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Burton DeWilde | USLHC | USA

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Thesis Advice

Well, I’ve finally started thinking about starting to start writing my PhD thesis. I’m told this is a big deal.

It is known that asking a grad student about the status of his or her thesis, or when he or she plans to graduate, is bad form — practically taboo — and until recently, I applied this golden rule equally to myself as well as people whom I didn’t want to aggravate. Alas, those care-free days are over! The harsh onset of fall (I see the clouds gathering for their annual, six-month layover), the obvious absence of summer students (CERN is notable for many reasons, not least of which is that, at the start of September, all the undergrads leave), and the near-completion of what I consider a polished analysis (my advisor would probably disagree) have all conspired to get me thinking more long-term. And this brought me, kicking and screaming, to my non-existent thesis.

Over the years, and particularly in the last week or so, I’ve accumulated a fair amount of “thesis advice” from more senior grad students and post-docs. Fun fact: Nobody wants to talk about their thesis while they’re writing it (unless to complain about how totally unfair life is), but once they finish, they suddenly become very eager to share their experience with others. This is what I have learned so far:

- Don’t start writing your thesis until you’ve completely finished your analysis and, ideally, published a paper on it. Then start with the analysis section, using your paper as a guide. Try not to plagiarize yourself.
- Write the experimental section of your thesis in the second year of grad school. What you learn about your detector will serve you well in your analysis. Try not to plagiarize others, as there are only so many ways to say “The LHC is a proton-proton collider with a center-of-mass energy of 7 TeV.”
- Why not dance it out?
- The hardest part of your thesis is just getting started. (CHECK!)
- The hardest part of your thesis is writing the introduction, so save it for last.
- The hardest part of your thesis is getting your committee to agree on a date for you to finish.
- Hide “Easter eggs” throughout your thesis, such as figures with dinosaurs used for scale, or phrases not normally seen in scientific writing. Find out how closely your advisor is reading.
- You can write a thesis in about six months.
- You can write a thesis in about three months.
- “I wrote my thesis in two months.”
- “I have to write my thesis in the next five weeks.”
- Start applying for jobs while you write your thesis, so by the time you’re done, you’ll have something to move on to. Don’t graduate before you have a job lined up — you can always delay! Some people do this for years…
- Your thesis title is important! Choose with care.

Okay. So what I’ve learned so far is this: Every thesis, and every person writing a thesis, is unique. What works for one doesn’t work for all. Inevitably, necessarily, you have to find a way through it that works for you, and doesn’t drive you (completely) crazy in the process. Talking to others — perhaps blogging about it? — can help, but in the end, your thesis is what you yourself make out of it.

Whew. The good news is, I have a working title! Leptoquarks: The Particles That Go Both Ways.

– Burton


13 Responses to “Thesis Advice”

  1. Best of luck. Where are you taking your PhD?

  2. Whoops, Stony Brook. A great place. Maybe you can moonlight on RHIC at Brookhaven.

  3. I consider my thesis my first novel. Largely conjecture, barely readable, not an original idea anywhere in the text…and read by a total of 6 people.

    On a serious note, it’s fairly easy to write once you can reference your own published papers. Get 2-3 peer reviewed papers under your belt and it practically writes itself.

    Good luck!

  4. Uncle Al says:

    The young recruit is silly — ‘e thinks o’ suicide;
    ‘E’s lost ‘is gutter-devil; ‘e ‘asn’t got ‘is pride;
    But day by day they kicks ‘im, which ‘elps ‘im on a bit,
    Till ‘e finds ‘isself one mornin’ with a full an’ proper kit.

    Gettin’ clear o’ dirtiness, gettin’ done with mess,
    Gettin’ shut o’ doin’ things rather-more-or-less;

    “The ‘eathen,” Rudyard Kipling

    You might drop the proper article given an eye toward posterity. When theory fails, theorists write more of it that fails a couple of decimal places more to the right. Presumably there will be more not better or (grant funding forbid!) different. Cygnus atratus is not a perturbation treatment of Cygnus olor… but it could be studied to become one.

  5. PIerre Maxted says:

    Before starting, decide what it is that you are trying to say (good advice for any writing). You should be able to sum up your “significant and original contribution to knowledge” in a sentence or two. You can then think of the thesis as an argument to justify that conclusion. This will give you a clear focus while you write up and a strong structure to the whole thing.
    Remember that you can be asked about _anything_ in your thesis during your PhD viva. This will help you to keep the content focussed and not include distracting digressions.
    Getting started on the write-up may be hard, but sometimes getting the thing finished can be worse. There will be many questions that occur to you as you write-up, many of these will have to be left as open questions for future research. Nobody ever “finished” a thesis, they just stop.

  6. josch222 says:

    While I’m sure you would never do that and it would be difficult to do in natural science, I have to add some advice:
    Never ever plagiarize!
    Cite properly!

    Here is an example what happened to the former German secretary of defense:
    He had to resign over that, but still claims he didn’t copy intentional 63% of all lines in his thesis from elsewhere. A few weeks ago he left Germany with his family and lives now in Connecticut.

    And he is not alone:
    (only available in German, but with the legend of the “bar-code” from the first link you get an idea.) The people are politicians, university teachers, managers or unknown to the greater audience.
    In the cases where the investigations of the universities are finished they lost their academic grade.

  7. Burton says:

    Thank you all for the advice! I knew if I posted on advice I’d get back more than I gave… ;)

    A minor clarification: “Try not to plagiarize” was meant lightly. Of course, *always* cite works if they merit the citation, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s more a word of warning on the difficulty inherent in writing about the same thing as many other people, but saying it in a way that is uniquely your own.

  8. Flip Tanedo says:

    I approve of the title.

  9. Sarai says:

    This post cracked me up. I have no advice whatsoever! :D

  10. Loretta says:

    I think I told you this when you were working on your SIP, too: write as you go. There are bound to be background things you could write about right now. Starting is hard, so just write some things, and you can figure out how to cobble them together later.

    And speaking of SIPs, didn’t you have one of the longest and best written in our department?

    • Burton says:

      So good to hear from you, Loretta! Yes, your advice from back then is still sound, and I would do well to follow it again. :)

      My SIP was certainly high in quantity, but I won’t make any claims on quality… This thesis will probably end up the same way. Once I actually *start* writing, I do have a hard time stopping!

    • Arjay says:

      You’ve got to be kidding me—it’s so trasnapretlny clear now!

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