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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

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