How to write a PhD thesis

After finishing yet another draft of my thesis, I thought I’d share some of the hard won pro-tips I’ve worked out along the way.  This, being my fourth thesis (one for each of my degrees, including my undergrads), was probably the best of the bunch. Let me tell you, by the time you’re on your fourth thesis, you’ve learned a few things.  So here they are:

Pick your Technology: The first step is to decide what software you’re going to use to write your thesis.  The minute you start, you’re going to be locked in with no hope of switching.  There really isn’t a way to transfer your work from one technology to the next, so pick wisely.  In the past, I’ve used Microsoft products, and I found them to be a very wasteful way to proceed.  This round, I picked LaTeX/Kile, and despite the 3-day intense learning curve at the front, things have gone very smoothly since. (Yes, only a programmer will appreciate the beauty of compiling a document – it’s not for everyone.)

Whatever you do, make sure you understand the ramifications of writing a 100+ page document in whatever software you chose.  A 10 page document in Word is nothing at all like a 100 page document in Word. (Hint: I found scaling with Word to be painful, particularly when illustrations are involved.)

Pick your Referencing System: Similar to the point above, in your thesis, references are your lifeblood – pick a system that works and start using it early!  Nothing says disorganization worse than trying to find “that paper” in a 50cm high stack.  The sooner you start organizing your papers, the better off you’ll be.

My trick was to use Texmed to get papers in the right format, then toss it into a .bib file with a quick annotation, so that I could figure out why I thought that paper was significant.  It cut down a LOT of time when it came time to add citations.

Organization: Writing a thesis isn’t hard, surprisingly.  The biggest, hardest part is organizing it.  My best trick was simply to write out alll of the headers, then write out in point form what I thought went into each section, then – one by one – expand the points into paragraphs.  Throwing in illustrations and references at that stage was a great help for writing as well – this helps you build the text around the information you have already gathered.

Once you have manageable small chunks to write, it was always easier to tackle them – and you never stress about having giant blank sections in front of you.

Communication & Feedback: Well, this is more of a wish list for my own thesis, but it would have made progress go quicker.  Once I had my outline of headings, I asked my supervisor to let me know if the topics I had included and left out were appropriate.  Keeping that loop tight can save time – particularly with the comments that said: “Please discuss topic X.”

Working with those who can provide you feedback is always a good idea – and the earlier you get it in the process, the easier it is to fix or prevent problems.

Keep track of your Progress: I found it very useful to keep a list of tasks (aka, sections) that I needed to write, and every time I finished a section, I could check it off the list.  Every time I did a revision, I’d write down a list of changes and then plow through that list, checking completed items off one at a time.  Not only is it better for making sure you aren’t missing things, it’s also easier to track your progress – which is the lifeblood of any major undertaking.

It becomes much easier to tell when you’re falling behind and need to pick up the pace, and it allows you to figure out what works best for you.

Set Goals and hold yourself Accountable: Yes, that may sound like fluff, but it made all the difference for me.  A colleague of mine is also working towards his thesis, and we came up with a great system where we meet once a week to share our accomplishments, and to admit our failures.  For added motivation, failing to accomplish your weeks goals got you a mark on the “beer list” – meaning you owe a beer to the other person.

Admittedly, owing a beer isn’t a huge motivation, but it does remind you of the consequence of not achieving your goals.  And missing your target too often will be a problem down the line, so this is a good way to make sure you’re staying on target.

I also have to say that in a project this big, there’s always the temptation to put off a goal for later because it’s just sliding by one day – and the final goal of the project is a long way away.  Don’t fall for it!  Those days add up, just like the beers.  Set your goals realistically, and then hold yourself to them!

Guilt management: This one always gets me.  When you have a project like this, it’s temping to think you need to work on it 24/7.  Realistically, that’s not going to happen, so figure out what schedule works for you.  My trick was to get up, spend 20 minutes reviewing my goals for the day – and then take a shower.  I do a lot of my best thinking in the shower, so it always helped me plan out what I wanted to write.  I’d then eat breakfast, while reading the days news… and then it was time to work.  On a good day, I’d work from 10:00 – 4:00 without much more than a few breaks.  Having put in a pretty solid 6 hours of writing, I’d go walk the dog and remind myself that that was a good day.  If I had goals to get done (see above), I’d return to it after dinner.

You are not expected to neglect your life to get your thesis done – but you are expected to focus on it during your prime working hours!  If you set aside a reasonable amount of time every day and meet your goals, that’s good enough.

Focus: That said, when you do set aside time to write, try to do it somewhere without distractions.  For me, a desk set in the corner of the room, facing a window that looks at nothing in particular was the trick.  Nothing outside to distract me, natural light to keep me awake and nothing around me to pull my attention away (except the cat) helped me get my focus and keep it for long periods of time.

Exercise: I can’t stress this one enough, really.  For me, getting out of the house a couple times a week for a good evening of fencing was really therapeutic.  When someone is swinging a sword at you, there’s just no room in your head for organizing chapters.  Setting aside my monday and thursday evenings to not think about thesis work, to get myself away from being sedentary in front of the desk, made a big difference. To paraphrase one of my favorite books (Microserfs), your body is not just a transportation unit for your brain!  Don’t forget to take care of it.

Cats: Do not let your cat write paragraphs for you!  Mine took a nap on the keyboard, and added 6 pages of “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” to my thesis. Which leads me to:

Backups: Actually, since I was using LaTeX, I used revision control (SVN) to manage my documents.  Every hour or so, I’d check in my documents to make sure I had a copy.  I only ever used it once, but the one time I needed it, it was there – and it saved me several hours of trying to recreate something I’d lost.

Figures: Keep two copies – the original and the version you use in your thesis. And, keep them in the same place so you can always find it.  You will need to go back to the original many, many times, so having it handy – and separate from the one you’re using in the document can be a big help.

Remember you’re the Expert: The work you’re writing about is work you did.  No one knows it better than you do.  Write it out as if it’s a manual for someone who’s going to follow in your shoes… because someone probably will, and this is how they’ll continue on your legacy.

Enjoy it: Thesis writing is hard work, but so were the years you put in to get to this point.  Try to enjoy the process and make it as pleasant as possible for yourself – short of taking your laptop in to the bathtub, of course.

I’m sure there are other things, but that’s all that come to mind so far.  Feel free to add to the list in the comments.

2 thoughts on “How to write a PhD thesis

  1. Two crucial ones:

    Keep it short: No examiner wants to read a 300-page monster, and you don’t want to write one. Your thesis will be read by a maximum of five people, so do yourself a favour and make it short and sweet so you can spend your time on more useful things (like papers). (I spent a grand total of two weeks writing my ~100-page thesis, which was primarily pulled together from papers I’d already submitted or published, albeit substantially reformatted/rewritten, along with a relatively brief Discussion section.) There’s a masochistic subculture in science that believes that writing a thesis should be a gruelling, systematic process that takes months; that’s just rubbish. Stick to the absolute essentials required to demonstrate your PhD-level research ability, nothing more, and your examiners will thank you for it.

    Leave lots of stuff out: Related to the first point. Your thesis shouldn’t be a comprehensive summary of every experiment you ever performed during your PhD – it should demonstrate that you have assembled a solid body of work in accordance with a coherent research vision. If you spent six months attempting to get a cell culture model to work, and then ended up abandoning it for another (successful) approach, leave it out. The only reason to include failed experiments is if the failure somehow tells you something interesting about your research questions; if it doesn’t, no-one cares about it.

  2. That’s great advice, although it may be region specific. All of the students around me have had their thesis turn into 200+ page monsters – just as mine has as well. It really depends on the expectations of your supervisor and department. (However, just like writing, short and concise is always better!)

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