Here is my view on science PhD thesis writing as taken from mine and my fellow students experiences:
1. Denial. When you start a PhD you try to ignore the idea of thesis writing because it seems like a big scary mountain that has to be climbed.
I don’t know how to write a thesis, but its OK because it is 3 years away… Anyway, I need to get some data first.*Busy working in the lab.*
2. Acceptance. At some point you finally accept the inevitable. In my case it was when my supervisor asked me to write a thesis plan during my third year.
In Y (decreasing period of time) I will need to write a thesis. Argh! I still need more data! *Carry on working in the lab.*
(Repeat until Y = zero.)
3. The first sentence. You start writing, hopefully around about the time you planned to start (although experiments always seem to take longer than planned…) It seems to take ages to write the first sentence but once you have it you are off!
4. Realisation that thesis writing isn’t so bad after all. Although it can seem daunting at the start, once you are writing you realise that after 3+ years of research, reading literature and other training you do have enough to say to write a thesis. You may even enjoy it 🙂
5. Getting feedback from your supervisor(s). You may experience the irrational fear that your chapters will return covered in red markings with your supervisor thinking you are an idiot. Remember: however many comments your supervisor makes on your thesis, they wont think you are an idiot.
6. Editing your chapter drafts. Removing, adding, finding that extra reference, correcting spellings of words you really should have been able to spell the first time.
7. Repeat 4,5 and 6 until all chapters are done.
8. Final formatting. A dull task but needs to be done to turn your writing into one document that meets your university’s requirements for submission. Contents pages, lists of figures, references etc.
9. Printing and binding. Hoping you won’t spot any typos now it is too late to change them…
10. Submission. Feeling of relief now its over (apart from the viva and corrections). After 4 years of work, the “low key” handing in of your thesis to the graduate office seems a bit of an anticlimax. Where is the fanfare or fireworks?
I really enjoyed writing my thesis. My experience was fairly unusual in that I wrote a substantial part of my thesis while still in the lab. This was not by choice – I had to wait for some plants to grow (no joke!) before doing some experiments. Daily juggling of lab work and experiments was tricky at times but by keeping writing and lab work separate (by writing in the library) I managed it fine.
Here are my two pieces of advice to other PhD students. These things helped me but everyone is different so feel free to ignore if you wish:
- Write something before your main “block” of thesis writing. This could be some/all of your methods, a results chapter, or whatever you like. Yes, you may need to update it later but by writing something the whole thing will seem less daunting. Also, it will give you an idea of how long it takes you to write.
- Put together as many figures as possible while you are still experimenting. Figure-making can be done around lab-tasks (i.e. while waiting for a gel to run etc.). Not only will this save you time later it will also flag up any experiments where you (or your supervisors) may be unhappy with the quality of the data you are presenting and may want to try repeating the experiment to improve it.
So, what next for me?
I will be staying in the lab for a few months to finish off some experiments so I can publish the results from my thesis. I’m really glad I can stay on for a while as it means I should be able to round off my research a bit more nicely (although no research is ever really finished.)
After that? Watch this space…