Thursday, 2 January 2014

Writing: it is never too early to start (Part 1)!

[A typical scene: Year 1 of PhD]

Writing the thesis?  That’s for the last year of my PhD, and I’ll put it off as long as possible.  Start writing in first year? But what could I be writing before I have my data?

[Fast forward three years]

Dear supervisor, the company just called and I have the job, but they need me to start in 3 weeks.  I know the timing isn’t ideal but at least all my experimental work is done, and I am fully committed to getting a start on the thesis in the weeks before I go to work, and then will get into the discipline of writing every weekend for at least a day, and two evenings minimum during the week…..

[fast forward three years]

Dear anyone, HELP!!!  Yours insanely, the unwritten thesis.

This is a depressingly familiar scenario, unfortunately, and increasingly inevitable given basic economic and life considerations. There are many students who endure hell with trying to balance writing a thesis with other commitments, when it always takes multiples of how long they initially anticipated it would.  Or perhaps the thesis gets done, but there is no time for the papers to be written and shepherded through the publication process, which isn’t in the long-term interest of the student, their supervisor, or anyone.

So, how can this be best avoided?  The best solution is not to plan to finish a PhD with a separate and distinct phase of writing to be completed, but to write as much as possible as you go along, so that this final phase is more a question of assembling the sections into a coherent whole (perhaps sometimes easier said than done!), adding an overall discussion, and binding and submitting the result. 

Ideally, writing as you go should also involve publishing as you go, so that the submitted version can include copies of the papers as they have appeared in press. This is certain to impress the examiners, given that the yardstick against which any PhD is normally judged is its suitability for publication, in whole or in part, as a work of serious scholarship. 

Interestingly, in many European countries, this process of ‘publishing as you go’ is so much the norm that a thesis is essentially a short collection of PDFs of papers the candidate has published during their work, bookended by an introduction/literature review and a concluding discussion.  However, this is not (yet) typical in Ireland, UK and other countries.

So, how can a more structured approach to writing the PhD as an ongoing activity be taken?  Let’s break down a typical PhD in a scientific discipline into its two major components:

(1) The experimental part (i.e., that frequently undertaken in a laboratory and involving a white coat), involving setting up tests, trials or measurements, planning, measuring, repeating, checking, and all the practical acts of science.
(2)  The communications and dissemination part, involving everything from informally talking about your results to colleagues to presenting at lab groups or local seminars, up to national and international conferences, and of course the formal written element, leading to the thesis and journal articles.

The key is to intertwine these activities into a double helix of activity, such that your reaction to a day or week when research cannot be done (due to a piece of equipment being broken, or there being a delay in delivery of a key reagent, or the cat that is your subject escaping) is not despair but unfettered joy that you can go and catch up on your writing.  There are many days spent on the experimental part of a PhD that do not end with a specific output, or result, or move in the right direction, but writing will never let you down; every day of writing will end with 100 or 1000 new words written (and what is a thesis but a long collection of words?), or a chapter edited and revised, and so one step closer to being done, and always, always a sense of some achievement, which will help to motivate the experimental part to keep up.

Sound like a good plan?

In a forthcoming series of posts, we will explore how best to achieve this, including sharing experiences from some students who have done just this.

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