For most scientists, writing their PhD thesis will be one of the most time consuming and complicated individual tasks they ever undertake. The most common approach taken by students is to bury their head in the sand, get on with the research, and only start thinking about the thesis when they absolutely have to—when the end of their PhD approaches. This obviously works, but it generally leads to a very stressful few months (yes, months) of writing.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, with the right approach you can make the whole process much easier—here’s how:
1. Take Full Responsibility for Your Work From Day 1
Take responsibility to become an expert in your area, produce good quality research, and write a competent PhD thesis. Your supervisor is only there to guide and mentor you, no matter what you, or s/he, might think.
Take time out every day to record what you’ve done. Five minutes spent writing a bullet point summary of the work you have done each day will build up into an invaluable record. From that record, you can look back on your thought processes on a given experiment or pick up small, useful pieces of information that would otherwise have been lost in the ether.
4. Write Yourself Monthly Progress Reports
This might be the most useful habit for anyone working on a PhD. At the end of each month, you are in a much better position to accurately summarize and reflect on your work during that month than you will be at the end of your studies. A series of well-written monthly reports will build into an easily accessible and detailed account of your work. This record will ease the PhD thesis writing process greatly.
5. Get into the Habit of Reading Every Day
Whether you chose to read one research paper or spend an hour reading every day, make sure you do it. Over the course of your studies this will build up into a significant amount and contribute massively to your knowledge and abilities, allowing you to become a world expert.
6. Summarize Papers as You Read Them
After you are done reading a paper, write a quick summary and keep a record of all your summaries. Months after reading a paper, you will have forgotten many of the details. Keeping short summaries of each paper will allow you quickly refresh your memory without having to re-read the original publication.
7. Build up a Bibliography as You Go
Every PhD thesis needs a bibliography. Build yours up as you go. You have two choices: enter all publications and books you read into bibliography software as you go or spend hours doing it all in one go at the end of your studies (hint: the former is easier).
8. Start Writing as Early as Possible
Even though you will be unsure of exactly what your thesis will contain at the end, begin writing what you can and as early as you can. The bulk of the introduction and methods sections can, and should, be written fairly early because a lot of the information included in them is unlikely to change. For writing the main chapters, you can begin early on with an outline of chapter titles, with bullet points of likely topics to be included. Over time, this skeleton can be built on with work as it is done. This is useful even if a chapter is not complete since writing a chapter from a rough or incomplete outline is easier than starting from scratch.
9. Read Other People’s Theses
Educate yourself by reading other theses. Many people do not actually read a PhD thesis until they are well into writing their own. This is a big mistake. You can learn a lot from other people’s theses about how to write your own.
10. Tune Your Mind
Every day be ready to do your best research by preparing your mind. Think about the experiments you need to do write your thesis and set your intentions for the day.
11. Give Yourself Peace of Mind
Setup an auto daily off-site backup for your computer, so you never have to worry about losing your data.
12. Get Your Head Out of the Books Regularly
Take time to think about your work, get a social life, and exercise daily.
My PhD is rapidly becoming a distant memory. Before nostalgia completely obscures my recollections of this chapter of my career, I thought I’d jot down some pointers for prospective and current PhD students. These are mainly based on things I wish I had done during my PhD, or mistakes I have seen others make. I […]
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