When I joined Quantum Diaries, I did so with trepidation: while it was an exciting opportunity, I was worried that all I could write about was the process of writing a thesis and looking for postdoc jobs. I ended up telling the site admin exactly that: I only had time to work on a thesis and job hunt. I thought I was turning down the offer. But the reply I got was along the lines of “It’s great to know what topics you’ll write about! When can we expect a post?”. So, despite the fact that this is a very different topic from any recent QD posts, I’m starting a series about the process of writing a physics PhD thesis. Welcome.
There are as many approaches to writing a PhD thesis as there are PhDs, but they can be broadly described along a spectrum.
On one end is the “constant documentation” approach: spend some fixed fraction of your time on documenting every project you work on. In this approach, the writing phase is completely integrated with the research work, and it’s easy to remember the things you’re writing about. There is a big disadvantage: it’s really easy to write too much, to spend too much time writing and not enough doing, or otherwise un-balance your time. If you keep a constant fraction of your schedule dedicated to writing, and that fraction is (in retrospect) too big, you’ve lost a lot of time. But you have documented everything, which everyone who comes after will be grateful for. If they ever see your work.
The other end of the spectrum is the “write like hell” approach (that is, write as fast as you can), where all the research is completed and approved before writing starts. This has the advantage that if you (and your committee) decide you’ve written enough, you immediately get a PhD! The disadvantage is that if you have to write about old projects, you’ll probably have forgotten a lot. So this approach typically leads to shorter theses.
These two extremes were first described to me (see the effect of thesis writing? It’s making my blog voice go all weird and passive) by two professors who were in grad school together and still work together. Each took one approach, and they both did fine, but the “constant documentation” thesis was at least twice (or was it three times?) as long as the “write like hell” thesis.
Somewhere between those extremes is the funny phenomenon of the “staple thesis”: a thesis primarily composed of all the papers you wrote in grad school, stapled together. A few of my friends have done this, but it’s not common in my research group because our collaboration is so large. I’ll discuss that in more detail later.
I’m going for something in the middle: as soon as I saw a light at the end of the tunnel, I wanted to start writing, so I downloaded the UW latex template for PhD theses and started filling it in. It’s been about 14 months since then, with huge variations in the writing/research balance. To help balance between the two approaches, I’ve found it helpful to keep at least some notes about all the physics I do, but nothing too polished: it’s always easier to start from some notes, however minimal, than to start from nothing.
When I started writing, there were lots of topics available that needed some discussion: history and theory, my detector, all the calibration work I did for my master’s project–I could have gone full-time writing at that point and had plenty to do. But my main research project wasn’t done yet. So for me, it’s not just a matter of balancing “doing” with “documenting”; it’s also a question of balancing old documentation with current documentation. I’ve almost, *almost* finished writing the parts that don’t depend on my work from the last year or so. In the meantime, I’m still finishing the last bits of analysis work.
It’s all a very long process. How many readers are looking towards writing a thesis later on? How many have gone through this and found a method that served them well? If it was fast and relatively low-stress, would you tell me about it?