Five tips for thesis writing

It’s what I call ‘Das meisterwerk.’

OK, I couldn’t resist it. There seem to be lots of these ‘the xx top tips for writing your PhD thesis’ posts around (I noticed this one via Twitter the other day which has some nice general tips). In the end I just had to write my own. If you happen to be reading this and genuinely wanting advice – rather than a bit of a laugh – you should know that I did a chemistry PhD, and so this post will be slanted subjectively towards that subject area. Just saying.

1. Write as you go.

This is a common tip, but worth repeating, especially for the tedious bits, like the experimental section. And do it properly. If you don’t, you’ll spend ages finishing off bits and looking up tiny pieces of information that would have been fresh in your mind when you did the experiments (up to 3.5 years ago), but now take 30 minutes of sorting through files of data to locate.

2. Understand what the examiners want to see from you.

A thesis can seem like a daunting prospect, so it’s worth getting clear in your mind what you actually need to achieve. This doesn’t need to be the best work of your life, especially since probably only about four people will ever read it!

If you understand what’s required of you, it’ll transform you into a much more confident thesis-writer because you will know that passing your viva is completely do-able. When the examiners look at your thesis and viva performance they basically want to see that you have:

  1. Actually done the work in your thesis (you have).
  2. Understand your research (you do).
  3. Critically assessed how your work fits into the context of other research (see below).
  4. Made clear the sources of information you’ve drawn on (have you referenced? Then, ‘tick’).
  5. The ability to put forward arguments in writing (your supervisor and labmates will help with this).

When you look at it from that perspective, it doesn’t sound too daunting, right? So as long as you haven’t copied someone else’s work, you understand what you’ve done, and have some basic research skills, you’ve covered most of these points. Hurrah! The hardest bit of the thesis (in my opinion) is critically evaluating other people’s work (point 3). That, and using it to place your own research in context. More on this below..

3. Write the introduction AFTER the results and discussion.

This might sound crazy, but trust me. You need to know what the main message of your thesis is before you can see where that message slots into the preceding literature. Know, really clearly, what your unique insights are by writing your R&D chapters first. Then you will be much better placed to decide what literature you need to write about, which you can merely need to be aware of and which you can forget about.

Then all you have to do is say what the strengths and weaknesses are of the relevant work in your field. And there you go: you have critically evaluated the relevant literature. And when you go in to your viva you can do so with confidence, because you are sure you’ve fulfilled the requirements to be a doctor.

4. Think carefully before using Endnote.

Endnote is just a real pain to use. The only advantage it seemed to have, for me, was that it meant you could find a reference on Web of Science and click a button to automatically add the details to your Endnote library.

But there are actually tonnes of other great reference management software systems out there, like Zotero and, even better, Mendeley (these are both free). Endnote cost me a chunk of money, and in hindsight I think I would have been better off without it.

5. Plan in things to do while you get other people to check your drafts.

You will definitely have to get one of your esteemed labmates or postdocs – and eventually your supervisor – to check your drafts. (This is why point 5 in section 2 shouldn’t get you down too much: you’ll get help!) But be nice to these people – they’re your friends – and don’t expect them to have it read overnight. Allow them a couple of weeks to get through it, and use the time to try planning your post-PhD life. I’ve known people who have felt pretty empty once the four-year project suddenly ends. Or just take a break; you deserve it.

So actually, writing a thesis that will hep you pass a viva is not so hard. I’m not saying it’s easy – it takes work, sure – but my landlord was wrong to assume “Wow, you must be a super brain,” on hearing I had passed my final exam. You do not have to a genius to be a PhD. I have seen plenty of non-geniuses do it in my life in the lab.

So what about all the (much) cleverer people than me who get PhDs and are geniuses? Is it fair that I have the same qualification as them? I’ve always thought that their publication record and how they conduct themselves in interviews will stand them in good stead. I’m sure that is true, but now having PhD under my belt – and knowing that I remain a non-genius – I can’t help but feel a modicum of guilt.

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6 Responses to Five tips for thesis writing

  1. Hi Josh, nice post with some sound advice. I’m in my first year (Jan intake) and am interested in what you wrote about Endnote. I use it as I managed to get a copy of a friend’s huge library of relevant refs to get me started (and it’s free) but it causes me no end of trouble. Whenever I try to import a reference I find myself holding my breath and mentally crossing my fingers. I feel like I know some of it’s absurd quirks now but am not convinved whether I can live with them for another 2+ years… From your experience, does either Zotero or Mendeley cope ok with importing thousands of references from Endnote? I tried papers for windows but it couldn’t cope with more than a couple dozen at a time!

    • joshuahowgego says:

      Hi and thanks for commenting! I don’t have any experience of importing thousands of references from Endnote to others management programs (I did persevere with Endnote until the end), so I can’t be of any specific help there.
      If I were you I would treat the library you have as a place to get ideas on what to read, but start building up your own library (in the most suitable program) yourself, which is specific to your project. There is not much advantage, I think, in having a library of ‘thousands’ of papers from somebody else (no matter how well-managed) if you’re not familiar with what they say. Hope that’s helpful.

      • Hi Josh, I see your point! I found “inheriting” the library useful as all the papers by my PI/research group and references for measures we use regularly were mixed in with all the other stuff that I don’t know. Making my own library is one of those things that sound like a brilliant plan but I can honestly envision myself spending a whole day (or more) trying to sort this out… Thanks for pointing me in the direction of those other programs – I will check them out at some point.

      • joshuahowgego says:

        Good luck!

  2. Good advice. One thing is it looks to me like you are using MS Word to write your thesis. I think that is a bad choice. What you need to use is LaTeX. This allows you to forget about formatting because at the end you just use a style. It has a bit of a learning curve, but it is worth the effort. If you look at journal papers, they all provide Styles so you can write with no style then if you have to change journals you just change styles. Pretty much all those papers you see in journals use LaTeX.

    I would say that all physics papers are written in LaTeX and most chemistry papers are in Word.

    You do not have to be a LaTeX wiz because there are tools out there, like Scientific Work Place that does most of the work for you.

    I fact I think that chemists should get away from MS Word for professional writing.

    • joshuahowgego says:

      Thanks Bryan. I agree with you up to a point. I tried out LaTeX myself in the first year of my PhD. It does have some great advantages and, actually, I think one is that it forces you to learn a new way of doing things, rather than mindlessly depending on Word.
      So I am with you up to a point. The reason I would recommend Word for writing a chemistry thesis (and I also think this is the reason that most chemists don’t use LaTeX for writing papers) is that you can use Chemdraw (the program used for drawing chemical structures) in-line within Word. That is, you can actually edit the structures in your chemical drawings in your Word window. I found this was much more of a pain in LaTeX.
      You can use templates and styles in Word and apply these to your document, and if you do that you really don’t have to spend too long messing around with formatting.
      A good point to raise though – I think there are some chemists who do use Word rather ‘blindly’.

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