Thesis-writing freedom…

…by Katherine / from Canada / PhD Biomedical Sciences 2015-2018

The view of the construction site that is George Square. They have started some work behind our building, but luckily the trailers have not completely blocked out my view on George Square Gardens.


I’m free!

Well almost, not quite yet. I submitted my thesis on December 14th (yay!) and have been basking in freedom ever since! I have truly been taking advantage of my newfound free time to enjoy the festive season and do lots of yoga (I want to ensure that I have enough zen in reserve for when it comes time to prepare for my viva). I’m also using this time off to do a bit of travelling. When else am I going to have this much time off?

I spoke to so many fellow PhD students who submitted their theses. They all told me that submission was a bit of a let down. The last 3-4 years in the lab is boiled down to a 200-ish page document. You go to the College Postgrad Office to drop off your precious thesis, so it can be given to examiners. Then nothing. Actually nothing. Not a bad nothing, but a strange nothing. After so many years of early mornings, late nights, data analysis, successful experiments, somewhat less successful experiments, it can feel troubling to not really have anything to do. All of my friends who went through this described a feeling of emptiness, not quite happiness, maybe a wee bit of relief? They all expressed how they had just been fed up of proofreading their thesis and how they wanted it over and done with. Since I wrote my thesis in such a short time (see next section), I wasn’t yet fed up of it. I felt content when I left my thesis at the Postgrad Office, albeit perhaps a little tired and maybe verging on aimless. It is such a momentous occasion, however I feel like the emotion of it all only hits a bit later. I still haven’t fully realised that it is done. Perhaps this is because I haven’t had my viva yet? I’ll keep you posted. For now I am enjoying my free time away from the lab.


Thesis writing tips

Solely based on the time that it took the other PhD students in the lab (6 months-15 months), I’d say that I wrote my thesis quite quickly. I made all my figures in October. I wrote part time in October, while finishing up lab work (about 2 weeks). I spent another 3.5 weeks writing full time. I have to thank my supervisor for being so good at sending feedback for every chapter within less than 24 hours. I could not have powered through it without all of his comments, suggestions and support. Thank you Mike!

I do write quickly and luckily I had already written an MSc thesis, so I had a bit of practice for writing my PhD thesis. Here are my recommendations on how to power through writing a thesis. It probably won’t work for everyone, but it might be a useful stepping stone.

1-Make all your figures ahead of time
If all your figures are made, you have a good idea of your results so you can start to think about your discussion and tailor your reading for your introduction appropriately. Additionally if you show your supervisor your figures at the beginning, you won’t be stuck tweaking figure legends right before submission. If you make all of the figures for all of your chapters at the same time, it also helps with consistency.

2- Get out of the lab
Although it wasn’t hard to balance adjusting figures while running experiments, I found it difficult to find enough time to sit down and write during incubation periods. I was a lot more productive when I sat in the library and spent all day writing. I was lucky enough that I was still receiving my stipend and could afford to take time away just to write. This is not the case for everyone.

3-Read first
I found it easier to read 5-6 papers, related to what I was going to be writing when I started out my day. That way the literature was fresh in my mind and I didn’t have to stop writing when I was on a roll to find some more information (though this did inevitably still happen).

4-Just write
This part can be tricky. I know a lot of people who like to work on sentences until they are just right before moving on to the next one. I would recommend just sitting down and writing. I would sit down and write from 10h30 to 19h30 every day taking 15 minute breaks every 60-90 minutes depending on how it was going. You will write sentences that don’t make sense, but you can always fix those later. I think that starting is difficult, but once you get going, it is easy to continue writing and eventually everything will come into place. I personally started with my methods and results chapters. I then wrote the final discussion because everything was still fresh in my mind and I thought up an interesting model to explain my results. I then wrote my introduction which probably took the longest as there was lots of additional reading involved.

5- Word processors are your friends
Did you know that you can insert figure legends in MS Word that can then link up to a table of figures? If you style your thesis correctly, MS Word can also create a table of contents complete with hyperlinks! I would highly recommend learning to use these features as they do really come in handy, especially when your table of contents is 7 pages long…

As I said there are so many different ways to write a thesis. This one worked for me. I hope that I have provided some useful information. Good luck to thesis writers everywhere!


Now back to enjoying my freedom with a cup of tea followed by a lovely yoga practice!

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