It’s early April and all the signs of springtime are here… rain showers, blossoming flowers and trees and most of all, the bustle of frantic graduate students preparing to write and defend their theses. This is a time in the academic calendar when students traditionally prepare to finish their PhDs and transition into postdocs or other career opportunities. But what should be an exciting and vibrant time in a student’s doctoral studies is often needlessly the most stressful. Many PhD students dread thesis writing, whether because of the daunting task of organizing notes, figures, illustrations, and other materials or the task of writing itself. But this does not have to be so. By following a series of simple, clear steps, thesis writing can be more manageable. Here are some organizational tips for planning and writing a quicker PhD thesis by incorporating Labguru’s online management system.
1. Make sure you are actually ready to write – get on the same page as your advisor
There’s no question that impatience and eagerness to graduate permeate most students’ fifth year or beyond in graduate school. We’ve all been there. However, getting your advisor’s final go-ahead to start your thesis is only the first step. Set up a series of meetings to discuss major thesis content, the story that you want to tell and any last obstacles or objections that your committee might bring up during your defense. I worked in a large lab, with a very hands-off advisor, so it was really up to me to take the initiative to get my advisor’s time, attention and input. Believe it or not, there are horror stories of students trying to rush their thesis, only to fail their defense, have to rewrite a thesis or delay graduation, which just exacerbates the stress. Tip: use Labguru’s research module with your PI to break down all your projects into past and present milestones. These are the major points of the story you want to tell in your thesis. Switch back and forth from the bullet view to the figure view to decide quickly whether you have enough supporting content to adequately defend your thesis’s central arguments.
2. Organize all materials first
When starting any ambitious project such as a thesis, organization is the difference between just carrying it out and carrying it out successfully. In the strictest sense, this means gathering all materials related to your PhD studies—and you can amass a lot over 4-5 years!—and weeding out what will be included in your thesis. Will you convert all of your papers to chapters, and if so, which ones? Start planning major figures from Labguru’s imagebank and sharpening them in Photoshop if necessary. Use Labguru laboratory management software to create a folder dedicated to your thesis, and gather all major data, photographs, scans, papers, and other pertinent data in one location. Moreover, use Labguru’s tagging function to tag all thesis-related items, experiments and resources. Schedule major committee meetings and thesis-related activities in your Labguru calendar. You don’t want to be knee-deep in Chapter 3 only to realize that you need additional experiments or data analysis.
3. Catalogue references and protocols for your thesis ahead of time
There are many aspects of thesis writing that are interesting—laying out your scientific story, supporting evidence and discussing the implications of your results. However, there are also the more tedious bits, such as referencing citations and documenting every experimental protocol performed during your PhD studies. Utilizing the organizational tools that Labguru provides can save you a lot of time as you integrate protocols and references into your thesis. Well before you write your thesis, begin migrating every reference into the papers database of the knowledge module—whether through a quick upload of a PDF, a link from PubMed or even a mass upload from EndNote. Start tagging papers according to specific projects, experiments or even thesis chapters (remember you can use multiple tags on items). As you develop and execute protocols, enter them into Labguru and the appropriate projects and experiments for easy export. When writing your thesis, you can simply export protocols and adjust wording in your thesis rather than writing from scratch. Small timesaving efforts such as these will accumulate and go a long way towards making the overall writing process more seamless.
4. Work with an official outline
You got approval from your PI, your committee is solidly on board, the last paper(s) have been submitted, you have your postdoc or job all lined up and you are ready to start writing your thesis. Great, right? Not for everyone. I have vivid memories of spending weeks sitting at my table, hands on the keyboard and staring at a blank Word document thinking, “Where do I even begin?” Writing what is essentially a 100-300-page book is a daunting task, one you shouldn’t underestimate. So treat it the same way a writer might treat a similar project—by starting with an outline. Even a short, 2-3 page synopsis detailing main concepts of an introduction, your main chapters and a conclusion will give you a tangible starting point. Remember, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In my case, having an outline meant having a place to start. Before I knew it, I’d written 10 pages, then 20, then 50… and the rest is PhD history. How to best accomplish this? Tip: use Labguru’s projects function to create a general outline starting with milestones and breaking down each milestone into experiments. Use the introduction section of each project to craft your overall introduction.
5. Collaborate with your advisor and committee during the writing process
Just as your advisor is an invaluable resource during the writing and graduation process, don’t forget to involve your committee before the defense. For one thing, they have to approve your final draft before you can graduate, so eradicate any major problems, disagreements or questions as you’re writing, not afterwards. For another, your committee members provide an important set of objective “outside” scientific eyes that might be able to provide fresh ideas and a different perspective on your thesis content. Ironically, inasmuch as students fear bothering their committee members, many professors wish students would ask them for more input, and are often happy to give it. Invite your committee members to Labguru. Use the dashboard to exchange daily and weekly activities (everything from experiments to uploads) with your advisor and committee, giving them an idea of your progress. You can also very quickly share thesis draft versions, figures and other thesis-related items by uploading them into the system, with the added benefit of archiving and backing up copies of all of your work.