A Survival Guide to Thesis Writing

Dr. Seth Jones

Originally published September 2007.

Dr. Seth Jones and, his advisor, Dr. Kerry Ressler
Dr. Seth Jones and, his advisor, Dr. Kerry Ressler

How do you write a thesis? Easy, get a laptop and vast quantities of coffee. Actually, you’re probably closer than you think to finishing your dissertation, even if you haven’t started.

Writing your thesis begins in the lab. Taking detailed lab notes (my own note-taking was spotty) will help. Likewise, keeping a log on papers you have read and ideas for future experiment will serve you well in the background and future directions chapters.

If you’ve already written your thesis proposal or NRSA, you have a start on your background. Papers you have published or are preparing for publication can form the backbone of your chapters. Just remember that much of what you wrote two years ago is probably already outdated, so use your previous writing as a first draft for your dissertation, not the final copy.

When you sit down to write, it’s easy to get distracted. To avoid this, set both a daily and long-term schedule. For my daily schedule, I would first read a few papers or flip through a folder of previously-read papers. Then, I would free-write for one hour without regard to correctness. If I could not remember a reference or detail of paper, I would not stop to look up anything on Pub- Med; instead I would use parentheses within my paper to write down search terms for later. If I wrote a conclusion that I was unsure of, I would insert question marks rather than stopping to re-analyze my data.

This way, I would then have a list of keywords to search, data to check, and papers to print. I would spend the rest of the afternoon revising. The remainder of the day would be spent organizing my next day’s work by obtaining any new papers and going over data. Finally, I would make sure to back up my work on the university servers.

Your long-term calendar should have as many specific dates as possible for minor goals. You should agree with your friends and labmates on deadlines to turn in each chapter to them for review. Don’t worry if your preliminary reviewers are not experts in your field – their purpose is to keep you on task and make sure the first draft is grammatically correct and logical. Save your more technically proficient reviewers for later drafts.

Writing a dissertation is a long and sometimes frustrating process that can take a long time. But with some planning and forethought, you can make it as painless as possible.

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