PhD Thesis writing tips

By Sean Mac Fhearraigh PhD

PhD thesis writing advice For most PhDs there can be huge optimism in the time it takes to write your PhD thesis. Leading up to Christmas I expected to wrap up my experiments and begin writing in the January and submit by the end of the February, Post-Docing by the start of March! However, in reality I was still the lab in April, not being paid and nowhere near submitting. Eventually I submitted my thesis in July (the 19th to be exact) with the realisation that boy did I do it the hard way! After thinking through the experience I decided to create the PhD thesis writing cycle which can also be applied to dissertation writing. The writing cycle is to help you plan this task, break your write-up into definable units and repeat these units for success so you can complete your thesis or dissertation within an acceptable time frame and a high quality. I know this approach won’t work for everyone, plus there is no “get rich quick equivalent” to PhD writing, however, hopefully some of these help and give you focus during your PhD write up.

Set your PhD thesis writing goals:

By the time you write your PhD thesis, a few years may have passed since you last composed a piece of scientific writing. Maybe you have wrote a paper in the meantime which will be a huge help and give you the right start to putting your PhD thesis together. However, if you haven’t wrote a significant piece of scientific writing in a long time this may affect your writing style and can result in an uphill battle to get words down on paper or the computer screen.

The PhD writing cycle

What can help is setting a reasonable goal of 500 words a day in the beginning which will help get your wordsmith juices flowing and hopefully keep you at the computer till something happens. Some days you may only write 400 words, maybe even 100 words or a sentence which I just about managed on may occasions during my PhD write up; however, some days you will write 2,000 words if not more and you will steam through your PhD thesis write up. Keeping your motivation while writing is extremely important and if you are not making significant progress, this can be a huge stumbling block. Sometimes graphing your word count can help to motivate. This is especially useful information when you have had a slow day and gives you a target to readjust to for the next day’s writing. Finding time to write while you are on the go will also be hugely helpful. If you have time while waiting for a bus or a train, why not write a few words and email them to yourself. Every little helps, especially in the long run and will get you over the line faster.

Set a thesis/dissertation submission deadline

In many cases you will be given a thesis submission deadline by your University which will be based on when your academic year finishes or for how long you have paid fees for. However, in some cases this is just a mythical deadline with many Professors keeping their students on as unregistered students to allow them carry out some more experiments or allowing them to delay correcting due to more “important” issues. If possible you should try and work towards a final deadline, so as to avoid problems with having to re-register. However, working towards a long term goal won’t be as easy as just writing and submitting on the day, you will need to incorporate more short term goals to keep your motivation up and project how hard you need to work as you come to the finish line. If possible try and break your chapters or segments of chapters into chunks and work towards writing those chunks in a defined period of time. Getting these chunks together and corrected will keep your motivation up and ensure you stay on the right track. Something you will also need to do is give yourself some breathing space at the end, you do not want to be getting corrections in the days or week before submission as you will still need to find the time to print your thesis, collate and submit it to the University. I had to print my thesis three times before I submitted the final copy, which was down to how I still had to make corrections and print. Printing your PhD thesis will also be an expensive day at the printers, if you can, try and put some money aside for printing and binding. It cost me ?ª250 to print mine, money I didn’t have aside as a student, so saving for this rainy day will give you some extra cash for partying that night!

Reading papers for your PhD thesis

During a lot of PhDs, reading papers doesn’t get the amount of attention it deserves. However, when it comes to writing your thesis you not only need to know your pathway inside out, but your disease model or associated pathways and the history of some parts of your research. Besides a lengthy introduction you will also need three introductory sections to each of your chapters or sections of your dissertation. This can result in a lot of reading and a lot of references, sometimes over two hundred. Long story short, this can lead to a lot of procrastination as finding a place to start or what to write next can be difficult. If you can, try and read from the start of your PhD as when it comes to writing up it will save you a lot of agony.

Take a break from thesis writing:

After reading ten papers or more finding a point to start or a good open line to a chapter can be tiresome. Allowing the data from the papers to settle in your head will allow you to run through some opening lines in your head and allow you to formulate some ideas or hypothesis regarding the subject.

Writing your PhD thesis:

When you discuss writing up with some of your colleagues, some will say all they have to do is format their figures and write up. However, collating and formatting figures can be one of the most time consuming parts of writing up. With blots to scan, crop and label, histograms to prepare and legends to write, composing figures can be a mammoth task. Preparing your data in advance, will also show you where you are lacking data, where you need a nicer image or where you need some more N numbers. Reviewing data in the short term will hopefully help with paper preparation once you have submitted. Obviously the most mundane part of the thesis is writing the materials and methods. A piece of work only subsequent PhDs in the lab will read or most likely no one at all. Made up from notes from your lab book, your materials and methods can result in you trawling through your books to find concentrations, numbers of cells or what concentration antibody you used. If you can, write down a concise version of your materials and methods. More than likely you will have to edit this come thesis time, but you will save time in sifting through notes. Adjusting your writing style will save you time in the long run. Identifying how your PI likes to phrase sentences and structure paragraph will reduce the amount of corrections you have to do and ease the relationship with your PI when writing up. Some PhDs theses will contain over 200 references. Structuring your referencing with Mendeley or some other referencing programme will save your time. Check out some great tips on how to use Mendeley…..

Review your thesis/dissertation before submission

Read through sections you have written to look for spelling mistakes, bad sentencing and bad scientific phrasing. Revewing your work will also help you to generate ideas for the next sections or chapters and determine what you need to write about next. Going for easy wins (i.e content you already have a good depth or reading) will help you generate content faster and remove some of the procrastination associated with writing. Finally, depending on how busy your PI is or how long they take to read your chapters, the review process can add weeks to how long it takes. Submit your chapters regularly to your PI for correction and critique.

Thesis writing schedule

If you click over to Anne Krook’s post here (Thesis Scheduling) you’ll find a great overview of managing your time and increasing your writing power.

Mistakes you should avoid when writing your PhD thesis

1. Fill your Bibliography with references to blogs, webpages and textbooks

This is a huge no no when writing your PhD thesis, even though you may have initially looked at Wikipedia for some information about part of your project or got some great information after following a hashtag on twitter, using information in your PhD thesis that is not from a primary researched published source is not acceptable practice for writing your PhD thesis. This can also be said for textbooks and blogs which might discuss or provide knowledge that is in depth and correct, however, it is not the primary source of published information and therefore may be subject to opinion or misinterpretation. When writing your PhD thesis it is essential that you use primary published information, hopefully from a reputable journal which supports your work or your argument. Using information from Joe Bloggs will not look good in front of your examiner and will result in you having to rewrite and resubmit your thesis.

2. Have numerous spelling mistakes

I know it’s not possible to submit a PhD without some spelling mistakes, you do want to show your Professor and your examiner that you are human. However, spelling mistakes in your PhD thesis should be kept to an absolute minimum, one per page would not even be acceptable. Remember you are submitting a gold-standard piece of literature, therefore the English within the PhD thesis should perfect. I understand that for many non-natives speakers this may be a problem. Even though you may have grasped speaking English, your writing might not be 100%. Using programs like spell check should circumvent this problem, even for native English speakers this is essential as our brain doesn’t always tell our fingers what to correctly write. If you can spell check your PhD thesis as often as possible, submit it to a colleague to proof read or a group of colleagues.

3. Submit a poorly formatted Bibliography

When reading through your PhD thesis your examiner will flick back and forth through your thesis to find interesting publications that they are not aware of or check to see if you have referenced their papers properly. If your bibliography is not correctly formatted, numbering or alphabetization or the authors is not correct, this will lead to frustration in examiners reading through your thesis. If possible use the bibliography formatting program Mendeley to avoid sloppy mistakes.

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