When it comes to theses, I find that no one is as helpful as former grad students from your group. When I reached out to our lab’s alumni for advice, they helped me understand the overall process of thesis writing, estimate the time it would take to complete different parts, and watch out for potential pitfalls. I also downloaded and skimmed through their theses to get a feel for what the final product was supposed to look like. My PI had been heavily involved in writing each of the papers that went into my thesis, so the need for his input was less critical. Nonetheless, before sitting down to write, I had a conversation with him in which we figured out what the main theme of my thesis should be and which papers to use. Then when the time came to polish my thesis, many of my friends and colleagues, and my wife, who is also a biophysicist, provided invaluable advice.
I sent each chapter’s methods and results to all my committee members so that we could make sure that the science was complete before I dug into the key scientific messages. My PI made sure we were in touch and made himself available for questions. He also was an excellent and very thorough editor—having somebody who will rip your writing apart and help you trim and organize is critical. Nearer the end, my fellow graduate students also helped me cut a lot of words.
My PI got involved a couple of times: At the beginning when I asked him for advice about how to put a thesis together, and at the end for the final reading of the draft. But I still felt totally lost. So when my best friend told me that he was going to visit his adviser to discuss how to write his thesis, I did not hesitate to tag along. His adviser clarified the expectations of the graduating commission, gave us some useful suggestions, and reassured us that all would be OK. That meeting helped me feel less overwhelmed and more confident. A senior colleague of mine, who was an expert adviser for Ph.D. students at another university, also offered his help, and he reviewed every single chapter of my thesis. I would deal with the revisions while he was moving on to the next chapter, which made it much more manageable and saved a lot of time. At that time, I badly needed someone to tell me that I wasn’t doing something totally wrong or stupid.
I sent my chapters to my PI one by one as I finished writing them. At times, I would get some feedback relatively straight away by email or through Skype; other times, I would need to send one or two reminders. Setting deadlines for myself, and letting my PI know about them, made me more accountable and helped me stick to my schedule. When I needed concrete tips on specific aspects of the thesis and my PI was really busy, I would just stop by his office. At times, all I needed was a quick “Yes, you are moving in the right direction” to keep going. I also sent individual chapters to people whom I knew had an interest in my research, mainly for proofreading, and I tried to find native English speakers to help me with grammar and spelling. I notified them all ahead of time so that they would have some flexibility on when and how to give me feedback.
I was lucky to have a very caring supervisor who literally always had his door open. However, I tried to only request his input when I felt that critical decisions had to be made, for example when I had finished an outline or a chapter. He provided feedback mainly through track changes added to my drafts, which I found very convenient. When I received his input, I tried to deal with the revisions immediately, leaving the comments that required more work for later. By tackling the quick revisions first, I felt that I was making progress, which helped me stay motivated.