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English - Writing skills - How To Write A Ph.D Thesis

This guide to thesis writing gives some simple and practical advice on the problems of getting
started, getting organized, dividing the huge task into less formidable pieces and working on
those pieces. It also explains the practicalities of surviving the ordeal. It includes a suggested
structure and a guide to what should go in each section. It was originally written for graduate
students in physics, and most of the specific examples given are taken from that discipline.
Nevertheless, the feedback from users indicates that it has been consulted and appreciated by
graduate students in diverse fields in the sciences and humanities.
Getting Started
When you are about to begin, writing a thesis seems a long, difficult task. That is because it is a
long, difficult task. Fortunately, it will seem less daunting once you have a couple of chapters
done. Towards the end, you will even find yourself enjoying it---an enjoyment based on
satisfaction in the achievement, pleasure in the improvement in your technical writing, and of
course the approaching end. Like many tasks, thesis writing usually seems worst before you
begin, so let us look at how you should make a start.
An outline
First make up a thesis outline: several pages containing chapter headings, sub-headings, some
figure titles (to indicate which results go where) and perhaps some other notes and comments.
There is a section on chapter order and thesis structure at the end of this text. Once you have a
list of chapters and, under each chapter heading, a reasonably complete list of things to be
reported or explained, you have struck a great blow against writer's block. When you sit down to
type, your aim is no longer a thesis---a daunting goal---but something simpler. Your new aim is
just to write a paragraph or section about one of your subheadings. It helps to start with an easy
one: this gets you into the habit of writing and gives you self-confidence. Often the Materials
and Methods chapter is the easiest to write---just write down what you did; carefully, formally
and in a logical order.
How do you make an outline of a chapter? For most of them, you might try the method that I use
for writing papers, and which I learned from my thesis adviser: assemble all the figures that you
will use in it and put them in the order that you would use if you were going to explain to
someone what they all meant. You might as well rehearse explaining it to someone else---after
all you will probably give several talks based on your thesis work. Once you have found the
most logical order, note down the the key words of your explanation. These key words provide a
skeleton for much of your chapter outline.
Once you have an outline, discuss it with your adviser. This step is important: s/he will have
useful suggestions, but it also serves notice that s/he can expect a steady flow of chapter drafts
that will make high priority demands on his/her time. Once you and your adviser have agreed on
a logical structure, s/he will need a copy of this outline for reference when reading the chapters
which you will probably present out of order. If you have a co-adviser, discuss the outline with
him/her as well, and present all chapters to both advisers for comments.
http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/~jw/thesis.html (2 of 17) [15.01.02 11:31:00]
How to Write a PhD Thesis
It is encouraging and helpful to start a filing system. Open a word-processor file for each chapter
and one for the references. You can put notes in these files, as well as text. While doing
something for Chapter n, you will think "Oh I must refer back to/discuss this in Chapter m" and
so you put a note to do so in the file for Chapter m. Or you may think of something interesting or
relevant for that chapter. When you come to work on Chapter m, the more such notes you have
accumulated, the easier it will be to write.
Make a back-up of these files and do so every day at least (depending on the reliability of your
computer and the age of your disk drive). Do not keep back-up disks close to the computer in
case the hypothetical thief who fancies your computer decides that s/he could use some disks as
A simple way of making a remote back-up is to send it as an email attachment to a consenting
email correspondent, preferably one in a different location. You could even send it to yourself if
your server saves your mail (in some email packages like Eudora this is an optional setting). In
either case, be careful to dispose of superseded versions so that you don't waste disk space,
especially if you have bitmap images or other large files.
You should also have a physical filing system: a collection of folders with chapter numbers on
them. This will make you feel good about getting started and also help clean up your desk. Your
files will contain not just the plots of results and pages of calculations, but all sorts of old notes,
references, calibration curves, suppliers' addresses, specifications, speculations, letters from
colleagues etc., which will suddenly strike you as relevant to one chapter or other. Stick them in
that folder. Then put all the folders in a box or a filing cabinet. As you write bits and pieces of
text, place the hard copy, the figures etc in these folders as well. Touch them and feel their
thickness from time to time---ah, the thesis is taking shape.
If any of your data exist only on paper, copy them and keep the copy in a different location.
Consider making a copy of your lab book. This has another purpose beyond security: usually the
lab book stays in the lab, but you may want a copy for your own future use. Further, scientific
ethics require you to keep lab books and original data for at least ten years, and a copy is more
likely to be found if two copies exist.
While you are getting organised, you should deal with any university paperwork. Examiners
have to be nominated and they have to agree to serve. Various forms are required by your
department and by the university administration. Make sure that the rate limiting step is your
production of the thesis, and not some minor bureaucratic problem. 

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