How to write your Ph.D. thesis

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Writing a doctoral thesis—the culmination of years of research work—can be a daunting endeavor. But learning from those who have already tackled this task can help you make the process a little smoother. Science Careers asked recent graduates and current students to reflect on their experiences and what did—and didn’t—work for them.

How did you structure your thesis and approach writing it? How long did it take?

In my department, theses must be no longer than 175 pages plus front matter and appendices. They can be written in either the so-called “traditional thesis format,” which largely consists of a general introduction, a literature review, an overall description of the materials and methods, a presentation of all the results, and a general discussion—or in “manuscript format,” where the main chapters are written as standalone publishable articles between a general introduction and discussion. For my thesis, which I started writing just a couple of months ago, I have chosen the manuscript format.
– Leslie Holmes, Ph.D. candidate in biology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada

I wasn’t given any specific guidelines on the format or content. The most common advice at my university back in Italy was to look at an older thesis and put together something similar. I had published several papers, so I reorganized them into one coherent and logical story—writing a general background introduction, a chapter introducing my research topic more specifically, a description of the common instrumentation and data analysis, several adapted chapters presenting the original work of my research, and a general conclusion. Altogether, my dissertation was approximately 150 pages. The actual writing took 2 months—the time I had before the final submission deadline. I guess I managed to write it because I had to, the alternative being to fail the Ph.D.
– Eleonora Troja, associate research scientist in astrophysics at the University of Maryland in College Park who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

In the Netherlands, where I did my Ph.D., theses are commonly structured as an introduction, four chapters of original research work, and a summarizing discussion. Work that is already published or has been submitted does not need to be rewritten. I was quite lucky to have published two research papers and a review of my field that served as the introduction, and I was revising another manuscript that I had submitted to a journal. This meant that I only had to write one more research chapter and the summarizing discussion, which made the total time and effort to complete my thesis manageable. I started by making a very general outline with all my chapter titles. After getting approval from my supervisor, I made a more detailed outline for the two chapters I had left to write. This was especially helpful for the research manuscript. At the time, my co-author (another Ph.D. student) and I were still acquiring and analyzing the data. The outline helped us with our figures, although some of them started as mock figures that were completed later. Altogether my thesis was 135 pages, which is quite average for a Ph.D. thesis at my institution, and it took me approximately 150 working hours over a couple of months.
– Anoek Zomer, postdoctoral fellow in cancer biology at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research

My thesis had to be written in publishable chapters. I had a hard time keeping the chapters short enough for manuscript submissions, so at the time of defense my thesis—which consisted of three chapters plus an overall abstract for introduction—was 125 pages, but it ended up being trimmed after that. I focused on producing several manuscript-ready chapters rather than trying to include all the research work that I did. I first organized my data and results into a storyboard by printing all my graphs and laying them out on a giant table. This strategy helped me see how the pieces fit together, which results would be in or out, the best way to display the data, and where the chapter breaks should be. It also helped me identify a few gaps that needed to be filled back in the lab. Altogether it took about 1 year, including a couple months of maternity leave in the early stages, to write the whole thing.
 Sarah Gravem, postdoctoral scholar in marine ecology at Oregon State University in Corvallis

I decided to write my entire dissertation from scratch. I was already working on two manuscripts for journal submission, but both were collaborations, so it made more sense, and it was also easier, to tell the story of my Ph.D. just by itself. I wrote up my scientific results in four different chapters, with additional chapters for the introduction, materials and methods, and conclusion. For each of the results chapters, I went back to my original experiments and computational results to verify the findings and regenerated the figures and tables as required. I made a lot of notes and flowcharts describing what should go into each chapter to guide me during the writing, which later also helped me provide a quick overview at the beginning of each chapter and crosscheck information at the end of the writing process. As I completed the whole thing, I was quite surprised at how much I had written. My thesis was nearly 300 pages, and I almost got concerned about examiners having to read them all. But the “real thesis” was only about 180 pages, with the remainder being appendices, including my two manuscripts under review, references, and lists of figures and tables. I spent about 6 months putting it all together, using the 4-year duration of my stipend as a hard deadline to push myself to finish.
– Katharina F. Heil, research associate in computational neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom

My writing got squeezed into a two-and-a-half-week gap between the end of a major research project and my defense date, which had been chosen 6 months earlier. Luckily, my department allows students to use published papers as dissertation chapters and I had published regularly during my Ph.D., so all I really needed to write was my introduction. I chose to put together a brief history of my field. This required tracking down and reading a whole bunch of historical papers. Then I jotted down every thought I had on the subject, producing a bullet list of elements I wanted to cover, logical connections between ideas, references, and even just catchy phrases. Then I made a first attempt to compile all these thoughts into some structured text, focusing on whether I had sufficient material to support my points and how well they flowed. After that, I focused on honing the phrasing itself, using online resources such as spell checkers and grammar books as English is my second language, followed by a final overall polish. With all the figures and numerous supplementary materials, my thesis—which I’ve just successfully written, defended, and submitted—ended up being over 200 pages, which is within the norm in our department.
– Anton Goloborodko, postdoctoral fellow in theoretical biophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge

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