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How to Write a PhD Thesis

How to Write a PhD Thesis

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How to Write a PhD Thesis
How to Write a PhD Thesis

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How to Write a PhD Thesis
How to Write a PhD Thesis
some notes byJoe Wolfe School of PhysicsThe University of New South WalesSydney 2052 AustraliaSpanish version: CÛmo escribir una tesis de doctoradoFrench version: Comment rediger une thèse This guide to thesis writing gives some simple and practical advice on the problems of gettingstarted, getting organized, dividing the huge task into less formidable pieces and working onthose pieces. It also explains the practicalities of surviving the ordeal. It includes a suggestedstructure and a guide to what should go in each section. It was originally written for graduatestudents 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 bygraduate students in diverse fields in the sciences and humanities.
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http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/~jw/thesis.html (1 of 17) [15.01.02 11:31:00]
 
How to Write a PhD Thesis
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Getting Started
When you are about to begin, writing a thesis seems a long, difficult task. That is because it is along, difficult task. Fortunately, it will seem less daunting once you have a couple of chaptersdone. Towards the end, you will even find yourself enjoying it---an enjoyment based onsatisfaction 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 youbegin, 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, somefigure 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 alist of chapters and, under each chapter heading, a reasonably complete list of things to bereported or explained, you have struck a great blow against writer's block. When you sit down totype, 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 easyone: this gets you into the habit of writing and gives you self-confidence. Often the Materialsand Methods chapter is the easiest to write---just write down what you did; carefully, formallyand in a logical order.How do you make an outline of a chapter? For most of them, you might try the method that I usefor writing papers, and which I learned from my thesis adviser: assemble all the figures that youwill use in it and put them in the order that you would use if you were going to explain tosomeone what they all meant. You might as well rehearse explaining it to someone else---afterall you will probably give several talks based on your thesis work. Once you have found themost logical order, note down the the key words of your explanation. These key words provide askeleton for much of your chapter outline.Once you have an outline, discuss it with your adviser. This step is important: s/he will haveuseful suggestions, but it also serves notice that s/he can expect a steady flow of chapter draftsthat will make high priority demands on his/her time. Once you and your adviser have agreed ona logical structure, s/he will need a copy of this outline for reference when reading the chapterswhich you will probably present out of order. If you have a co-adviser, discuss the outline withhim/her as well, and present all chapters to both advisers for comments.
Organisation
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 doingsomething for Chapter n, you will think "Oh I must refer back to/discuss this in Chapter m" andso you put a note to do so in the file for Chapter m. Or you may think of something interesting orrelevant for that chapter. When you come to work on Chapter m, the more such notes you haveaccumulated, 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 yourcomputer and the age of your disk drive). Do not keep back-up disks close to the computer incase the hypothetical thief who fancies your computer decides that s/he could use some disks aswell.A simple way of making a remote back-up is to send it as an email attachment to a consentingemail 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). Ineither 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 onthem. This will make you feel good about getting started and also help clean up your desk. Yourfiles 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 fromcolleagues etc., which will suddenly strike you as relevant to one chapter or other. Stick them inthat 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 theirthickness 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 thelab book stays in the lab, but you may want a copy for your own future use. Further, scientificethics require you to keep lab books and original data for at least ten years, and a copy is morelikely to be found if two copies exist.While you are getting organised, you should deal with any university paperwork. Examinershave to be nominated and they have to agree to serve. Various forms are required by yourdepartment and by the university administration. Make sure that the rate limiting step is yourproduction of the thesis, and not some minor bureaucratic problem.
A note about word processors
Commercial word processors have gradually become bigger, slower, less reliable and harder touse as they acquire more features. This is a general feature of commerical software and an
http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/~jw/thesis.html (3 of 17) [15.01.02 11:31:00]

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