Writing a 200-page Ph.D. thesis can seem like an insurmountable task. Especially after four or five grueling years of successes and failures, of experiments, writing papers and presenting your research to colleagues and thesis committees. But there are ways to make writing a thesis easier and less painful. Yes, it means being organized early on, but it’s worth it – trust me, I’ve been there – your future self will be very grateful.
Do your literature review early.
This will form the basis of your scientific question – the center of your thesis work. If you do it early, you will have a good understanding of the field and unanswered questions and this will help you form experimental plans. Keep a word doc or other file of notes and add to this EVERY time you read a relevant paper. I know what you are thinking – “Every time? Really?”, but if you make a quick note of a few sentences from each paper and tag each note with the reference you got it from, then all you have to do when it is time to write up your introduction is turn your notes into full sentences. So much easier than going back through five years of papers.
Use a reference manager.
I used (and still use for papers and grant applications) Endnote, but there are many other options. It doesn’t matter which one, but this will help you to keep all your references in one place, makes it easy to add them to your thesis file, to change and delete and update references in the text, and to format according to your institution’s thesis guidelines.
Read your institution’s thesis guidelines.
You may have a wonderful supervisor who sits you down and explains this to you. You may not. Ph.D. candidates are expected to work this sort of stuff out by ourselves. It would be awful to write a 200-page thesis only to find out that you could have submitted your published paper/s with a quick introduction and conclusion instead.
Write your methods section as you do experiments.
Yes, you may not include each experiment type in your final paper/s or thesis. In fact, you probably won’t include a lot of them, especially if you met with a lot of frustration and failure (which will arguably will make you a better postdoc). BUT, if you do write down your methods in a working methods document with all reagents and the manufacturers details, it will make your life much easier when you go to write your paper/s and your thesis.
Draw a line in the sand and finish your experiments before writing the results chapters.
Supervisors will always want you to do one more experiment or double check one last thing, but at some stage you have to say no. You have to tell your supervisor and your thesis committee that you are ready to write your thesis and then you need to go away and do it somewhere where people can’t interrupt you.
Do your figures then write the results chapters around them.
If you love making figures, more power to you. If, like me, you hate it, then get it over and done with first before writing the words that describe them. It will be easier to form a coherent story if you can take stock of all of your results and one of the best way to do that is to distill your results into figures.
Write chapter drafts and send them to your supervisor before moving onto the next chapter instead of sending him/her the whole thesis draft.
Of course, not every supervisor will agree to do this for you, but you can at least ask. It will save you time to have at least one chapter corrected before writing the whole thesis so that you don’t keep making the same mistakes in style or language.
Back up again. And in a third place. When I started my Ph.D., a postdoc in the lab told me a horror story about how her office was flooded the week before she wanted to hand in her thesis and she lost all her hard and electronic copies. That story stayed with me so throughout my Ph.D. I backed everything up on a hard drive, my institute’s server and even emailed things to my dad in another city. You can’t be too careful. You do not want to start four years of work all over again.
Don’t be afraid to document your failures.
Thesis committees and reviewers want to see that you have learned how to be an independent scientist during your PhD. This means learning to deal with failure so include that in your thesis write up.
Ask for help.
Doing a Ph.D. is hard. Writing a thesis is hard. So if you need help, ask for it, from other Ph.D. students in your institution or program, postdocs in your lab and your supervisor. Also check if your institution has a writing center or career development center. They may offer thesis writing help or seminars or workshops.