Thesis/dissertation writing need not be a multi-month ordeal that makes you pull your hair out and roll up into a fetal position. The trick is to get a head start, set goals and deadlines, and work steadily—not feverishly—toward that ultimate satisfaction of handing your magnum opus to the graduate school. The first three sections of this article are devoted to ways that you can get way ahead of the curve from the very beginning of your graduate program—BEFORE push comes to shove.
1.) GET STARTED RIGHT AWAY—YES, REALLY.
NEWS FLASH: you can start working on your thesis or dissertation almost from the moment you decide on a lab/advisor.
In the beginning, there were papers…
The starting point for any newbie graduate student is to read boatloads of relevant papers so that you can learn your advisor’s repertoire of experimental techniques or areas of interest, what has been done so far in the field, what questions remain to be answered, and where your research will contribute.
Keep in mind that these seminal papers will be heavily integrated into your thesis or dissertation:
a) The introduction, in which you give all the pertinent background to set the stage for your research and make everyone on your committee (and beyond!) understand why it’s important
b) Data chapters, where previously published data lend validity to your findings, or are at least taken into consideration as you interpret your data
c) Your conclusion, where you demonstrate how your entire story fits in with and adds to the framework of what has been done in the field so far…Or (yikes!), explain how your revolutionary, paradigm-shifting work has turned the field on its ear, opened up new avenues, and blah-blah…you get it.
Starting the literature search…
Let’s back up. How do you find these papers? Hopefully, your advisor will provide you with a few of the original papers that got the ball rolling. Find out what papers cite them. You can perform Boolean searches in Pubmed and Google Scholar (great tips explaining how to do this can be found at Boolean.pdf).
Note that in Pubmed, you will need to go to “Advanced Search,” where the builder constructs the Boolean search for you (Figure 1). Pubmed offers another great strategy: you can set up citation alerts that notify you via e-mail every time one of these pivotal articles is cited. Pubmed has a tutorial on how to do this here: myncbi.html. You can control how often you receive these alerts, or adjust later based on how inundated your inbox becomes.
FIGURE 1. PubMed’s Boolean Search builder.
Google scholar offers a similar citation alert service. Go to Google Scholar, http://scholar.google.com/, and click on “Alerts” (see Figure 2). From the next screen, click “Create Alert” (Figure 3). You can set up alerts based on Boolean searches (Figure 4), or by author . Also, since many principal authors have varied interests, you can customize by using a combination Boolean/search-by-author approach (Figure 5). Enter your e-mail address, and you’re good to go.
FIGURE 2. Setting up alerts in Google Scholar. First, click “Alerts.”
FIGURE 3. Setting up alerts in Google Scholar, part 2. Next, click “Create Alert.”
FIGURE 4. Setting up alerts in Google Scholar, part 3. Setting up your search criteria using Boolean operators.
FIGURE 5. Setting up alerts in Google Scholar, part 4. The combined Author/Boolean operator search in Google Scholar.
ORGANIZING your boatloads of papers…
Let’s back up again. Realize that unless you are a genius, you will probably have to revisit these nuggets of wisdom several times during your graduate career, particularly when you have a better grasp on the research. Also, unless you are a genius, you will find yourself wondering, “What was that paper that explained________?” This is where being organized will save you TONS of time.
I am a big fan of saving paper and not printing out reams of articles to be read and then stuffed into filing cabinets. I highly recommend a citation management program, such as Endnote. Find out which program your advisor uses (see if he or she will let you install the program on your computer). Some departments even offer this software free of charge. Not only are all of the citations in your library searchable, but you can also file them into folders based on the subject matter (Figure 6).
FIGURE 6. Filing papers in EndNote–beats a filing cabinet!
As you do your literature search, you download the citations into your citation manager. Most e-journals have a “download to citation manager” link. Google Scholar also recently added a very nice “Cite” function that lets you import citations directly into your citation manager (Figure 7).
FIGURE 7. Google Scholar’s Cite function.
You can also search PubMed from within Endnote, which saves you several steps (Figure 8). In addition, the program has a lovely feature called Cite-While-You-Write that links with Microsoft Word. No more the parenthetical “need citation!” statements in your text. With the CWYW feature, you can pull up all of the papers in your Endnote library that pertain to your text, and with the click of one button in Word—voilà! Citations inserted (Figure 9)! You can format the bibliography later, when your behemoth is completely written—yet another convenient, automatic feature.
FIGURE 8. Searching for papers from within EndNote.
FIGURE 8. EndNote’s Cite While You Write function.
2) Intermediate documents: the thesis/dissertation proposal and grant applications
Think of your thesis or dissertation proposal and any grant applications as being a big first step toward the first chapter of your final document: the introduction. Preparation of these documents entails a thorough review of pertinent literature to set the stage and explain the rationale for the research you are proposing. So by this logic, you should have taken a very large bite out of the first chapter of your thesis or dissertation by the time you take your preliminary exams.
3) Methods: you do them every day, why not take the time to write them up?
In the STEM fields, theses and dissertations require a chapter devoted to methods. You have your own set of experimental and/or statistical techniques that you presumably learn from your advisor, then troubleshoot and tweak based on your specific needs. You know how you write detailed notes on the conditions of each experiment every time you do them in your lab notebook? (RIGHT?!) This is all information that you can take even an hour per week to write up in your thesis document. Check out the previous papers from your advisor to get ideas on wording, and then re-work it so it’s your own (citing relevant papers, of course). By the time you actually for-real start writing your thesis or dissertation, your methods chapter can be practically done already!
4) After the greenlight…careful planning and sticking to a schedule!
You’ve received the greenlight to “start” writing your thesis or dissertation from your committee. Now what? Well, you have a good chunk of the intro done already, right? Your chapter 2 is practically done as well! Be sure to check out the deadlines not only for getting your document to your committee, but also for depositing it with the graduate school. Wouldn’t it stink to defend your thesis in April, but not graduate until December because you missed the deadline?
Now, I will tell you a huge time-saving tip. Before you start (well, continue) writing, find a colleague who has recently turned in their thesis or dissertation and still has their final word document kicking around. Ask your colleague for permission to use their document in the following way: you are not going to copy anything in that document…EXCEPT THE FORMATTING.
You know the part where the clerk at the grad school pulls out the ruler and measures your margins, page number position and other random stuff while you hold your breath? All of that will already be in your colleague’s word document. Why re-invent the wheel? Just use the document as a template—delete ALL of the text and leave the margins and other formatting alone. (Of course, check over everything carefully before you deposit your document!) Anything you’ve written up to this point can easily be pasted into the template.
Also, before you get down to the serious writing, sit down with your advisor and come up with a plan of action. I like using a story board approach to planning papers: a few lines about what will be covered in each chapter, then rudimentary sketches of the figures that will be included and how they will be designed. This gives you and your advisor a visual aid so that you both know you’re on the same page—this will spare you much pain later.
Next, agree upon deadlines: “I’ll have chapter 1 to you by________.” If you have been working ahead on your document and your reference library as described above, it should take you about a week to finish up chapter 1 (your introduction) and chapter 2 (methods). Can you do a chapter per week for each of the remaining chapters? Put the deadline in your calendar, and stick to it. Then, based on how much time you are still expected to spend in the lab, decide a set number of hours per day that you will spend on nothing but writing.
I would suggest asking your advisor for blocks of time to hole up at the library, or wherever it is that you do your best work. Then do it. You will be working weekends, no doubt, but try to work steadily and avoid all-nighters. Adjust as necessary—you may need to have an additional meeting with your advisor to request more time away from lab.
Do have a colleague read your document installments before you give them to your advisor. Run spell check and do all the basics before you offer up your baby to the red pen of death. If you really struggle with writing, or if you are not a native English speaker, there are services out there that will clean up your document on a by-the-hour basis. Spare your advisor the frustration of correcting simple errors.
Now, a caveat.
Just because you have a deadline that you are sticking to like an embedded tick does not mean that your advisor will adhere to similar deadlines in getting you edits and feedback. Many advisors, bless their hearts, are procrastinators (erm…busy with grant deadlines, writing their own papers, editing, and other important stuff that advisors do). Don’t sweat it…the ball is now in your advisor’s court, and you will now move steadily on to the next installment.
Which is due by __________in your calendar.
3) BACKUP, BACKUP, BACKUP!
And this time I do mean “backup”—as in your document. There is NO excuse for losing your thesis or dissertation. You should have MULTIPLE copies saved: on your computer, in Dropbox, on an external hard drive, etc. These copies should be clearly marked with dates in case you have to revert back to a prior version. They should also be marked after being edited by your advisor or others.
4) The final weeks
This will be a stressful time unless you are extremely lucky. It usually goes something like this: “Move this section to page 89.” Then two days later: “Put it back where it was.” Your advisor is stressed too—so try to take everything in stride.
If at all possible, try to get your thesis printed off for your committee a day or two in advance. This allows a cushion for the inevitable printer meltdown or copier jam. In my case, I got my final edits at 11 pm the night before my dissertation was due. Luckily, there weren’t a lot of changes to make, and there were no printer fiascos. I finished the edits by midnight and had the whole thing printed off by about 2 in the morning. Although I won’t say that I wasn’t completely stressed out and about to melt down myself…
You want your dissertation to look nice for your committee and to be easy for them to handle and write in. I’m a fan of bindings—I used three ring binders with pockets so that I could also include a CD with a copy of the document. But that’s not for everybody. Spiral bindings are just as good, but again, require planning because you’ll have to take your stack of documents somewhere like FedEx Kinkos. Even though it can be like herding cats to track down all the members of your committee, try to personally deliver your documents to them—not only for security’s sake, but to remind them of who you are.
I kid. Sort of.
5) After the defense
You may have loads of changes to make to your thesis or dissertation based on your committee members’ comments. You feel elated and relieved to have your defense over with. After the effects of the all-night post-defense bender have worn off, try to work diligently on the edits so that you don’t run up against the grad school’s deposit deadline. Make an appointment for a pre-check of your document to catch any formatting errors well in advance of the deadline.
Once you have deposited your thesis or dissertation with the graduate school (congratulations!), investigate how many bound copies you need. Most departments require a bound copy, as will your advisor. Then you need one, of course, and then there’s your parents…
University towns usually have at least one book bindery in addition to services on campus. There are online services as well—but be careful to check their ratings. You generally have to figure up the number of color-copy and high-resolution pages you have versus regular black and white. You send this estimate along with a digital copy of your dissertation and your selections for binding color, lettering, etc. There is something deeply satisfying about finally holding that beautifully bound book—that YOU wrote—in your hands at last.
In summary, it is possible to write your thesis or dissertation in under a month with good preparation, organization, and planning. The end result makes it all worthwhile. Keep in mind that if you move on to a postdoc or any other position that requires writing papers and grants, these same strategies apply.
About the Author:
Michelle Capes earned her Ph.D. in Physiology in 2010 and was an AHA-funded postdoctoral fellow until 2013, when she transitioned into a private sector role as a scientific recruiter. As such, she has a unique perspective on the challenges facing academicians looking to transition into industry–both from the side of the job hunter, and as a recruiter trying to match candidates’ skill sets with available industry positions. Michelle has now ventured out on her own to found Adeptify, the brain-child of her dual passions for career advice and freelance writing