Tips for Submitting a Thesis, A Retrospective: Getting to the First Draft

Previously in my posts I’ve outlined my feelings on the general structure of writing a science thesis, and what the style and substance of each section should be. In this set of posts I’ll discuss my retrospective advice on the easiest way of writing a thesis.

1)   Write a Literature Review your first year

Quite a large portion of my literature review/introduction section of my thesis was written in the first year of my PhD. In my second year this was easily cut, pasted, reformatted, tweaked, and with the addition of a few paragraphs made up the introduction section to my transfer report (standard mid-way thesis in England).

In the third and fourth years, I updated the original literature review to include the latest papers and to incorporate changes in the experiments that had since been made. For example, genetically modifying cells to overexpress growth factors had originally been planned, but later changed to simply adding growth factors to the system. This meant that while the overall gene transformation section was scrapped, the section on each individual growth factor could still be used.

This preparation throughout the course of the PhD not only means that less writing needs to be done at the end, but also gives context on where your experiments stand in the context of the research community. This can both give you ideas for new experiments and also lead to the abandonment of experiments, which have been shown to be futile (though usually the former).

2) Set aside time at the end of the PhD to write and not do any experiments

Having time to focus on organizing the thesis and simply writing, without simultaneously carrying out experiments is a luxury. Some supervisors will allow you to do this, and others will not. Try and set a deadline when experiments will stop and stick to it. I was lucky in that I had a plane ticket to leave the country, and go into a different environment, but I know many students who either feel pressure from supervisors to concurrently work on experiments, or who, of their own volition, keep striving to get “just one more” piece of data to put into their thesis.

Continuing to carry out experiments leads to two main problems. The first is that research takes up time and focus. This necessarily draws time and focus away from writing and disrupts writing momentum. I made all the results figures for my thesis within 5 days. On a separate hot streak, I sat down and wrote the wording for the results section in about 3 days. That simply cannot be done if you’re spending hours out of every day working in the lab. Even when you sit down to write, either anxiety about the potential outcomes of those experiments, or plans for the next day’s work are going to be running through your head.

The second main problem with continuing to work on experiments when writing up, is that it detracts from the solidity of the thesis itself. If one is constantly trying to figure out where the current experiment is going to fit into the thesis, or even worse, where future experiments are going to fit into the thesis, then the format of the thesis never solidifies. It is much more difficult to write when the contents are not set. Particularly when working on a piece of literature, such as a PhD thesis, where all the components need to fit together, it’s important to be able to step back and see the larger picture; difficult when experiments, and sometimes whole sections may be missing.

3) Set deadlines and find people to hold you to them

It’s often easy to set a deadline and then watch it slip past. It’s harder to set a deadline and watch it slip past, if that deadline involves a meeting with your supervisors to go over a specific goal you had set to accomplish by that deadline. If you disagree with that statement, find someone who’s not as nice as your supervisor, someone you care about not disappointing, and set a deadline with him.

When I moved back to Oxford, my lab offered to set me up with a desk in the office where I could write. I decided against having any space in the lab, because I wasn’t doing any experiments, because the lab is outside of the city center and would involve a long commute, and because I felt like I needed a different writing environment (see Tip 4). This meant that the only time I came into the department was every 2-3 weeks, on a date I’d set with my supervisors at the previous meeting, to discuss my progress.

If you’re working in an office, and people see you sitting at your desk 9-5, then they automatically assume that you’re being productive during that time. If however, you’re working out of the office for 2-3 weeks without anyone seeing you, then the pressure is on you to turn up with product at the end of that time. Otherwise, they’ll assume you were sitting around in your pajamas all day catching up on BBC television shows.

Find someone, set a goal, and a date to review your progress on that goal. Turn up for the meeting on that date, having met your goal, and receive their approval. Repeat.

4) Find an environment that stimulates your writing

I do not write well in my dorm room. I procrastinate very well in my dorm room. I will tidy. I will wash the dishes. I will cook. I will surf the web. I will reorganize my entire closet and take pictures of each item to organize my wardrobe using an app on my iPad (yes, I did do that).

When I lived in DC I had to figure out the environment I needed for the literature review. I found that if I was trying to read a lot of papers in one day, that I would get easily distracted, no matter where I was, if I could check my email, etc. on the internet. I figured out that what worked very well for me was going somewhere without internet, with a stack of printed papers, and a highlighter, and even with my computer to write notes on, but somewhere without internet access. The Smithsonian Institutions museums worked very well for this – particularly the National Gallery and the National Portrait Museum. Both even have a café where you can get lunch and coffee, but no Internet access.

When I started writing in Oxford, I first tried to work in the Radcliffe Camera, one of the library buildings at the university. It’s an absolutely gorgeous building, and full of studious scholars, but I quickly found that the atmosphere was too stifling. I ended up writing the vast majority of my thesis in the café at Blackwells Bookshop on Broad Street in Oxford. This café offered me the four things I found necessary to stimulate my writing: free wi-fi, plug sockets for my computer (so that I wasn’t limited by battery life), coffee, and ambient noise. I’ve found that I actually find background noise comforting, and surprisingly less distracting than silence. In the library I felt pressured to work, in the café I feel relaxed and able to work. And the coffee doesn’t hurt either – after all, it’s buy 10 get 1 free!

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