From the Lab to the Laptop: Writing your Thesis

I finished my Thesis in 2010, but am reliving the process again as several friends are currently writing theirs.  Hearing some of their discussions brings both a wry smile to my lips but also a sense of anxiety as I remember the darker and more difficult moments.  This post is intended to give a few tips to those currently writing their own Theses or planning to do so soon- I consider them lessons learned from writing my own and reading others.  N.B. I write entirely here from a Science perspective as this is a personal reflection, I hope some of my comments are applicable to those in the Arts and Humanities but I don’t guarantee it.

The time comes towards the end of your Ph.D. that your thoughts move towards writing up that vast collection of data into something coherent- the Thesis. Lab time is over. Your place in the fumehood has already been taken by some fresh faced newbie, full of hope and optimism not yet crushed by endless repeated experiments, equipment breakdowns and late nights.  Now you need to find a comfy office chair to make your home for the next few months as you begin to type and type…

In an earlier post I described how I found my Ph.D. to be a mostly rewarding and enjoyable process.  However, writing my Thesis is not a period I look back on fondly.  I ended up taking what felt like an eternity (about nine months), and often it seemed I was getting nowhere.  In hindsight, many of my friends and colleagues have taken equal or longer periods to write-up, although the shortest time taken I know of was exactly eight weeks from start-to-finish.  My Thesis is also on the long side (over 300 pages including a lengthy appendix) and I’m still not sure if my last chapter should even be in it, but it’s too late to change now!

So why did I find the writing process such a drag?  Well, there were personal reasons- not longer after starting my Thesis, I split up with my then girlfriend and it probably set me back a month.  Then there was the fact that writing was taking me away from doing research.  I definitely had itchy fingers – when, half-way through writing up, I was asked to repeat someone else’s experiments for a paper, it was an opportunity I jumped at just so I could get out of the office!  Watching my friends writing up at the moment has allowed me to reflect on how I went about it and what I’d do differently now.  So here are a few tips:

Plan Ahead. Thesis plans can be invaluable ways to direct and focus the writing process by breaking it down into manageable stages.  Saying that, I wasn’t particularly good at sticking to them and my writing suffered from mission drift at times.  I’ve seen and used two approaches for planning Thesis chapters (or any paper/ report for that matter), either write down section headings or produce all the figures and tables first then, in both cases, fill out the explanation and discussions accordingly. 

Get your reference library sorted from the start (of your Ph.D.). Like many people I used Endnote (although I am sure there are those who will recommend NOT using it). Endnote does a job but has many problems associated with it- it definitely operates on the Garbage In Garbage Out principle.  Make sure your citation styles and journal term lists (examples downloadable here) are up-to-date and correct so that references are formatted appropriately when inserted into your document.  Also, go through author names with a fine tooth-comb, particularly non-English names with accents, umlauts etc., as they can become corrupted when downloading citations.  Different journals may initialise names differently as well (e.g. the German Professor Hans-Peter Steinrück downloads variably and infuriatingly as H., H.P. and H.-P. and Steinruck, Steinrueck and Steinrück).

Decide upon figure formatting and technical nomenclature early on. This can cause a real headache, particularly when making everything consistent throughout the Thesis.  Figures obviously need to be clear, well labelled with explanatory captions but avoid making them too big or cartoonish. I’ve heard over-sized chemical structures referred to as “Fisher-Price Structures”.  Of course, this is helped by being proficient in appropriate data analysis and graphics software and I recommend using on-line resources and chat rooms to help with technical problems.  Most scientific fields will have standard nomenclature and methods of displaying data and after three years you should be familiar with them.  Sometimes there may be no standard style, e.g. with the ionic liquids I studied, there was (and still is) no agreed upon method for abbreviating their names.  In which case, you are free to choose the style you want, as long as you as can justify your choice. You might want to consider the styles used in past publications from your group or even from those of your examiner(s).

Consistent language style. A recent post on the LSE Impact Blog bemoaned lazy scientific writing, including scientists adherence to the passive voice and the use of more complicated words and phrases when simpler ones would suffice.  Unfortunately, as dry as it is, we might be waiting a long time before we can escape the passive voice and personalised or more descriptive writing styles are generally discouraged.  One of the biggest challenges I found in writing my Thesis was achieving the balance between reporting observations like a shopping list and using overly long, verbose sentences that are impossible to follow.  If you’re unsure whether what you’ve written is explained clearly, get someone to proof-read it, which brings me on to my final piece of advice… 

Get used to being criticised. You spend ages writing your first Thesis chapter, send it to your supervisor or a colleague only for the proof-read document to be returned dipped in red-ink (or nowadays the red of Track Changes).  I’m not sure if it’s because we just don’t like receiving criticism or that, upon seeing all those corrections, we automatically assume it’s time to go back to the drawing board.   However, in most cases corrections look worse at first glance and take less time to complete than imagined.  Acquiring a team of “reviewers”  including your supervisor, post-docs and Ph.D. students is important.  Remember that those working in the lab may have a better “hands-on” knowledge of your research than your supervisor does.  Each person reading your Thesis will pick up on different aspects: some will be more pedantic about grammar, others about science and each will have their own opinions on style and formatting.  In the end, it’s your Thesis- if you don’t agree with someone’s corrections; you don’t have to use them.

Good things do come out of writing a Thesis.  Hopefully, you will end up with a doctorate at the end of the year.  It is also likely that by the end of writing you will understand your research field in more detail than at any previous point in your career.  Finally, the sense of achievement when submitting your Thesis is probably greater than that of actually passing the viva exam, so enjoy it!

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2 Responses to From the Lab to the Laptop: Writing your Thesis

  1. Bev Gibbs says:

    So it will actually end at some point? It doesn’t always feel like it :-/ Eyes Forward!!!

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