Thesis tips

In writing my thesis I have learned several lessons. Some were entirely useful, the majority of things just wasted my time. As I have now finished writing, I feel the urge to share them with the world.

Learn LaTeX. You’ll thank me later.

Did you know Adobe has no word counting tool? I didn’t. A LaTeX word counting tool –

Save up. It is nearly impossible to finish a Ph.D in three years and have a life. During writing, you will be poor.

This does not mean your life will be normal, you’ll lose touch with people and you’ll not see people enough, hopefully they’ll understand and still be waiting for you after you submit, but do make time to keep yourself sane. You’ll need a support network.

Your thesis should tell a story, as should your headings. Examiners should be able to tell what your story is going to be by reading your contents.

Learn the difference between different dashes. A single “-” is used for hyphenation. A double “–”  is usually used to indicate ranges, e.g., 1 — 2. A triple “—” is used for isolating text, e.g., It was a rainy day — unlike our usual weather — and the picnic was cancelled. They look good, are correct and going back to change them after you’ve written 100 pages using the wrong ones is a bugger.

Consider the capitalisation of your chapter and section headings. Just Because it is a Title, Chapter or Section Heading, You Do Not Have an Excuse to Forget Good Grammar. Also, going back to change them is a bugger.

Get your graphs right the first time. Make the fonts big enough, make the points big enough, use different colours and symbols. Make the lines thick enough. Make the ticks long enough. Have a descriptive legend. Have a descriptive caption. Use the correct notation in axes, e.g. 10^something rather than 1 e something. Make sure all the graphs in the thesis are formatted the same and worded the same as in the text. Going back to change them is a bugger.

Do not give graphs too much space on the page. It looks like you are trying to hide behind them.

Do not make graphs too small on the page. Your examiners will likely be old and have poor eyesight.

Bother to find the right symbols for things the first time, e.g. +/- and delta. Going back to change them is a bugger.

Decide at the beginning whether or not you will use the Oxford comma. Going back to change it is a bugger.

Tense! Learn what tense different sections should be in and make sure you write it in that tense. Going back to change it is a bugger. Now relax.

You’ll have noticed a theme here, the imbuggeration of having to go back and change things. It helped me to leave the re-reading for a while and then read what I’d ACTUALLY written and not what I thought I had.

Don’t try to write the story of your work following the actual order in which the events happened. This makes it look like you and your boss had no idea what was going on. Write it instead as if you were both psychic and results magically fell into place for three years. This is what your boss wants everyone else to think.

Don’t be surprised when the first draft comes back with nearly no comments,  this does not mean what you have written is good.

Don’t be surprised when the first draft comes back covered in red pen, your first draft will not be perfect. Budget time for rewrites.

Go with your gut. You should know what’s good stuff and what isn’t. You have to make the big decisions, your boss should not make them for you.

Ask other people to read your thesis as well. Nicely. Offer cake. Do not be disheartened when they find things that are wrong with it. There will be things wrong with it. Your boss is not automatically interested/ qualified in finding these problems, and neither are you. Budget time for these people as well as yourself. They have lives and are doing you a big big favour.

If you choose to print your thesis for binding yourself, only you can have the responsibility of ensuring there is enough ink and paper. Be assertive with the IT guy about changing the toner if there is enough ink for 700 pages left and you need to print 630. You will run out of ink. And he won’t be around to change it at 10pm.

Take some time to pick out a nice waterproof tub to put your printed thesis into. Indulge in some retail therapy and revel in the benefits of choosing the right tub when you can fit 5 copies into one tub at 217 pages each.

1000 printed sheets of paper are heavy. Bring a sturdy bag to put your awesome tub into.

Budget time for printing, binding, and reprinting and rebinding if necessary.

Budget for binding. It is expensive.

Find out and be sure of what the regulations are for examination entry, binding, and submission. These require time, paperwork, and signatures. Then ask someone who has direct experience what they REALLY want from an examination copy, and don’t be surprised when they don’t give a toss about the pretty blue cloth cover and gold text, they just want pages stuck together with your name on it.

Ask your examiners to confirm when they have received your thesis. The office cannot be trusted to ensure that your examiners get the blasted thing.

Your examiners cannot be trusted to understand the blasted thing. Be prepared to spend time in the VIVA repeating yourself over and over again, saying things that you explained ever so eloquently in the text. After all, the examiners may not have had time to read it properly (see above).

Do not be surprised when your boss has no time for you, but lots of time for other people.

Do not try to gauge your worth against others who have come before you.

You are not automatically entitled to a Ph.D just because there’s a thesis with your name on it, unless you can get loads of money from China.

Don’t have any sense of importance because you are writing up. You’ve fulfilled your data-providing duty and are now occupying a desk they would rather give to the next sap who comes along.

Don’t assume your boss will help you with submission, regulations, examination. Don’t even assume your boss will be there on these important days. You’ve fulfilled your data-providing duty and are now occupying email space and calendar space they would rather give to the next sap who comes along.

Don’t be surprised by people who have no idea what your thesis means to you, or just how much you had to break yourself to create it.

You may spontaneously cry a lot. This is normal.

Eat enough, drink enough, sleep enough. Procrastinate enough.

It’s only a thesis.

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About nicolajrolfe

Dr. Nicola J. Rolfe is currently looking for her next opportunity to make a big splash in East Kent industry.
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