20 Awesome PhD Writing Tips
1. Set you 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 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 written 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.
2. The Laptop trick
This is a fairly easy and motivating tip for writing your PhD thesis or dissertation. So what you do is place your charger as far away from you as possible (but not too far!!!) and start writing without your laptop cord plugged in. It’s now a race of time to see how much you can write before your laptop goes dead, but remember save regularly!
3. Write now, Edit your thesis later
Putting words on paper will be the biggest challenge during your dissertation and not editing what you have put to paper. Getting as much down as possible and letting those scientific juices flow will allow you to write a lot of your PhD fast. Next step is to take a break and reflect, only for you to return to what you have written and cleaning it up. Remember, editing is as important as writing as your PI/Professor will soon get tired if you aren’t serving up a PhD quality piece of work.
4. Talk your thesis out on Evernote
Sometimes it’s easier to talk than it is to write, using Evernote to type your speech might save you a lot of time and get your thoughts on to paper a lot more clearly. Again you will need to return to your Evernote recording as it will not correctly translate what your have said, some words like Phosphorylation or de-ubiquitination just won’t work, try use keywords in these instances to save time.
5. Place writing blocks in your calendar for writing your thesis/dissertation
If you haven’t got a calendar, get one, but don’t become preoccupied with it. Set up your week in advance and block book where you are going to spend time writing, give yourself time to relax, and remember putting in 12 hour shifts will get your nowhere fast, pace yourself.
6. 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 250Euro 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!
7. Talk with Professors/Post-Docs about your thesis
By now you will have probably spent the past 4-5 years working on your PhD and will have just spoken about it to a a handful of people. Talking about your project to other Professors or Post-Docs in your department will help you articulate what your project is about before your put pen to paper. It will also allow you to think logically about your project and how you need to tell the story during your PhD thesis.
8. Tips when writing your PhD thesis
When you discuss writing up you thesis 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 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.
9. Place figures in your dissertation
Sometimes it’s just damn difficult trying to convey what your project was about, how a protein complex formed or how signaling elements looped to create feedback. Creating diagrams/pathways of these complexes and signalling cascades will help your convey your message and give your examiner an easier time to understand certain concepts.
10. Stay on top of scientific publications
Just like the news you will need to keep up with scientific publications doing your thesis writing. Sometimes publications can add to your theories and overcome vagueness in the field. Also, when it comes to VIVA time knowing your field in depth will only get your through to the PhD finish line, so read read read!
11. Use Google Docs for feedback
Placing your thesis in Google Docs will allow you to maintain a single version of your PhD and prevent you from saving your thesis everywhere. It will also allow your Professor to access the copy, makes edits and hopefully hasten the process, especially if your Professor travels a lot.
12. Cite your sources religiously
Everyone reads then writes, but might forget where they got the data from or a certain quote, make sure to update your references as your write. Using Mendeley will help and here we provide some tips for using Mendeley.
13. 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.
14. Look at old posters or presentations for thesis content
During your PhD you will have probably attended a few meetings and presented a few posters. Using the figure legends and abstracts might save you time in putting together figures for your PhD thesis.
15. Write about what you know
Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up on sections in your PhD thesis due to lack of knowledge about a subject or an area or your just are finding it hard to convey your message. Go for the low lying fruit and write about content you already know something about, by the time it comes to writing about the hard stuff you’ll have the confidence to sail through it.
16. Don’t count words
As long as your PhD is full of correct information and your arguments support your data it doesn’t really matter how long your PhD thesis is. If you can, strive for 150 pages, this should give you enough space to tell your story and get your message across.
17. Follow the PhD thesis 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.
18. Accept help in writing your PhD thesis
Although your name will be on the front of the thesis countless friends and family will have helped you a long the way. When writing up don’t be afraid to ask people for help, they’ll understand and it will definitely remove some of the stress of running small errands.
19. Review your thesis/dissertation before submission
Read through sections you have written to look for spelling mistakes, bad sentencing and bad scientific phrasing. Reviewing 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.
20. Enjoy the day you submit your thesis
The day you submit should be one of the greatest days in your life. You will have spent a lot of time preparing your PhD thesis so why not put some effort into celebrating your achievement. You’ll only do it once so make it epic!
Mistakes you should avoid when writing your PhD thesis
Fill your Bibliography with references to blogs, web-pages 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.
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.
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.