I just finished the initial submission of my PhD thesis, which I started writing on Jan. 7th. It was a tight fit; although it’s based on 3 published manuscripts, it still required writing a broad intro and conclusion (about 16k new words total) plus a lot of reformatting to make it into a cohesive whole.
As a PhD student, writing a thesis is anticlimactic: it’s necessary to graduate but few – if any – people will ever read it. It’s still very important IMHO, especially if you plan to stay in academia, as it’s a good occasion to reflect on the work you’ve done.
Timeline-wise, here is how this played out:
- Jan 6th: informal meeting with committee to agree on timeline and broad contents of thesis
- Jan 6th, evening: rolled up in fetal position sucking on thumb, contemplating difficult weeks ahead (j/k but barely)
- First week: met with adviser, found out formatting requirements, located old .docs with final submitted papers, several false starts on intro; played a lot of GTA V. Worked on manuscript not included in the thesis. Got off the grid.
- Second and third week: actually wrote intro; stopped playing GTA V. Worked on unrelated manuscript some more.
- Fourth week: got adviser’s feedback on intro, official thesis seminar with committee, wrote conclusion. Yet more unrelated manuscript work.
- Fifth week: formatting, references, hack job pulling in equations from Lyx file that wouldn’t convert properly, cleaned up everything. Finished writing, made PDF on Feb. 7th. Spent weekend with the girlfriend after getting back on the grid.
- This week: chasing signatures and checking off boxes. Did actual work. Submitted today.
As you can see, a month is a realistic timeline even when discounting the fact that in all likelihood, you’re not going to be 100% focused on writing. If you can maintain focus throughout, you might be able to shave a week or so from that time, but I think it’s unrealistic to write up your thesis in much less than a month.
Here are some tips to write your thesis fast. Some of these tips will require to think ahead several years in advance during your PhD; many are equally applicable to writing manuscripts in general; and a handful are specific to writing a thesis. There’s a couple of jokes in there too.
- There’s a key on your laptop that turns off wifi. Use that.
- Your phone has a button that powers it off. Also use that.
- Email should only be used at the start and the end of your day.
- (Politely) tell everyone to bug off while you’re writing your thesis – that includes your significant other, parents, friends, landlord, roommates, labmates, creditors, etc. Apologize in the acknowledgements. Exceptions: adviser, future adviser, committee.
- Writing a thesis is a rite of passage. Treat it like so. For instance, grow a thesis bear. Then every time you wake up and look at your big dumb face in the mirror it will remind you that you need to be writing your thesis. For the non-beard growers, one word: sweatpants.
- 500+ words a day, every day, no matter what, will keep you motivated and will give you momentum. Don’t shoot for anything less.
- If you can’t get any work done at our office, go the library, coffee shop, or home.
- And remember, you write your thesis by writing your thesis, not by thinking about it:
I made the statement years ago which is often quoted that 80 percent of life is showing up. People used to always say to me that they wanted to write a play, they wanted to write a movie, they wanted to write a novel, and the couple of people that did it were 80 percent of the way to having something happen. All the other people struck out without ever getting that pack. They couldn’t do it, that’s why they don’t accomplish a thing, they don’t do the thing, so once you do it, if you actually write your film script, or write your novel, you are more than half way towards something good happening. So that I was say my biggest life lesson that has worked. All others have failed me. — Woody Allen
- Talk to the powers that be way in advance about forms, signatures, etc.
- Read the guidelines on thesis formatting furnished by your university
- Talk to your adviser about the contents of your thesis
- Ask others who have just written their thesis for advice
- Use somebody else’s thesis as a reference for formatting, organization, etc.
Big to small
- Think about your intro and how you’re going to motivate the problem
- Write a tiny outline for your intro – general organization, section headings
- Write a bigger outline – points you want to make in each section
- Write a yet more detailed outline – subpoints you want to make in each section
- When your outline is 2 pages long, now is the time to write your intro
- Once written, let it sit for one or two days – do something else in the meantime – and then edit it.
- Repeat the same process for the conclusion
Get your manuscripts together
- Way before you start the thesis, after you’ve written and published a manuscript, save the final version – including reference libraries and figures – and back it up in at least three different places (email, DropBox, work computer, home computer, backup server, blog, whatever).
- Write your manuscripts in the same format, with the same software, and with the same reference manager. I had one in LyX with Bibtex, one in Word with Endnote, and one in Word with Zotero. Guess how much fun it was to get everything under the same format?
- If you haven’t done things properly several years ago, now is not the time to do it the right way: it’s time to do it the fast way. The following tips will probably make you cringe.
- Worse comes to worse – in my case, I couldn’t get the LyX file to export properly to doc – copy and paste the HTML of the manuscript on the publisher’s website into Word. Equations hold up surprisingly well.
- You can export .eps files to .png and get them into Word via Illustrator’s Save to Microsoft Office feature. Else: PrintScreen.
- Reformat the references in your original documents so that they adhere to a common format. For example, I used the Neuron template for my EndNote and bibtex-based documents.
Get your references together
Once the bulk of your thesis is written, and you’ve added references for the new content – via Zotero, for instance – , it’s time to add in the bibliography. If you don’t have everything in the same reference manager, putting together a common bibiography will be a pain. Here’s a hacky way of doing that:
- Import all the references in your previous manuscripts to your current reference manager. For instance, import Bibtex and Endnote files to Zotero.
- In a blank page in Word, use Cite while you write to add in, one by one, all the old references that you used in your previous manuscripts. This is necessary because in all likelihood, there will be duplicates in your Zotero library; if you add them one by one, Zotero will show you a reference that you’ve already used at the top, so you can prevent the duplication.
- Select that giant string of references, then make it tiny, and white.
- Insert the bibliography. Everything should look good and there should be few, if any, duplicate references.
- Hopefully you’ve used Word’s heading features all this while. This will allow you to generate a table of contents.
- Follow this guide for numbering sections – it’s not an obvious process,
- In the same way, generate a table of figures and a table of references.
- What was supplementary information in the original manuscripts can serve as appendices in the thesis.
- Do everything else: title page, acknowledgments, front matter, etc.
- Look at it one last time. Correct. Save as PDF.
- Get all the signatures and submit.
That’s all there is to it. Just do it.