During your PhD, there will be a lot of dead ends. And it will feel like you’ve been wasting your time. You might even think you’re doing something really cool at the time, write up a nice progress report on it, and then be told that your report is too long so cut it down before you ask anyone to read it. But fear not! (and delete not!) There still might be a place for all that work you did! The thesis (aka dissertation).

The thesis is often thought about as this thing you do at the end of your PhD, but there are things you can do throughout your PhD-ing that can make your life a whole lot easier when you get around to actually writing it. So I want to share some of that and also some things that I’m learning about writing a thesis and finding helpful while actually writing it. 

note: more on what the thesis is here: http://bit.ly/thesisfun but it’s basically a really long (couple hundred page) report, almost like a book that describes the research you did during grad school and how that research fits into the broader scientific picture. 

One of the key things to know is that a lot more gets to go into your thesis than gets to go into the paper(s) you end up publishing. You can’t put in everything you did in those 5-ish years (and don’t try to – instead try to be as concise as possible so your examiners don’t hate you), but you can put in a lot more than you can fit into a few-page journal article. Bottom line – all that stuff you had to cut out might find a home!!!!! So save everything along the way. Here are some things I’m glad I did and some things I wish I’d done. 

Glad I did:

I keep multiple copies of drafts when I work on papers and reports – I usually save them daily with the name underscore date. Eg. PR5_112020 for the draft of my 5th progress report which I edited on November 20, 2020. I usually end up writing way too much and cutting some out, but by saving multiple drafts I still have that final-draft-deleted content which might come in handy. 

I make “paper-style” figure legends for my figures that are just for my notes (and potentially lab meeting) – This has come in really handy when I now need to put them into my thesis (and paper). Having the experimental details already written down there keeps me from having to dig through my notes from years ago to find out what the heck I did. more here: 

  • note: when it comes to making figures, work with vector graphics whenever possible – this way you can scale without losing quality (I use Adobe Illustrator, but there are free alternatives like GiMP & InkScape). When you want to use them, you can then export different figure panels of that larger figure as separate images (e.g. using the asset export tool) you can mix and match and use them for different things (thesis, paper, slideshow presentation, etc.) 

keep detailed notes – I keep both a physical lab book and a digital version so that I can search

date and number everything – makes cross-referencing much easier

Wish I did more of: 

Get at least one presentable fig before you abandon a dead end. When you’ve reached a dead end (or at least think you have), the negative results you’ve gotten could still be meaningful. If something didn’t have an effect, that can tell you a lot. Or if something told you a little, but not enough or it just seems like some minor thing, you might feel tempted to just rush on to the next thing.  But that experiment might end up going in your thesis. So make sure you have at least one presentable figure from it so you don’t end up having to go back and redo the thing you abandoned for a reason just so that you can get an unripped gel or have less experimental error now that you’re better at pipetting and stuff. 

Realize that that sort of thing goes into your thesis. For most of my PhD, I’ve been focused on a published paper as the end-game, instead of really thinking about my thesis. So I’ve gotten despairing when things aren’t paper-able. But just because they don’t fit into that one story your paper tells doesn’t mean that they don’t fit into the even bigger story your thesis gets to tell! 

Spend time early on learning scientific grammar conventions and practice using them correctly… English is complicated – even for native speakers! Despite being born and raised in the US speaking English, over the past few days I have found myself watching videos and reading articles designed for people trying to learn English just to try to figure out when to use what word. So, people who are learning and/or have learned English as their second language – I have the upmost respect for you!  I found the NCBI Style Guide really helpful. Especially Chapter 3: Grammar Reminders and a Little Technical Writing https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK993/ and Chapter 5: Style Points and Conventions https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK995/#A262 

A lot of times, scientists seem to use long words and complex phrasing to try to sound smarter or more scientific (I know I’ve been guilty of this in my science writing, so tend to go probably too far opposite for my blogging!). But style guides actually encourage you to use simpler words and use the active voice (e.g. “we pipetted the liquid into tubes”) instead of the passive voice (e.g. liquid was pipetted into tubes”). 

Another English thing I wish I’d been better about – citations go before punctuation!

Don’t feel guilty about spending time reading the literature. Do it guilt-less-ly. It’s an important part of the PhD process  http://bit.ly/phdingstuff 

And take notes (and save references). A big part of the thesis is a sort of literature review. http://bit.ly/referencemanagementtools 

Final thoughts: 

Even though a lot goes into your thesis, don’t try to fit in every single thing you did. So some things will have to be left out. But that does not mean that the work you did on them was a waste of time. You might not appreciate it (and really likely didn’t appreciate it at the time) but all the “failures” and mistakes and artifact-chasing made you a better, more independent scientist. As I’ve looked back over my notes, including the 🙁 I’ve drawn in and the exclamation points and all caps I’ve used, I can still vividly remember the bad days and the good days and I realize that they all helped me prepare for what I’m doing now and what I hope to do in the future. 

Hope that helped someone. Speaking of help, see if your institution has a writing center. Today I met with our Writing Resource Center & they suggested something that should’ve been obvious to me but wasn’t & it makes things tie together even better in my thesis intro 🙂 Also gonna try to tie back to it in my conclusion… Have I mentioned I’m enjoying thesis writing? note: before anyone asks, it was specific to my project, not some general advice, sorry!

And remember, grad school might be rough, but it’s also a great privilege. So try to make the most of it. And enjoy the freedom of exploration and learning!

more on topics mentioned (& others) #365DaysOfScience All (with topics listed) 👉 http://bit.ly/2OllAB0 ⠀

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