A thesis is a daunting thing: so massive and complex that it’s often difficult to know even where to start. Herein MESA shares some strategies, advice and handy tips for getting your thesis under control. And we invite you to send in your suggestions too.
1. Start Early
The most important step, by far, is to simply start. Even if it’s just the title page, or the acknowledgements, or some references – start. Starting early means years ahead, so that if you plan to finish your PhD in 3 years, you should start writing something by year 2 (or earlier, as the next section explains).
There’s a number of reasons for this. Firstly, a thesis is time-consuming and shouldn’t be rushed. Being able to write a chapter, leave it for a few months, and come back with fresh eyes and perspectives for improvement is a huge advantage. Secondly, you’ll have a full plate in your final PhD year – in addition to finishing experiments, you’ll probably be attending conferences, applying for jobs and/or postdocs, along with a whole host of associated issues (e.g., immigration, visas, interviews), on top of your thesis writing. Plan ahead so that the collective pressure doesn’t build up!
The final and most important reason for starting early is this: writing is part of the scientific process itself. That’s because science is a lot more chaotic and iterative than typically portrayed: it’s not as simple as sitting down to design experiments in your 1st year, then getting measurements in your 2nd year, then writing up the thesis in your 3rd year. No, instead after an idea goes to the experimental stage and it gets written up, that process of writing and analysis unearths issues and potential improvements – this then sends you back to the drawing board and to do more experiments. Thus, writing is not the final step after all the experiments are done – it’s part of the process. So start early (today!), and keep it up.
2. Write Papers: They’re Actually Thesis Chapters
The easiest (and most useful) way to write your thesis is to avoid it altogether – write papers instead. If by your third year you’ve got 4-6 papers – whether that’s published, submitted or in manuscript form – then you’re already set: the writing is mostly done, and, better yet, it’s already been read and commented-on not only by your thesis advisers, but also by anonymous peer-reviewers. This ensures your work passes the scientific bar and will make your thesis writing and defense far, far easier.
Of course, writing papers (especially 4-6) requires hard work, self-discipline, and a bit of luck. It’s completely worth the effort though, because in addition to easing thesis writing and completion, it keeps you on track by breaking down the thesis writing into individual sections/chapters. Finally, all those papers will boost your CV and post-PhD prospects immensely!
3. Make Use of Scientific ‘Downtime’
It happens to all PhD students: scientific downtime where you can’t do the work you had planned to do. For example, a needed piece of equipment might be down for repairs, or heavily booked up by others. Or maybe a chemical has been ordered but has not yet arrived. In these cases, all of a sudden work time appears to become free time, and whole days or even weeks can be passed over coffee breaks, internet surfing and the like. Tempting, but do yourself a favor: use downtime to chip away at thesis work. Even if it’s as little as 1-2 hours spent writing or preparing figures or getting familiar with your bibliography, it adds up!
4. Know Your References / Bibliography
An intimate knowledge of your field is key, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, you don’t want to be that one PhD student who spends 4 years on a project, only to find out when writing the thesis that someone did the exact same work 20 years ago (and that they got better results too), thus invalidating the novelty of your contribution. Good referencing also signals to your fellow researchers – and, more to the point, to your thesis evaluators – that you are aware of what’s going on in your field, and that you understand the science. And finally, since it really is hard work finding and reading all of the appropriate scientific literature, you don’t want to leave it to the last few months.
5. Choose Your Typesetting
Microsoft Word is, one has to admit, fantastic for many things: it is easy to use, makes collaboration and tracking changes trivial, and it is ubiquitous. However, it is problematic for something as large and complex as a thesis: you’ll be fighting constantly with formatting, figures, referencing, cross-linking and other issues, rather than focusing on what actually matters: writing about your science. To top it all off, the final result looks amateurish – theses written up in Microsoft Word never look as professional as, say, a journal article or a book.
The alternative is LaTeX, a typesetting solution that can be thought of as a mix between a word processor and a programming language. There is admittedly a learning curve for the installation and syntax, but if you’ve ever done any light programming, it’ll be easy to pick up; it’s also very well documented online, with many helpful, easy examples. (And really, if you’re doing a PhD, you can figure out LaTeX. It’s not that intellectually strenuous.) The advantages to LaTeX are these: beautiful formatting is built-in, equations and symbols are handled very well, referencing and cross-linking is painless and seamless, and issues like figure placement and alignment are automatically taken care of. The final document typically comes out in PDF format, and looks professional and well-designed, with minimal effort.
Downsides to LaTeX: aside from the aforementioned learning curve, the other issue is collaboration and tracking changes. Your supervisors will not be able to comment or revise your text as easily as they can in Microsoft Word. Which to choose? Depends on your field and aptitude. If you’re in anything involving physics, mathematics, computer science, and so on, then go for LaTeX. Chemists, biologists and their ilk still tend to stick with Microsoft Word for theses; they shouldn’t.
6. Brevity is Beautiful
Resist the temptation to write a long thesis. Excellent science can and should stand by itself, without verbose padding. Some of the best theses, from students with multiple first-author papers in Science and Nature, are wafer-thin in length, i.e., in the 100-150 page range. You should definitely aim to keep your thesis under 200 pages in length: anything longer will likely put your thesis’ external reviewers in a foul mood, delay your thesis’ evaluation, and signal that you may be trying to compensate for a lack of quality with a deluge of quantity. (There’s many books dedicated to good writing: we suggest "The Elements of Style" by Strunk & White, and "Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace" by J. Williams.)
7. Put Yourself in Your Examiner’s Shoes
Your examiners are busy people, so try to not piss them off. Here’s what’s probably going on through their mind when they open up your work: "oh no, not another thesis to read", tempered with a faint optimism of "it might help me keep up to date with this area of research" and "it might teach me something or inspire me". They’ll probably read your baby on trains, planes and in the back row of departmental seminars and meetings. They’ll love a good abstract, proper citing of the right papers, clear arguments, complete contents, and any papers you’ve published will help put them on your side. And some will think that they haven’t done their job unless they find corrections to give back to you; don’t let that faze you.
8. Backup, Backup, Backup
It pays to be paranoid about your thesis’ safety, and in this age of all-permeating connectivity, there’s no excuse to be slack about backups. Put your thesis on multiple computers, put in on USB sticks, put in on external hard drives, and put in on a cloud-storage solution such as Dropbox.com.
9. Attend Workshops, Look Up Examples, and External Resources
Many universities make their students’ PhD theses available online – look up examples, particularly from your university and your subject area. This is the best way to get an idea about issues like formatting, length and expectations. (Of course, also look up your university’s official thesis guidelines.) But also look further abroad, and get inspiration from theses from the world’s top universities, or from theses of those that have now become famous scientists. There’s also a multitude of websites and blog posts about thesis writing, so keep searching online if you feel the need for more advice and tips. Your university is also likely to offer thesis-writing workshops at least a few times a year – attend them, they’ll save you time in the long run.
Send Us Your Writing Tips!
We’d like to open this up to other MacDiarmid students and postdocs, so please send us with your thesis writing advice and tips – we’ll be happy to put them online here.