The last leg of thesis writing

Thesis writing is a long and hard process. When you think about it, you have been working (almost) non-stop on it for several years and the time has come to let it go and see how it develops in the real world. At the same time, it is difficult because, hopefully, some of your papers have been published so you have to revisit them and re-format them to the specifications of your university. It feels like you’re re-submitting a manuscript that has already been accepted. So it all becomes re-formatting. Since you have come all this way, did all this analysis, mulled over the results, written a great story, it seems like it’s a wearisome task to re-format everything. It’s painstaking, but just think, this is the last step to getting your degree!

I thought I would write about this because I’m at this point now in my thesis writing; my chapters are now either published or submitted. I’m so close to being done that I see the light at the end of the tunnel and it’s getting bigger (Figure 1). But I have been making observations about good practice for wrapping up your thesis and thesis writing that I hope any student or supervisor that reads may find handy. Most should be pretty obvious.

Figure 1 My workspace. Lucky to have big windows with lots of light.

Figure 1 My workspace. Lucky to have big windows with lots of light.

1- Start writing early. Have a “Final Thesis” file on your computer. This may/should seem obvious but write your methods as you go. You already (hopefully) have them written down in your notebook, why not type it up and have it ready, saved, in a “Methods” file. You can also work on a raw draft of your intro, save that into a “General intro” file, but for this you have to be flexible because sometimes projects change because a different direction may be more interesting. You can also start early on the “Acknowledgments”, the usual suspects will be in there anyway and fill it in as you go along with new colleagues as your program progresses.

2- Re-check your analyses. You always want to re-check your analysis. Especially if one of the chapters has been finished for a while, re-do the analyses to check whether you did it right the first time but to remind yourself of what you did. You never know, with all the new skills you have learned, you may have learned more appropriate analyses.

3- Try to minimize repetition. This is especially true for manuscript theses (the ones where chapters are written as separate papers). Because you thesis should have an overarching theme, each chapter will be linked to that theme and there will be repetition especially in each chapters introduction and (maybe) methods. Since your general introduction will cover the broader context, you should go into each chapter to reduce the repetition. It will make the thesis flow better. I think it’ll make your examining committee happier because they’ll have less to read and they’ll notice that they’re not reading things over and over

4- Keep it simple. We, as humans, have a tendency to want to look smart and use big words. Sometimes simpler words are actually the ones that convey the story you are trying to tell better. Of course you have to use appropriate terms for the field you study but there is no point in using big words for the sake of using big words.

5- Leave yourself a lot of time to write. A thesis cannot be written in a day, especially a good thesis. Like a good paper, it takes time to let the thesis develop. Be conscious that you will go through several drafts and don’t get discouraged that you have to re-write sections of your thesis.

6- Exercise and take breaks. At least go for a walk and get some air. Or to the gym to let out some steam. Your brain needs it.

These pointers are not huge Eureka moments, and there are more pointers I’m sure. But I think if you keep these in mind it’ll make your life through the writing process easier, your defense go more smoothly, your examining committee happier, and hopefully fewer edits in the final stage! I guess I’ll find out soon.

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