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6 Tips for a “fast-track” thesis writing

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At some point that time comes for all of us. I promise you. The thesis writing is perhaps the most eagerly awaited period in the lifetime of PhDs. All those years, those efforts, the good and the bad times finally lead to the writing of the thesis: the beginning of the light at the end of the tunnel; the awakening of hope.

I have known many people to have different approaches to it and there isn’t one single perfect way of writing the thesis. Here, I want to tell you how I did it. Hopefully, my tips will help some of you to face your big writing adventure.

  1. First make your figures: figures are the core of the thesis. Whatever you’ll write is just a story revolving around them. So, first things first, get confident with a vector-graphic software if you have it in the lab (the quality of figures with Illustrator is really superior) and organise your data in figures. Each of them is a piece of your story.
  2. Write your story: as I was saying, your thesis is a story. What did I investigate and why? Which experiments did I perform and which results did I obtain? What is the meaning of my results and how do I contextualise them within the actual knowledge in the field? I personally found that the best way to wrap my mind around the thesis was to first make a table of contents with chapters and subchapters, including titles to already define their content. After this, the only way I have ever been able to begin a thesis is by writing the results. Having already the figures gives me a head start; putting in black and white what I did and what I observed comes naturally thereof. Subsequently, I could tailor the introduction more easily. After getting an all-round view of the topics and the current knowledge by brushing up my literature for the introduction, it seemed easier for me to extrapolate the information to contextualise my work and to discuss its relevance and future possible developments.
  3. Keep up with literature reading: try to read regularly. I know, this isn’t easy for many of us. I personally never managed to keep up with current literature, I admit it. Perhaps, if I had known earlier about Feedly I would have read more frequently. Anyway, it didn’t go that way. I organised the writing of the introduction into chapters, scheduling one or two days per chapter, depending on its complexity. This isn’t easy, because you need to be fully committed and focussed on it, to process the information you are reading and at the same time pre-analyse its role in your manuscript. So, if your literature is outdated (but not only), you will succeed in this only if you have an obsessive-compulsive(-ish) personality and you love lists, colour coding and crazy organisational schemes that you and only you can follow. Thus, I return to my original tip: keep up with your literature!
  4. Keep track of the literature you read: so, reading papers is important, if you hadn’t got it yet. Make notes of the papers’ content, make notes of what is important for you to remember, summarise its meaning and, if applicable, note down comments on possible discussion points or further developments. What is also important, is to have the right tool to organise your literature. I use Mendeley, which allows you to drop in the folder the PDF files of the paper and directly adds it to the list. Moreover, you can open the PDFs within the software, annotate them and add comments. I find it easier to use and more worthwhile than EndNote. And it is free!
  5. Read and proofread: read what you wrote several times, then let it sit for a while prior to proofreading it yourself. You will always find mistakes in your thesis, even after decades! To avoid missing mistakes while your brain is still used to the text you just wrote, wait some days before correcting a chapter. This will improve your chance of figuring what is wrong in your manuscript, or to realise that some sentences might not make sense the way you wrote them.
  6. Be tenacious, do not give up: writing the PhD thesis isn’t an easy undertaking. Avoid distractions. If you cannot focus at home because you’ll just end up binge watching your favourite TV series, go to the library. If you cannot focus in the library because there are too many people around, write in the quiet of your home. Find the right place and make those fingers dance on the keyboard! Make sure to take regular breaks too. Don’t sit for long times, it won’t help either your health or your concentration. Besides the small breaks, taking a walk might also help recharge your batteries to be ready to continue for the second half of the writing day. Try also to get fresh inputs to keep you intellectually stimulated: discuss with your supervising postdoc, if you have one, or your colleagues and collaborators about your work and your manuscript.

By following these steps, I wrote my thesis and had the first corrections from my supervising postdoc (not my PhD supervisor though, for that it will take much longer) in a total of five weeks. For your information, I wasn’t in the lab running between experiments and thesis writing but rather at home writing and only writing. I personally found that being out of the lab was the ideal condition: nobody could interrupt me or distract me, I could take my (very frequent) walking/bathroom/thinking breaks with no problem and be productive to the best of my possibilities. However, for many this might not be applicable. Try to reserve some writing-time during which you stay far from experiments and data analyses, and the lab, if necessary.

These tips are meant to help you find your way through the writing process. It isn’t easy to begin, but if you have an idea of how to organise your work it will be easier. Yet to be considered though, is the “S-factor”: your supervisor. All this hard work will lead to the production of a manuscript which is far from being ready for submission. You will still need to receive corrections from your PhD supervisor. Be ready because it might take long, very long, as PIs are usually extremely busy people. Again, do not give up: you’ve almost done it!

And do not forget the first law of thesis-writing: back-up, back-up, back-up and back-up even more!!! We all know someone whose only storage of all thesis-related files has been corrupted or damaged. If you are lucky, with about 1000€ and the professional service of an experienced IT you can partially recover your data. Avoid yourself the stress and panic by saving one new copy every day and saving your material in multiple destinations, on hard disks AND online back-ups. Good luck with your thesis, folks!

Written by Chiara Galante; Edited by Radhika Menon. Featured image: NGC/Design.

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