Thesis Writing: Backing Up

Every PhD student, towards the end of her research, becomes just a tad (or very) paranoid that they’re going to lose all their research. Back in the day before computers, students had lab notebooks with all their results and doodlings, along with photocopies of relevant papers. If you go not too far back (only about 30 years ago!), we reach the realm of typewriters, and professional medical media artists. These days the student has word documents with all their plans and proposals, powerpoints from seminars and poster presentations, and countless PDF files of scientific papers. The medium may be different, but the concern is still the same.

What happens if I lose all my research?

What if the building catches on fire and my papers burn up?
What if the professional typewriter loses my copy?
What if my computer crashes?
What if someone deletes my files from the shared computer?

So what’s the solution? The solution is to back up.

We are often told that. But what does backing up mean?

I used to transfer my files between computers on an external hard drive. This meant I had all my files on both my work and home computer and the external hard drive. This worked until instead of working on the actual computer and then transferring files between computers I decided it was easier to just keep the most recent copy on the external. Soon I was only using the external and my computer files were a few months out of date. Then, one day, the external got knocked off a table and broke when it hit the floor. The files had to be restored by a technology company for $1600. This, obviously, was not what was meant by “backing up”.

After the incident when my lab paid $1600 to get a few months of data back, I started using “the cloud”. I started using Dropbox, because I realized I needed a way of syncing my files between computers, without relying on an external or USB. The bonus with Dropbox is that the synced files are also stored on the hard drive of computers with the program. This means I have the most up to date files on 2 different computers, should the online system go down for whatever reason. Additionally, I back up once a month to a “shock-proof” external hard drive; perfect, giving the precedent I set. The cloud is amazing. I can work on my files from multiple computers without the need to carry stacks of papers (the old-fashioned way) around with me, or even just a USB stick (the less-old-fashioned way).

I do have one special backup method for my thesis write-up. A USB necklace. If the internet dies, my hard-drive gets smashed by a bulldozer, and both of my computers go up in flames, I’ll still have my thesis around my neck.

That’s my thesis insurance.

Image from


3 comments on “Thesis Writing: Backing Up

  1. You can never have to many backups. Sounds like you learned the hard way. I personal like yourself backup my data to several different devices including my wireless hard drive.

  2. […] A humorous blogpost from a PhD student about the importance of backing up data while writing your PhD  – what the author calls “thesis insurance”.  The post includes an example of a near-miss data loss and its recovery (at cost), as well as an amusing cartoon from […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s