My PhD Advice, Part 6: The Thesis


OK, so my font of wisdom is drying up now – I’ll head towards the end of this series of posts (see here for Parts one, two, three, four and five) with the penultimate event of your PhD – the thesis.

OK, it’s been several years since you started, you’ve beavered away and collected enough academic stuff to get yourself a PhD.  Now to write the thesis.  In the best circumstance, you’ll have a well defined thesis plan, and lots of stuff already written.  If you haven’t, then you better get started, quickly! A lot of institutes will make sure you’ll not end up with a blank page staring at you.  In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll have had to write reports at various stages of your degree.  Hopefully, if you’ve been successful you’ll also have some published copy.

The first thing you should do is open that thesis document file, and start firing stuff in.  Even sticking in the section headings will take up quite a few pages.  Chuck in as much text as you can, but be careful about how you do it.  You’ll soon have a much more respectable word count than zero – don’t celebrate too soon, though.  That stuff from the report you wrote a year after starting is going to look pretty crappy now.

If you don’t have anything to fill that file with, then start with the easiest bit.  For scientists, this is usually the “Method” or “Data Analysis” sections (as these typically dominate the lives of most science postgrads).  Now, there’s lots of advice out there for writing (and your institute will have writing classes – take them!), so I’ll not bang on about it, but here’s my only piece of advice:

Write stuff.  Even if it’s crap, write stuff.

It’s very easy to get yourself snarled up about the quality of your writing as you write it.  It’s a fast route to writers’ block.  Writing classes often say that an author is composed of two people: the writer and the editor.  You have to let yourself be the writer, and get the words down on the page.  Don’t get too stressed about the quality of the prose.  Once you’re close to finishing a draft, then let the editor have a shot – then you can rip you stuff to shreds.  At least this way, you actually have something to rip to shreds.

Also, get a second opinion.  And a third one, for that matter.  Your supervisor should read the majority of what you write, but don’t be afraid to ask others for help as well – your fellow students, postdocs, etc.  The last two in particular are much closer to your current situation than senior academic staff – some of them will have passed their PhD several decades ago, and the demands of the examiners tend to change in that time.  Just be prepared to help out your friends too – remember you’re not in it alone.

The time that the write-up process takes is very difficult to gauge.  There’s a good chance you will spend the vast majority of the write-up doing introductory background chapters, and you’ll be surprised how long they can take.  My experience was that the writing process was quicker than the editing process (or at least it felt like it).  Remember this when allocating your time.  This is another important point – the better organised you are, the easier it will be.  Break up the thesis into lots of smaller tasks.  You’re not authoring a 50,000 word book.  You’re authoring a series of 500 word essays that happen to link together.

If I’ve missed anything, feel free to fill the comments box.  Happy writing!

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