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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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Things you should know when embarking on a PhD thesis

I list here the wisdom I have gained on my thesis journey. I hope that it may reach a PhD student in their time of need and help them through. It is long though, so consider whether reading it counts as procrastination ;-)

1.       It is not as easy as you think. Try not to go into it as naive and carefree as I did. I used to think I liked writing about what I love…how wrong I was!

2.       The day you decide to start writing up will probably be about a year or so earlier than you actually start writing up (case in point). While you have analysis to do, you will always have a good reason not to be writing. Try to fight this as early on as you can (but be aware that as you learn, what you write will change).

3.       Microsoft Word is just not going to cut it – if you want to stay sane and have a bug free bibliography, learn to use LaTeX. OK, maybe this is overstating it a bit. I know that some people do write theirs in Word – it can be done – but seriously, this may well be the biggest document you write in your life, so if endnote/layout issues have been known to get on your nerves writing a three page report, just imagine how maddened you will be 100 pages in. LaTeX all the way.

4.       Paint is DEFINITELY not going to cut it – invest in a decent image editor like CorelDraw. You won’t regret it. Alternatively, get your graphics-savvy fiancé to buy it for you and teach you to use it. Thanks Mr Phil!

5.       Writing your title pages, subheadings, and bullet-points of what sections you will have is an instant page booster. It may seem like a bit of cheap procrastination, but it is advisable, as getting your structure together at the start will help as you fill in the gaps later. However, your progress curve over the week you decide to do this has no bearing on the speed with which your page count will rise in the thick of the writing-up.

6.       You won’t be able to write what you don’t remember. It may sound obvious, but read up before you start writing your introductory sections. Your understanding will have dramatically improved since the literature review you did in your first year, so read up and get it clear in your mind so you have a good place to start from.

7.       You will have entire days/weeks/months where your page count remains the same and you struggle over the phrasing of one or two sentences (and these sentences will probably be edited out later after all). Don’t monitor your progress by page count or you will find yourself giving up on the hard stuff in favour of putting in more bullet points and title pages.

8.       A “NOT READY” figure template is very useful for when you know what needs to go there but it’s not quite ready. Just don’t get too giddy boosting your page count with them, and don’t forget to check they are all gone at the end!

9.       The thesis is a personal battle. It’s not a race to pip anyone else to the post, and comparing yourself to others will put you off. Be moral support for each other, and have a mutual understanding that no-one asks the question, “How’s the thesis going?”

10.   It is not as difficult as you think. It genuinely can be a big psychological challenge. At some point during writing up you are going to look at your half-written thesis and begin to believe the whole thing is impossible. It’s not. “Keep calm and carry on”. Getting past this point, in my opinion, is a big part of what makes a person worthy of a PhD.

11.   Your house will get very clean. You will do all the ironing, take up gardening, complete the Professor Layton games, check your emails more than 20 times a day, bake frequently, find time to plan your wedding, start being interested in trash TV, consider writing a thesis diary (case in point) and read articles about how to write a thesis excessively (sound familiar?). Yet you will feel too guilty to procrastinate in beneficial ways such as cooking a proper meal, socialising, leaving the house, reading a good (non work related) book, straightening your hair or job-hunting. When you hit this low point, it’s time to ban procrastination and set yourself a routine with daily goals and regular SHORT breaks. I treated myself to Wii fit yoga mornings, delicious afternoon snacks, Desperate Housewives evenings and a few hours at the weekend to consider my career.

12.   Getting a job before you have written up makes writing up very difficult but not impossible. Just make sure you are completely honest with your potential employers, prioritise your time carefully and be prepared to say goodbye to your Desperate Housewives evenings.

13.   Your eating habits will deteriorate into force-feeding yourself with Haribo and crisps with one hand whilst typing with the other. You will lose weight and your eyesight will get worse. You will no longer have a sense of the time of day. You will start to lose your marbles and common sense, because you can’t be a thesis-genius and a normally-functioning human simultaneously. A colleague said to me once that there is a certain level of pallor that a person has to achieve before their supervisor will allow them to submit a thesis. I reached this level a few months early.

14.   Your analysis will never be “finished”. Fact. Draw the line somewhere and learn to let go.

15.   A sense of humour is important. In aid of this, here is a list of the most amusing spell-checker suggestions I had for physics words not found in the average LaTeX dictionary:

  • Glueballs=bluebells
  • Regge=Reggae
  • SUSY=sudsy
  • Kobayashi=Oafishly
  • Maskawa=Mascara
  • UHECRs=ushers
  • Dimuons=damsons
  • Pomeron=pompom
  • Froissart=Croissant
  • Pogoshyan=Pogonias

Don’t you secretly hope one of them has snuck in by mistake?

16.   Comments/feedback will be trivial, until a month before submission, at which point your thesis will suddenly need to be virtually rewritten. Never underestimate how blind you are to clumsy writing structure. Because it is your own work, it is so hard to tell if what you have written flows in an understandable way, without a fresh pair of eyes or seven. And other people won’t know what’s missing until reading a complete draft from start to finish, so it’s the big issues like structure, consistency or poor explanation that may only be spotted late in the day. So give your thesis to anyone who will read it and take on board what they say, leaving enough time to exact a complete overhaul if necessary. The worst editors are too attached to their early drafts, so just go with the flow of feedback and comments. Try not to be disheartened – when you have done it, you’ll start to really love your thesis, I promise.

17.   You will be born again during the “last push”. When you think you are about one week away from submitting, you will be filled with energy you haven’t had since undergraduate exam days, and will find yourself able to stay up working 24 hours straight. While you have motivation, use it!

18.   When you think you are one week away from submitting, you have at least a month of work left. If you are lucky like me you won’t run out of optimism and you’ll work your socks off for 30 days straight thinking each week is your last.

19.   You will have forgotten something. To try to combat this, spell check thoroughly. Search your final document for stars, red text or “insert me here” remarks. Look at every page individually. Check each reference, figure and table. Give yourself a few days before submitting to do this. And then try not to cry over the mistake you inevitably find days later.

20.   Don’t forget to write your abstract, author’s contribution and acknowledgements. These can be left to the end. However, don’t leave your conclusions to the end – it’s dangerous!

21.   Final word count excludes headings, tables, captions, contents, appendices, footnotes etc. Try this site for a quick way to get this final number.

22.   Submission is a total anticlimax. After waiting for printing and binding, filling out forms, queuing for ages with the precious thesis copies in hand, you start to build the anticipation as it becomes real. Your mind wanders, and you imagine fireworks going off, the admin staff handing out champagne to everyone in the room and people shaking your hand and congratulating you. You hand it over and the man behind the desk says, “Thanks. We’ll be in touch about viva dates. Next?” True, it’s not all over yet. However, it’s a brilliant achievement, so go out and have a cocktail or 3 to celebrate anyway.

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4 Responses to “Things you should know when embarking on a PhD thesis”

  1. Chris says:

    Great post! However, for all of you with jobs lined up, don’t let this put you off. I found the opposite of point 12 (and, consequently, point 2). Getting a postdoc forced me to write up in three months (it is possible!) and pretty much prevented any form of procrastination, but made point 13 particular apt. So if you do have a job and have to write up, don’t worry, just think of it as extra motivation! And good luck!

  2. Zoe Louise Matthews says:

    Thanks Chris, this is a very good point. Once you’re employed there really is no room for procrastination, and that in itself can be a good thing! Just don’t expect it to be easy! ;-)

  3. Anil says:

    Thanks to share a very useful information that will to save the time.

  4. Chang Willis says:

    Thanks for your help with my personal research task! No worries, I defintely won’t be copying your posting but I found several valuable ideas with my paper. It really is interesting you were the second result listed for my search term.