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    How to write your Ph.D. thesis

    By Elisabeth Pain

    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

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    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

    Who did you get help or feedback from? How involved was your principal investigator (PI)?

    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.
    – Goloborodko

    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.
    – Gravem

    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.
    Troja

    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.
    – Heil

    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.
    – Zomer

    How did you make time and mental space to work on your thesis?

    To focus on my writing, I had to stop most of my research, though I still performed some minor tasks that did not require significant time and concentration, such as launching computer calculations. Regarding work-life balance, my wife and I have an informal pact that we try not to work after dinner and on weekends. Without proper rest, productivity just drops and you end up feeling miserable. I can’t say that this pact was enforced during the thesis writing period, but even in the most intense times, we did get out of town at least once a week for a walk in nearby parks and nature reserves to decompress.
    – Goloborodko

    During the entire writing period, I kept some other work-related activities going. Especially at the beginning, I remained active as a teaching assistant. Working with students was a nice distraction from my thesis, and it was motivating to see that my work was useful and appreciated by others, especially during unrewarding writing times. I also worked on other research projects in parallel and went to several international conferences and a summer school on citizen science . These activities not only offered a welcome break from the thesis, but also reminded me of how important and interesting my research was. I also made sure to stay active to keep up my positive energy. Going to the gym always brought me back to writing with a clear mind and a healthier feeling. Sometimes I would try to arrange coffee breaks with friends to reward myself with a piece of cake and good company. Other times, planning to visit a museum or try a new restaurant helped me keep going by giving me a nice event to look forward to.
    – Heil

    I stopped doing most of my fieldwork about a year and a half before my thesis was due, which was about the same time my son was born. After my maternity leave, I spent 6 to 8 hours a day writing from home, with my baby on my lap or sleeping next to me. Once he was in day care at 7 months old, I went to coffee shops nearby so that I could pop over and nurse him at lunchtime. Several times a day, I practiced the Pomodoro Technique where I’d set the timer for 45 minutes and not do anything but write—no emails, no social media, no other tasks. If I thought of something I needed to do, I wrote it down for later. In addition to combining writing with motherhood, other aspects of work-life balance were also extremely important to me. I didn’t work most weekends, and I made sure I got outside and exercised or had some fun every day. Letting go of guilt about not working was key. Feeling bad doesn’t get you anywhere, and it just makes the experience unenjoyable for you and the people you love or live with.
    – Gravem

    Early on, it really helped to take a few days away from the lab and just write. I took advantage of the fact that my parents were on holiday and spent a week in their house. I set realistic daily deadlines, and if I met those I treated myself with a little reward, like a short run through the forest or an evening picnic with an old friend. That week proved very productive, and I came back motivated to get the rest of my writing and experiments done. After I returned, I made sure to continue doing some fun activities without necessarily having to achieve something first, as I realized that I should not be too hard on myself. Going for a run between writing spells, for example, allowed me to get some distance from my thesis and helped me to maintain perspective and generate new ideas. But these activities tended to be spontaneous—I didn’t want to put too much on my schedule so that I could continue writing when I was in the flow.
    – Zomer

    Emotionally, what was the thesis writing process like?

    It was really hard, but I did enjoy it. Writing can feel like a very long, lonely tunnel, but the more you practice, the easier it gets.
    – Gravem

    Starting with the easy task of reformatting my published articles allowed me to make a large amount of progress quickly and feel in control of the writing process while reducing the stress of the approaching deadline. I had a harder time with my thesis introduction, though I really enjoyed digging through the history of my field. I was even happy that I had to do it—this way, I could prioritize it over other tasks. But the extensive reading made writing much more challenging than I expected, and the tight deadline made it less enjoyable. Almost until the very end, I felt like the task was overly ambitious. To reduce stress at that stage, I kept reminding myself that it was a unique chance to focus on the history of research instead of the research itself.
    – Goloborodko

    Writing my thesis was for sure an experience that I enjoyed. This was the moment when I was finally putting together all my work of the last 5 years, and I was proud of it.
    – Zomer

    I guess a good work-life balance would have been important; too bad I did not maintain it. All I could feel was panic. For 2 months, I basically did nothing besides writing my thesis and applying for jobs. When I needed a break from the thesis, I switched to my job applications. This was one of the most miserable times of my academic career. Luckily, at the end I got the postdoc I wanted, which made me forget all the stress and frustration.
    – Troja

    My Ph.D., including the writing period, was an emotional roller coaster. It wasn’t always easy, but remembering that every little effort brings you closer to your final goal is crucial to just keep going and survive emotionally. And while writing was daunting at times, I also found it motivating to see just how much research I had done.
    – Heil

    I’m only at the beginning stages of my writing, but it has been enjoyable so far. This is probably because I will finally have something tangible out of my Ph.D., which is immensely encouraging!
    – Holmes

    Do you have any further advice about how to make thesis writing as smooth as possible?

    My general recommendation is don’t start at the last minute and don’t underestimate the time it will take. A thesis is not only about the science, but also about how to present it. Even though I had published papers containing a lot of material ready to be included in the thesis, I still had to put a lot of effort and time into reformatting the text, and I even had to improve or update some figures. If I could go back in time, I would start writing my thesis in my first year rather than leaving all the work for the last year. The introductory chapters explaining your subject matter can be written before having any data, and in retrospect, I had all the scientific results to write two-thirds of my thesis before the beginning of my last year.
    – Troja

    When I was studying for orals in my second year, I was very organized about writing my notes and archiving relevant papers, which proved super helpful when writing my thesis. It was also very helpful that in the first few years of my Ph.D. I had written dozens of grant proposals, which gave me an early opportunity to think about how to present the big picture, as well as some text that I could use as a starting point.
    – Gravem

    The acknowledgments section, and the time it takes, shouldn’t be overlooked. I saw it as my best chance to sum up the nonscientific part of my Ph.D. and express my gratitude to everyone who helped me along the way, and finding the right words took me several days. I chose to leave it until after my defense, when I could write at a much more relaxed pace during the few weeks I had to edit my thesis.

    Beware of perfectionism. A doctoral thesis concludes a major part of one’s life and there is a tendency to want to make it flawless. In my case, a non-negotiable deadline provided an effective remedy. Other projects or life events may also impose deadlines. If you’re not facing looming deadlines, self-imposed time limits for individual chapters would probably work.

    Regarding technical aspects, my department provides a LaTeX template, which was very helpful. It enforces structured writing and deals with all the formatting so that you can focus on content. For example, it handles numbering, so you don’t have to update figure numbers every time you insert or delete a figure. And because LaTeX is based on plain text format, I don’t have to worry about not being able to open my thesis file a decade from now. LaTeX requires a certain amount of technical expertise, but this can be overcome with a little effort and Googling.

    I am also a big fan of cloud services. I used an online LaTeX editor called Overleaf that allowed me to easily share drafts with my supervisor. I started with a free account, and once I reached the storage limits I paid a tiny fee for 1 month of a “Pro” account. I was also happy to discover that Mendeley , the cloud-based literature management software I have been using for the last decade, integrated easily with Overleaf—although Mendeley did break the night before submission, extending my workday to 6 a.m.
    – Goloborodko

    Try to figure out when your most productive times of the day are. Also, something that I unfortunately learned the hard way is to leave yourself a roadmap before walking away from your writing, especially if it’s going to be for more than a day. Write yourself a note about thoughts and ideas or the findings and questions that you were pondering in your last work session so that you can immediately pick up where you left off. As for the writing itself, I attended some writing boot camps that helped me get started. I also read some books on writing. One that I’d recommend in particular is The Scientist’s Guide to Writing .
    – Holmes

    Printing out substantial parts of my writing and leaving a bit of time before reading them allowed me to efficiently proofread and adjust things. And when the writing was not going as well as expected, I switched to the figures or formatting. That way, I could still feel that I was moving forward. Even though you may often feel as though progress is very, very slow, focus on just trying to add a little bit of improvement to your thesis every hour and every day.
    – Heil

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    Ph.D. Advice


    H.T. Kung

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    Useful Thoughts about Research

    Prepared for “What is Research” Immigration Course, Computer Science Department, Carnegie Mellon University, 14 October 1987)

    Presentation Outline

    1. Introduction
    2. Why Ph.D. thesis could be really difficult for a student
    3. Types of Ph.D. theses (from Allen Newell)–not a topic of this talk
    4. Growth of a star (the transformation process that some students go through to become a mature researcher)–which stage are you in?
    5. Stages of Ph.D. thesis research
    6. Methods to get into the depth of a topic (or how to come up with good ideas)
    7. Breaking myths
    8. Pitfalls to avoid (easy ones to avoid listed first)
    9. Some other general advice
    10. All the effort is worth it (believe it or not)

     

    1. Introduction

    • Ph.D. thesis is treated very seriously at leading universities.
      • Expectation is high.
        • Ph.D. thesis represents a substantial work. Faculty often tell other people that “We have a student working on this area for his or her Ph.D. thesis.” Amazingly enough, this is usually sufficient to convince people that the problem is somehow going to be solved.
      • Ph.D. thesis research is a task to ensure that the student can later take on independent, long-term research commitments. (If a Ph.D. student does not intend to be a researcher, the Ph.D. thesis work is not worth the effort in general at least at CMU.)
      • Through the Ph.D. thesis process the student is transformed into a professional researcher.
      • Faculty are judged by the theses of their Ph.D. students.
      • High standard Ph.D. thesis is probably one of the most important factors that contribute to the success of graduate education at leading American universities.
      • Ph.D. thesis is probably the only real challenge for getting a Ph.D. degree.
        • Ph.D. qualifier is seldom a problem for motivated students.
    • Ph.D. thesis research is probably more mechanical than a new graduate student would think. (Of course the process is still too complex to be automated.)
      • Knowing this mechanism can be more important than thesis results themselves.
      • Some information presented here may be relevant to your whole research career, i.e., it is not just for the Ph.D. thesis per se.
    • This talk consists of pragmatic advice.
      • The talk is based on my personal experience (i.e., not based on any serious research)
        • I happen to have research experience in both theory and system areas. We will compare thesis research in these two areas.
      • This is a common sense talk and will have down to earth discussions.
        • “I wish someone told me this before.”

     

    2. Why Ph.D. thesis could be really difficult for a student

    • Most likely this is your first, major research experience.
      • A big challenge for most students
    • No simple recipe
      • Different talents
      • Different kinds of theses
      • Different approaches
    • The work is judged by thesis committee (mostly advisor). This produces anxiety.
      • Unlike other research you will do, the evaluation mechanism for thesis research is very unique.
      • No clear contract
      • No clear standard (we only know it is high)
      • Recall the Stanford murder case (the former student said, after he had finished–he did finish something– his jail term, that he might do it again under a similar circumstance).

     

    3. Types of Ph.D. theses (from Allen Newell)–not a topic of this talk

    • Opens up new area
    • Provides unifying framework
    • Resolves long-standing question
    • Thoroughly explores an area
    • Contradicts existing knowledge
    • Experimentally validates theory
    • Produces an ambitious system
    • Provides empirical data
    • Derives superior algorithms
    • Develops new methodology
    • Develops a new tool
    • Produces a negative result

     

    4. Growth of a star (the transformation process that some students go through to become a mature researcher)–which stage are you in?

    • Knowing everything stage
      • Student: “I have designed a supercomputer even before graduate school.”
      • Faculty: speechless
    • Totally beaten up stage
      • Student: speechless
      • Faculty: smiling at the student’s progress so communication is possible now.
    • Confidence buildup stage
      • Student: “I am not stupid after all.” (student thinks)
      • Faculty: “Uh oh, she is ready to argue.” (faculty think)
    • Calling the shot stage
      • Faculty: “I am going to design an n-processor supercomputer.”
      • Student: “You are crazy, because …”

     

    5. Stages of Ph.D. thesis research

    • Selection of area–not a topic of this talk
    • Selection of advisor–not a topic of this talk
    • Becoming a researcher in the area
      • Building up general knowledge, experience, and confidence
      • Knowing issues and important questions in the area
      • Capturing research opportunities
        • Don’t let any idea or question go by without first giving it careful thought.
          • Be alert and diligent.
        • Pay attention to new technologies
          • Examples
            • VLSI, networking, and new chips such as the Weitek floating-point chips three years ago which in some sense gave the initial motivation for the Warp project
      • Some useful things to do (from Dave Gifford, MIT)
        • Read recent proceedings of the best conferences, and ask more senior people what were the best papers. Try to figure out what makes a great paper (and thus what makes great research).
        • Keep a notebook that contains your research notes. Put all of your empirical data and initial ideas in the notebook. Make notes on a paper as you read it and think about the assumptions of the author and the importance of the results.
        • Follow references from one paper to another until you know an area extremely well. Don’t count on your advisor to hand you all of the relevant papers out of his file drawer. He doesn’t have them all!
    • Thesis proposal
      • It is the most crucial stage in the sense that the basic concept is worked out here.
        • To get important results you need to ask important questions
        • This is the time you need your advisor most.
        • Problems in later stages are usually rooted from a weak thesis proposal.
      • Purpose
        • A research plan
          • A serious attempt to get an overview of the whole research course
          • Not really a contract
            • Need some flexibility because research always has uncertainty.
        • Forming the committee
          • Varies a lot
          • Choose people for your thesis committee that can help with needed expertise. For example, it is useful to have a relevant theory faculty member on a systems committee and vice-versa.
          • However, there is usually no need to optimize too much on the selection of the committee members–advisor still plays the most important role.
          • However it can be very important, when
            • you have a “questionable” advisor, or
            • you have an interdisciplinary topic.
        • A review
          • If there is any serious doubt, it had better show up now.
          • Proposal could sometimes be viewed as just a forcing function for taking care of certain things.
      • Some of the difficult questions always asked in a thesis proposal:
        • What is your approach and what is new?
        • What is your secret weapon? (Herbert Simon)
        • How do you measure your own progress?
        • What are the success or completion criteria?
        • How will the expected results change the-state-of- the-art?
      • The grand challenge for a thesis proposal is to come up with an approach or an experiment.
        • It is easy to identify a general problem area, but setting up an approach and designing an experiment can be difficult.
          • Need ideas
            • Just need one good idea, really
            • Unfortunately, there is no magic here (however see some hints below). This is the hard part of any research project for everyone (not just for students).
        • Need independent thinking
          • You should be good enough to start arguing with your advisor on technical issues and research tastes.
        • Need to elaborate on focus, approach, experiment, and potential impact
          • For theory research you may propose some new models of computation.
            • Examples: area-time complexity (new VLSI model in theory), parallel algorithms (new cost models)
          • For system research you may design experiments and argue their relevance.
            • Examples: multiprocessor architecture, compiler for a parallel machine
      • Useful things to know when preparing a thesis proposal
        • Be honest. There is no need to exaggerate your claims! If you point out the weaknesses in your approach you will disarm your critics.
        • Pick a project that is manageable so you can do an excellent job – things are always harder than they seem. It is far better to do an outstanding job on a moderate size project than a moderate job on a large project.
        • Include a tentative thesis outline and a month by month schedule in your thesis proposal.
          • This may be difficult to do but it is better than no plan at all.
          • This will also help gauge the total size of the work you are committing yourself to do.
    • Producing results
      • Lots of work–what else do you expect?
        • System–be inside an active project without losing sight of thesis
          • Need to be a worker as well as a conceptual person.
          • Your work depends on other people’s work and vice versa
            • Opportunity to see real problems
            • Getting good support, including encouragement and demand, from the group
              • It seems that this arrangement really works in all cases.
          • Be quick, because you don’t want to be overtaken by the environment (this is one of the pitfalls to avoid, as described below)
        • Theory–be lucky!
          • Be flexible
            • It is hard to insist that you will prove a theorem before you go to sleep.
          • Be quick, because theoretical results are totally portable and so competition can be keen.
      • Keep the committee informed (at least those “trouble makers”)
        • You can get real help sometimes.
        • Committee members are obliged to talk to you.
          • Sometimes finding a qualified person beyond your advisor to discuss your work can be difficult.
        • Don’t want surprises in the later stage of the thesis
      • Ways to finish a thesis
        • Incremental and adaptive approach
          • A sequence of incremental results
        • Big-bang approach (this is not recommended in general)
          • One big theorem
          • A big piece of software or hardware
    • Writing
      • Why some students find that Ph.D. thesis writing is very difficult
        • First major document
        • Writing is time-consuming–part of the .9999 perspiration (Satya)
          • Think how many good sentences you can write in an hour.
          • Fighting with fonts, figures, references, etc.?
            • Please don’t be too picky.
        • When results are not totally solid, writing can be really difficult even for an experienced writer (now you know another reason why proposal writing is not easy)
          • Can’t say too much and don’t want to say any less
          • Writing about flaky results can be a real challenge.
            • In this case you should improve your results first.
        • Writing has to do with presentation rather than finding new results. So writing may not be as exciting..
      • However, thesis writing is useful in the sense that it helps reveal possible problem areas and provides new insights.
        • Help get a large picture on what you really have.
        • Help organize the concepts
        • Completeness is forced.
          • You must take care of things that you have been ignoring.
            • For example, you need to do comparison with other results
        • Correctness of the results is checked.
          • You had better have the proof now for any plausible “theorem” that you have been believing.
        • New insights on how things really work
          • New ways of looking at your results
      • Recommendations
        • Get some practice–write some papers before thesis
          • Write some joint papers with people who have substantial writing experience
        • Need to know the theme of the thesis very well
          • Outline first
          • Write the conclusion first (try it at least)
          • Start writing chapters which are more settled.
          • Write the introduction last
          • Iterative process
        • Make the writing as precise as possible, so that you know exactly what you are talking about. This will save lots of rewriting.
          • Precise writing usually also yields good English.
    • Getting final comments from the committee
      • Not too early or too late
        • Getting some committee members to read can be a challenge.
          • They are busy people. You want to give them an “optimal” version to make comments.
      • How much to ask for comments varies a lot
      • Should not have any surprises now.
        • You had better know what you have been doing by now.
        • However, if there is any problem, it had better show up now.
    • Defense
      • Mostly a formality and a happy occasion (should be like that)
        • You know that your results are good and you will present them well.
          • You should know the answer to the question – “What are the three main ideas in your thesis?”. You should be able to rattle them off and relate them to previous work.
        • Getting a date set can be more difficult than you think.
          • Committee members do not necessarily stay at CMU as long as you do!
          • Weekend defense is not really desirable.
            • May be difficult to get audience.
      • However defense is still very important:
        • Opportunity for final improvements for the thesis
        • Formal presentation to the community
          • Many people form their opinion of your n-years’ work from this presentation
        • Presentation material can be used for future presentations
          • Used in recruiting presentations if you have not settled on a job yet
        • Psychologically important
          • Once in a life time occasion–you will remember it always.
        • Don’t want to blow it.
          • Absolutely no surprises
    • After defense
      • Usually there is still some minor work to be done for the thesis (too bad)
        • Defense was moved early for various reasons
        • New comments from defense
        • Did not have time or did not want to polish the thesis before defense
      • Publication
        • Articles, books (or give the thesis to your parents)
        • Very important to publish the results in journals
          • This is the only reliable way to archive your results. (You don’t want to lose them after all these efforts, do you?)
          • Publication is important for academic career.
          • May break the thesis up in several articles. When appropriate, some articles may have joint authors such as your advisor.
          • Do it right away before you get on to the next thing.
        • Books can be good too.
      • Follow-on work
        • Keep mining the thesis–why not?
      • Finally you are free!

     

    6. “Methods” to get into the depth of a topic (or how to come up with good ideas)

    • No magic, but we will still try ….
    • How to develop initial ideas
      • Study other work and do comparison
        • What are similar issues and solutions?
      • Look at examples
        • Generalization and abstraction
      • Make hypothesis and validate it formally or informally– keep trying
        • You will discover issues at least.
      • Do modeling and abstracting
        • Get the essence
      • Just do something–be active
        • Implementation–details reveal issues
          • Join a project to do some real work!
          • Handle a smaller case
          • Implement a throw-away simulator, language, design, etc.
        • Start proving “theorems”, even if they are known to be difficult.
          • Quick way to understand issues
      • Work with good, experienced researchers (don’t forget to use your advisor!)
        • They might have deep insights on similar problems.
        • They can help calibrate the difficulty of the problem.
        • You learn the subject matter from them more quickly and directly.
        • You learn their techniques
          • Every successful researcher has his or her own bag of “tools”:
            • Calculation, synthesis, analysis, persistence
        • If they also get stuck once in a while, you know that you are not that bad after all.
    • How to develop existing ideas further
      • Exploring problem and solution spaces
        • Enumerate parameters individually (and do quick pruning)
          • To see where your current ideas sit in the space
        • Correlate results
        • Generalize ideas and results to other points in the space
        • Produce phenomena and explain them (Herb Simon)
      • Brainstorming your ideas with others
      • Presenting your ideas in papers or/and seminars
        • Ideas will be checked out carefully and systematically (see above on thesis writing)
      • Example steps that can be used to get some depth from a simple result such as a speed-up curve
        • Explain the curve
        • Look at the problem and solutions spaces
        • Do some comparisons
        • Change the assumptions
          • How stable is the result?
          • How will results vary or correlate under different assumptions?
        • Derive some general principle
          • Similar curves for other situations?
    • General comments
      • Thinking is the key
        • Thinking is more important than reading
          • Books are not always right.
            • Note that in the system area with few exceptions people who build systems do not have time nor need to write up their experience–it is too bad but it is a reality.
        • Be alert on all sorts of opportunities
        • Do the thinking right away while you have it.
          • Ideas and interest may be lost more quickly than you like to believe
      • Talking to people
        • Don’t over do it (you still need to do the work yourself)

     

    7. Breaking myths

    • “Advisor is a stronger researcher than you.”
      • It is true that advisor is experienced, wise, smart (maybe), and knowledgeable in general. Advisor also sees a bigger picture, and has contacts in the area.
      • However, advisor is not always right.
        • Advisor is not as focussed as you.
        • Advisor does not have more time or energy than you do.
        • Advisor is not as innovative in general.
          • They know too much.
          • They are more conservative.
            • They know too many horror stories.
          • Aging does not help.
        • Advisor’s knowledge may be obsolete (don’t say this in front of him or her!).
      • You must believe that you can do better than advisor for some research areas.
    • “System theses take longer than theory theses.”
      • The most difficult part of a thesis is to come up with some good, new ideas. The difficulty in getting new ideas is the same for theory or system research.
        • Theory thesis is in general not about solving open problems.
          • Actually good theoreticians always work on new problems, models and methods so that they can solve the problems that are “solvable” in the first place.
            • Greatest contributions are ground breaking ones, such as new models.
            • New approaches give new insights to old problems. This is the way open problems usually get solved (e.g., the four-color problem).
        • For systems theses it is important that the major ideas in the thesis are independent of the implementation–the goal is to have the ideas live on in other systems as well. A good systems thesis usually has a new algorithm or new method at its core.
        • Few theory students who finish really early are likely those who have prior research experience. (Recall that theory results are highly portable!)
        • Incompetent theory students are more noticeable than weak system students. So we don’t often see theory students who drag on for a long time.
      • There are some differences in systems and theory research however, but they should not have too much impact on the thesis research time.
        • System needs implementation, whereas theory needs more background study.
        • Theory research is self-sufficient and system implementation may depend on other people’s work (you should not get into a situation where you don’t have control).
    • “Ph.D. thesis research follows some standard guidelines.”
      • Yes, a Ph.D. this must represent a substantial result in a very high standard.
      • But there are many ways to leave a mark in a research area. As long as you have come up with some good ideas and pushed the frontier of knowledge, you will be surprised sometimes how flexible your committee could be in terms of the research approach, acceptable results, and thesis presentation.
      • There is a small percentage of Ph.D. theses completed in unusual manner. Don’t give up too early if you belong to this class. Try it or you will never know.

     

    8. Pitfalls to avoid (easy ones to avoid listed first)

    • The goal is too big to reach.
      • Theory
        • Proving P /= NP
        • Proving P = NP is even worse (likely this thesis will never finish!).
        • Deciding whether P = or /= NP is best of the three (i.e., be flexible)
      • System
        • The initial effort is so large that real issues never get a chance to be looked at.
        • It is important to size the project and evaluate the total effort carefully based on past experiences.
    • Ideas cannot stand without an implementation that competes with commercial products.
      • Chess machine implementation is OK, because there is no commercial competitor.
      • In this sense, Warp hardware is more difficult than software.
      • Floating-point designs that require a high-performance chip implementation to validate the concept would be disastrous.
      • Never need to implement another vector processor!
    • The thesis area is overtaken by technology and environment
      • Technology advances have solved the thesis problem.
        • A clever operating system using no more than 128K memory is not very interesting today.
      • Advisor (or student sometimes) has changed his or her interest
      • Other new projects have better approaches and opportunities
      • Other people have published similar and/or better results.
      • Advisor has a better job elsewhere or the project is over.
      • Lesson: You should always do your thesis as quickly as possible.
    • Totally isolated work
      • No encouragement and support–no one cares about your thesis
        • Can’t even find an advisor sometimes
        • Doing a thesis away from CMU is really difficult.
      • System research
        • Lone ranger approach is almost suicidal.
          • No software, systems and application support for evaluation
          • Very difficult to do anything real without feedback from a community
      • Theory research
        • At least global networking is needed.
    • Not knowing when to stop
      • Thesis is not the last research you will do.
      • You can do the same research after your Ph.D. thesis (while making more money).
      • Learn to make reasonable assumptions to restrict the problem
    • Unhealthy competition between student and advisor
      • This is more likely to happen in the theory area.
      • The potential is always there (especially for smart professors with lots of ego). In general if both sides try to be fair, things can always be worked out.
    • Lots of numbers and hacking but no fundamental principles
      • System research has to have more than implementation.
      • Implementation for a thesis research is interesting only if it can be used to validate some theory.
      • This problem should be fixed as early as possible.
    • Things dragged on–wonderful general ideas in the beginning that never get developed into a coherent approach (i.e., heading to a black hole–there is no output)
      • Wrong areas for the student (and perhaps the advisor) with respect to ability and interest
      • Nightmare case–it does no good to anyone.

     

    9. Some other general advice

    • Stay away from areas that have been thoroughly mined by your ancestors.
      • Keep yourself at the very front of a research area so that you have a better chance to hit something big or at least new.
      • After all in research what matters is the work that pushes us into new territories.
      • Make use new advances in other areas
    • Don’t avoid thinking
      • Thinking is hard but there is no substitute for it.
    • Psych yourself up for this unique experience of doing a Ph.D. thesis
      • Make yourself believe you are solving the most important problem in the world
      • Remember what worked for you before
        • If you work best when you are competing with others, then create some confrontation.
      • Must be very alert about issues and opportunities
      • Thesis process is sort of artificial (almost a torture in some way)
        • The thesis is judged by a committee (mainly your advisor)
          • More subjective than exams
        • Probably one of the most humiliating experiences for people of this age (advisors should all remember this and be considerate.)
        • The process is not a typical research style–you don’t do anything similar to it again even if you will be doing research after the degree.
      • The thesis process can be long and treacherous. (Be prepared for it.)
        • You don’t want depression.
      • There are quite a few very competent people who just do not want to go through this.
    • Use forcing functions well to speed up the thesis process
      • Competing with someone else
      • Family pressure
      • Financial pressure
      • A job is waiting
      • Advisor is leaving or project is over
      • Equipment is retiring
    • Never throw away advisor’s comments
      • Cox-Denning case
    • Keep good relationship with your advisor (even after you graduate)
      • Good thing to do–no exception almost
      • Relationship is unique.
        • Advisor usually has lots of influence on you in this very important stage of your life. Advisor also appreciates the good research you did with him, and is in general interested in your well-being.
      • Advisor may be your mentor for your entire career.

     

    10. All the effort is worth it (believe it or not)

    • Experience from Ph.D. thesis research is unique. You have learned how to do research. Future research is going to be more interesting because you will know how to do it, so you will have more freedom and fun.
    • Almost all leaders in research have this experience. You will have confidence in your research ability. You will look at things differently than people who did not go through this process. It is very clear that Ph.D. thesis research is still the best way we know of in developing powerful researchers.
    • In summary, it is the best investment for becoming a successful researcher.

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    Early career researchers


    Higher Education Network

    Finishing your PhD thesis: 15 top tips from those in the know

    Trying to complete a PhD thesis in time for the October deadline? We share some advice on getting over that final hurdle

    • The key to a successful PhD thesis? Write in your own voice

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    Student on library computer





    ‘Everyone wants their thesis to be amazing.’ Photograph: David Levene

    Many PhD students are now in the final throes of writing their thesis. Turning years of research into a single, coherent piece of work can be tough, so we asked for tips from supervisors and recent PhD graduates. We were inundated with tweets and emails and @AcademiaObscura helpfully created a Storify of the tweets. Below is a selection of the best tips.

    1) Make sure you meet the PhD requirements for your institution
    “PhD students and their supervisors often presume things without checking. One supervisor told his student that a PhD was about 300 pages long so he wrote 300 pages. Unfortunately the supervisor had meant double-spaced, and the student had written single-spaced. Getting rid of 40,000 extra words with two weeks to go is not recommended.” (Hannah Farrimond, lecturer in medical sociology, Exeter University)

    2) Keep perspective
    “Everyone wants their thesis to be amazing, their magnum opus. But your most important work will come later. Think of your PhD as an apprenticeship. Your peers are unlikely to read your thesis and judge you on it. They are more likely to read any papers (articles, chapters, books) that result from it.” (Dean D’Souza, PhD in cognitive neuroscience, Birkbeck, University of London)

    3) Write the introduction last
    “Writing the introduction and conclusion together will help to tie up the thesis together, so save it for the end.” (Ashish Jaiswal, PhD in business education, University of Oxford)

    4) Use apps
    “ Trello is a project management tool (available as a smartphone app) which allows you to create ‘boards’ on which to pin all of your outstanding tasks, deadlines, and ideas. It allows you to make checklists too so you know that all of your important stuff is listed and to-hand, meaning you can focus on one thing at a time. It’s satisfying to move notes into the ‘done’ column too.” (Lucy Irving, PhD in psychology, Middlesex University)

    5) Address the unanswered questions
    “There will always be unanswered questions – don’t try to ignore or, even worse, obfuscate them. On the contrary, actively draw attention to them; identify them in your conclusion as areas for further investigation. Your PhD viva will go badly if you’ve attempted to disregard or evade the unresolved issues that your thesis has inevitably opened up.” (Michael Perfect, PhD in English literature, University of Cambridge)

    6) Buy your own laser printer
    “A basic monochrome laser printer that can print duplex (two-sided) can be bought online for less than £100, with off-brand replacement toners available for about £30 a pop. Repeatedly reprinting and editing draft thesis chapters has two very helpful functions. Firstly, it takes your work off the screen and onto paper, which is usually easier to proof. Secondly, it gives you a legitimate excuse to get away from your desk.” (James Brown, PhD in architectural education, Queen’s University Belfast)

    7) Checking is important
    “On days when your brain is too tired to write, check quotations, bibliography etc so you’re still making progress.” (Julia Wright, professor of English at Dalhousie University, Canada)

    8) Get feedback on the whole thesis
    “We often get feedback on individual chapters but plan to get feedback from your supervisor on the PhD as a whole to make sure it all hangs together nicely.” (Mel Rohse, PhD in peace studies, University of Bradford)

    9) Make sure you know when it will end
    “Sometimes supervisors use optimistic words such as ‘You are nearly there!’ Ask them to be specific. Are you three months away, or do you have six months’ worth of work? Or is it just a month’s load?” (Rifat Mahbub, PhD in women’s studies, University of York)

    10) Prepare for the viva
    “Don’t just focus on the thesis – the viva is very important too and examiners’ opinions can change following a successful viva. Remember that you are the expert in your specific field, not the examiners, and ask your supervisor to arrange a mock viva if practically possible.” (Christine Jones, head of school of Welsh and bilingual studies, University of Wales Trinity St David)

    11) Develop your own style
    “Take into account everything your supervisor has said, attend to their suggestions about revisions to your work but also be true to your own style of writing. What I found constructive was paying attention to the work of novelists I enjoy reading. It may seem that their style has nothing to do with your own field of research, but this does not matter. You can still absorb something of how they write and what makes it effective, compelling and believable.” (Sarah Skyrme, PhD in sociology, Newcastle University)

    12) Remember that more is not always better
    “A PhD thesis is not a race to the highest page count; don’t waste time padding.” (Francis Woodhouse, PhD in mathematical biology, University of Cambridge)

    13) Get a buddy
    “Find a colleague, your partner, a friend who is willing to support you. Share with them your milestones and goals, and agree to be accountable to them. This doesn’t mean they get to hassle or nag you, it just means someone else knows what you’re up to, and can help to check if your planning is realistic and achievable.” (Cassandra Steer, PhD in criminology, University of Amsterdam)

    14) Don’t pursue perfectionism
    “Remember that a PhD doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. Nothing more self-crippling than perfectionism.” (Nathan Waddell, lecturer in modernist literature, Nottingham University)

    15) Look after yourself
    “Go outside. Work outside if you can. Fresh air, trees and sunshine do wonders for what’s left of your sanity.” (Helen Coverdale, PhD in law, LSE)

    Do you have any tips to add? Share your advice in the comments below.

    Join the higher education network for more comment, analysis and job opportunities , direct to your inbox. Follow us on Twitter @gdnhighered.

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