up College policy, finding some good graduate student websites and then reporting back to the group. Coffee and cake are a good idea.

Reflective Journals

Reflective journals are a very private form of leaning supervision. In essence you become your own supervisor. A reflective journal is not a work log or diary. In the reflective journal you record your experience of formulating questions and of how you came to find answers, like a documentary of your journey of discovery. They are a chance for you to explore your "blocks" and "dead ends" and to think about and plan strategies to overcome them. You do not have to keep one all the time. You might decide to do one over a 3-month period or during a time when things are going really well or really badly.

Student Counselling Service

Doing a thesis can be stressful. If you ever feel that the pressure is getting to much for you visit the Student Counselling Service which provides a confidential support service free of charge.

More resources

How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors
by Philips & Pugh

How to Write a Thesis (electronic version) by Murray 

How to Write a Thesis by Murray