Writing a doctoral thesis can be an overwhelming effort, but learning from those who have already addressed this task can help make the process a little more fluid.
Science Careers asked recent graduates and current students to reflect on their experiences and what worked – and did not work – for them.
Here are some testimonies:
How did you structure your thesis and how did you focus when writing it? How long did it take?
They did not give me any specific guidance on the format or content. The most common advice at my university in Italy was to see an older thesis and put together something similar. I had published several articles, so I reorganized them into a coherent and logical story, writing a general introduction, a chapter where I presented my research topic in a specific way, a description of the instrumentation and data analysis, several adapted chapters that presented the original work of my research, and a general conclusion. In total, my thesis was approximately 150 pages. The actual writing took 2 months, the time it had before the deadline for the final presentation. I think I managed to write because I had to do it, the alternative is to fail the PhD.
Eleonora Troja, scientific researcher associated with the Department of Astrophysics at the University of Maryland at College Park who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland
In the Netherlands, where I did my doctorate, the theses are usually structured in an introduction, four chapters of original research work and a summary discussion. The works that were previously published do not need to be rewritten. I was very lucky to have published two research papers and a review in my field of study that served as an introduction, and I was reviewing another manuscript that I had sent to a magazine. This meant that I just had to write one more chapter of research and a summary discussion, which made the time and the total effort to complete my thesis manageable. I started by making a very general sketch with all the titles of my chapters. After obtaining the approval of my supervisor, I made a more detailed sketch for the two remaining chapters to write. This was especially useful for the research manuscript. At that time, my co-author (another PhD student) and I were still acquiring and analyzing the data. The scheme helped us with our figures, although some of them started as simulated calculations that were completed later. In total my thesis was 135 pages, which is quite average for a doctoral thesis in my institution, and it took me approximately 150 hours of work in a couple of months.
Anoek Zomer, postdoctoral fellow in cancer biology at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.
My thesis had to be written in publishable chapters. I had difficulty keeping the chapters short enough to send manuscripts, so at the time of the defense, my thesis – which consisted of three chapters plus a general summary for the presentation – had 125 pages, but ended up being clipped after that. I focused on producing several chapters ready for manuscripts instead of trying to include all the research work I did. First I organized my data and results in a graphic script, then I printed all my graphics and placed them on a giant table. This strategy helped me see how the pieces fit together, what results would come or go, what would be the best way to show the data and where the chapter should be. It also helped me identify some gaps that had to be filled in the lab. In all, it took about 1 year, including a couple of months of maternity leave in the early stages, to write the whole thing.
Sarah Gravem, postdoctoral fellow in marine ecology at Oregon State University in Corvallis
I decided to write my complete dissertation from scratch. I was already working on two manuscripts to send the magazine, but both were collaborations, so it made more sense, and it was also easier to tell the story of my doctoral thesis on its own. I wrote my scientific results in four different chapters, with additional chapters for the introduction, materials and methods, and conclusion. For each of the result chapters, I returned to my original experiments and computational results to verify the findings, and regenerated the figures and tables as necessary. I made a lot of notes and flowcharts describing what should go in each chapter to guide me during the writing, which later also helped me to provide a quick overview at the beginning of each chapter and verify the information at the end of the process Of writing. When I finished everything, I was surprised at how much I had written. My thesis was almost 300 pages, and I almost worried about the fact that the examiners had to read it all. But the “real thesis” had only 180 pages, and the rest were appendices, including my two manuscripts in review, references and lists of figures and tables. I spent about 6 months putting everything together, using the 4 year duration of my stipend as a difficult deadline to push myself to finish.
Katharina F. Heil, associate researcher in computational neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom
My writings were reduced to a gap of two and a half weeks between the end of a major research project and my defense date, which had been chosen 6 months earlier. Fortunately, my faculty allows students to use documents published as thesis chapters and I published them regularly during my doctorate, so all I really needed to write was my introduction. I chose to put together a brief history of my field. This required tracking and reading a lot of historical documents. Then I wrote down every thought I had about the subject, producing a vignette of elements I wanted to cover, logical connections between ideas, references and even catchy phrases. Then I made a first attempt to compile all these thoughts into a structured text, focusing on whether I had enough material to support my points and how well they flowed. After that, I focused on perfecting the writing itself, using online resources such as spell checkers and grammar books, since English is my second language; followed by a definitive general review. With all the figures and numerous complementary materials, my thesis, which I have just written, defended and presented successfully, ended up being more than 200 pages, which is normal in our department.
Anton Goloborodko, postdoctoral fellow in theoretical biophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge
In my faculty, the theses should not have more than 175 pages plus the main material and the appendices. They can be written in the so-called “traditional thesis format”, which consists mainly of a general introduction, review of the literature, general description of the materials and methods, presentation of the results and general discussion, or in “manuscript format”, where the main chapters are written as independent publishable articles between a general introduction and a discussion. For my thesis, which I started writing just a couple of months ago, I chose the format of the manuscript.
Leslie Holmes, Ph.D. candidate in biology at Queen’s University located in Kingston, Canada
From whom did you get help or comments? How involved was your principal investigator (PI)?
When it comes to thesis, I find that no one is as useful as the former graduate students of their group. When I contacted the alumni of our laboratory to give me advice, they will help me understand the general thesis writing process, calculate the time it would take to complete the different parts and be careful with possible difficulties. I also downloaded and reviewed their theses to get an idea of how the final product was supposed to be. My IP had been very involved in the writing of each of the articles that were part of my thesis, so the need for their input was less critical. However, before sitting down to write, I had a conversation with him in which we discovered what should be the main topic of my thesis and what documents to use. Then, when it was time to polish my thesis, many of my friends and colleagues, and my wife, who is also a biophysicist, gave me valuable advice.
I sent the methods and results of each chapter to all the members of my committee so that we could make sure the science was complete before delving into the key scientific messages. My IP made sure we were in contact and was available for questions. He was also an excellent and very careful editor – having someone to fragment your writings and help you cut and organize them is fundamental. Also near the end, my fellow graduate students also helped me cut many words.
My IP got involved a couple of times: at first, when I asked him for advice on how to put together a thesis, and at the end, on the final reading of the draft. But I still felt totally lost. Then, when my best friend told me that he was going to visit his advisor to discuss how to write his thesis, I did not hesitate to go too. His advisor clarified the expectations of the graduation commission, gave us some useful suggestions and assured us that everything would be fine. That meeting helped me feel less overwhelmed and more confident. A high colleague of mine, who was an expert advisor to doctoral students at another university, also offered his help, and he reviewed each chapter of my thesis. I would take care of the revisions while he went to the next chapter, which made it much more manageable and saved a lot of time. At that time, I desperately needed someone to tell me that I was not doing something totally wrong or stupid.
I sent my chapters to my IP one by one when I finished writing them. Sometimes, I received relative feedback immediately by email or Skype; other times, I needed to send one or two reminders. Setting deadlines for me and letting my IP know about them made me more responsible and helped me keep my schedule. When I needed specific advice on specific aspects of the thesis and my IP was really busy, I simply went through his office. Sometimes, all I needed was a quick “Yes, you’re moving in the right direction” to continue. I also sent individual chapters to people I knew were interested in my research, mainly for proofreading, and I tried to find native English speakers to help me with grammar and spelling. I notified them in advance so they would have some flexibility about when and how to give me their opinion.
I was lucky to have a very careful supervisor who literally always had the door open. However, I only tried to solicit their opinion when I felt that critical decisions had to be made, for example, when I had finished a sketch or a chapter. He provided comments mainly through the tracking changes added to my drafts, which I found very convenient. When I received your opinion, I tried to deal with the revisions immediately, leaving comments that required more work for later. By addressing the quick reviews first, I felt I was making progress, which helped keep me motivated.
How did you achieve time and mental space to work on your thesis?
To focus on my writing, I had to stop most of my research, although I still did some minor tasks that did not require a lot of time and concentration, such as the release of computerized calculations. With respect to the work-life balance, my wife and I have an informal agreement, we try not to work after dinner and on weekends. Without adequate rest, productivity simply goes down and you end up feeling miserable. I can not say that this pact was applied during the period of writing of the thesis, but even in the most intense moments, we left the city at least once a week to take a walk in the nearby parks and nature reserves to rest.
Throughout the writing period, I maintained other activities related to work. Especially at the beginning, I remained active as a teaching assistant. Working with students was a pleasant distraction from my thesis, and it was motivating to see that my work was useful and appreciated by others, especially during non-rewarding writing times. I also worked on other research projects in parallel and went to several international conferences and a summer school on citizen science. These activities not only offered a well-deserved break from the thesis, but also reminded me how important and interesting my research was. I also made sure to stay active to keep my energy positive. Going to the gym always led me to write with a clear mind and a healthier feeling. Sometimes I tried to organize coffee breaks with friends to reward me with a piece of cake and good company. Other times, planning to visit a museum or try a new restaurant helped me keep going by giving me a good event to look forward to.
I stopped doing most of my fieldwork about a year and a half before my thesis, which was about the same time my son was born. After my maternity leave, I spent 6 to 8 hours a day writing from home, with my baby in my lap or sleeping next to me. Once I was in daycare at 7 months of age, I went to the nearby cafeterias to watch it and breastfeed it at lunchtime. Several times a day, he practiced the Pomodoro technique in which he set the timer for 45 minutes and did nothing but write, or emails, social networks, or other tasks. If I thought of something I had to do, I wrote it to do it later. In addition to combining writing with motherhood, other aspects of work-life balance were also extremely important to me. I did not work most weekends, and I made sure to go out and exercise or have fun every day. Putting aside the blame for not working was the key. Feeling bad does not get you anywhere, and only makes the experience not pleasant for you as well as the people you love or live with.
At first, it really helped to take a few days away from the lab and just write. I took advantage of the fact that my parents were on vacation and spent a week at home. I set realistic daily deadlines, and if I met them, I treated myself with a small reward, like a short walk through the woods or a picnic in the afternoon with an old friend. That week proved to be very productive, and I returned motivated to do the rest of my writings and experiments. After returning, I made sure to continue doing fun activities without having to accomplish anything first, since I realized that I should not be too hard on myself. Going to run between episodes of writing, for example, allowed me to distance myself from my thesis and helped me keep my perspective and generate new ideas. But these activities tended to be spontaneous; I did not want to put too much in my agenda to continue writing when I was on the move.
Emotionally, how was the thesis writing process?
It was really difficult, but I enjoyed it. Writing may seem like a very long and lonely tunnel, but the more practical, the easier it becomes.
Starting with the easy task of reformatting my published articles allowed me to make great progress quickly and feel in control of the writing process while reducing the stress of the approaching deadline. I had a more difficult time with the presentation of my thesis, although I really enjoyed deepening the history of my field. I was even happy to have to do it, in this way, I could prioritize it over other tasks. But the extensive reading made writing much more challenging than I expected, and the tight deadline made it less pleasant. Almost until the end, I felt that the task was too ambitious. To reduce stress at that stage, I reminded myself that it was a unique opportunity to focus on the history of the research rather than the research itself.
Writing my thesis was undoubtedly an experience that I enjoyed. This was the moment when I was finally putting together all my work for the last 5 years, and I was proud of it.
I think a good balance between work and life would have been important; pity that I did not keep it. All I could feel was panic. For 2 months, I basically did nothing but write my thesis and apply for a job. When I needed a break from the thesis, I switched to my job applications. This was one of the most miserable moments of my academic career. Fortunately, in the end I got the post-doctorate I wanted, which made me forget all the stress and frustration.
My PhD, including the writing period, was an emotional roller coaster. It was not always easy, but remembering that every little effort brings you closer to your ultimate goal is crucial to moving forward and surviving emotionally. And although writing was discouraging at times, I also found it motivating to see how much research I had done.
I was alone in the early stages of my writing, but it has been nice so far. This is probably because I will finally get something tangible from my PhD, which is immensely encouraging!
Do you have any other advice on how to make the thesis writing as fluent as possible?
My general recommendation is not to start at the last minute and not underestimate the time it will take. A thesis is not only about science, but also about how to present it. Although I had published articles that contained a large amount of material ready to be included in the thesis, I still had to work hard and spend a lot of time to reformat the text, and I even had to improve or update some figures. If I could go back in time, I would start writing my thesis in my first year instead of leaving all the work for the last year. The introductory chapters that explain their subject can be written before having any information, and in retrospect, I had all the scientific results to write two thirds of my thesis before the start of my senior year.
When I was studying for oral exams in my second year, I was very organized about writing my notes and the file of relevant documents, which was very useful when writing my thesis. It was also very useful that in the first years of my doctorate I had written dozens of grant proposals, which gave me the opportunity to think about how to present the big picture, as well as some texts that I could use as a starting point.
The section of acknowledgments, and the time it takes, should not be overlooked. I saw it as my best opportunity to summarize the unscientific part of my doctoral thesis and expressed my gratitude to everyone who helped me along the way, and finding the right words took me several days. I decided to leave it until after my defense, when I was able to write at a much more relaxed pace during the few weeks that I had to edit my thesis.
Beware of perfectionism. A doctoral thesis concludes an important part of life and there is a tendency to want to make it impeccable. In my case, a non-negotiable term provided an effective remedy. Other projects or life events can also impose deadlines. If you do not face imminent deadlines, self-imposed time limits for individual chapters will probably work.
Regarding the technical aspects, my department provides a LaTeX template that was very useful. Apply structured writing and deal with all the format so you can focus on the content. For example, it handles numbering, so you do not have to update the numbers of the figures every time you insert or delete a figure. And because LaTeX is based on plain text format, I do not have to worry about not being able to open my thesis file in a decade from now. LaTeX requires a certain amount of technical experience, but this can be overcome with a little effort and Google.
I am also a great admirer of cloud services. I used an online LaTeX editor called Overleaf that allowed me to easily share drafts with my supervisor. I started with a free account, and once I reached the storage limits I paid a small fee for 1 month of a “Pro” account. I was also pleased to discover that Mendeley, the cloud-based literature management software that I have used over the past decade, easily integrated with Overleaf, although Mendeley was interrupted the night before the presentation, extending my day at 6 a.m.
Try to find out when your most productive moments of the day are. Also, something that I unfortunately learned the hard way is to leave a roadmap before I stop writing, especially if it’s going to be for more than a day. Write a note about the thoughts and ideas or the findings and questions that you were reflecting on in your last work session so you can continue immediately where you left off. As for the writing itself, I attended some writing training camps that helped me get started. I also read some books about writing. One that I recommend in particular is The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.
Printing substantial parts of my writings and leaving a little time before reading them allowed me to correct and adjust things efficiently. And when the writing was not going as well as expected, I switched to the figures or the format application. In that way, I could still feel that I was moving forward. Even though you may often feel that progress is very, very slow, focus on trying to add some improvement to your thesis every hour and every day.