Thursday, March 24, 2011

What they don't tell you about writing your thesis

My thesis is finally "done" now!  I say "done" instead of done because it's been turned into my thesis committee - the five people who have my life (or at least my Ph.D.) in their hands.  They can read it, give me back comments, and expect me to change it still - which means it's not REALLY done.  But the bulk of the writing and organizing is done (PLEASE tell me I won't need to reformat the pictures on Word again, the time that it swapped each picture in the document with another one KILLED me....).  Now it's on to preparing my talk, cleaning up everything, and moving(!).  I've actually sold all the furniture I'm selling, so once everything is picked up, the apartment will be pretty bare.  It's a bit crazy over here!

I learned a lot through writing my thesis.  Some of it was science-related, but really, I had most of that information already organized from paper-writing and committee meetings.  More of it was about the process of writing something that big, and about myself.  Before starting, I would have told you that all the ideas about "finding yourself" while writing your thesis are crap - but I really did do a lot of thinking about what I want in life and how I relate to the career path I'm going down.  Most of the process for me was really not how I expected it to be.  Here, briefly, is what I learned - or what they don't tell you about writing your thesis:

1. It is, in fact, really hard sometimes - but not the way you'd think it'd be.  For me, at least, the difficulty was emotional more than intellectual - I knew what I wanted to write and I had most of the information organized already, I just needed to sort it all out in my head and make myself write.  I think most people in the biomedical sciences, where your research is put into publications along the way, don't have to do a LOT of research to figure out what to write.  Sure, there were some sections I needed to research more carefully - but most of the work was organizing five years of research and thought about my project, then getting myself to stop procrastinating and write!

2. There will be good days and bad days.  A thesis is a big thing.  Like most big things, the amount of organization and work required is overwhelming at times.  On top of that, trying to get the words to come out right doesn't work sometimes.  Some days will be bad days - days when all you want to do is drink wine and watch tv, because you can't get even a paragraph to come out of your brain in logical form.  Other days, pages will come pouring out.  The thing is, the "bad days" are necessary - you need some time to let your brain incubate, form connections on its own, and make things work the way they need to.  Part of the word dissertation comes from the Latin serere, or "to arrange words" - and figuring out how to write what you know is a huge part of putting together the thesis.  Just because you're not writing doesn't mean your brain isn't working - you're thinking about your project and your writing even on "rest" days.  It will get done eventually, I promise!

3. At some point, you will live, eat, sleep, and breathe thesis.  Although our advisors may like to think that this is every day for all of their students, in reality, even on long days I go home and let things go for a bit before bed.  Not true during thesis "crunch time."  I like to think I managed pretty well - I still ate normal meals and got enough sleep.  But still, every moment was occupied by thinking about what was still left to do and how I was going to do it.  I had thesis-related dreams, made random notes about it while driving, lost touch with my parents and boyfriend, and worked pretty much right up until bed time every day for a few weeks, including weekends.  Unfortunately, I don't think this can be avoided - at some point, synthesizing a complete thesis means putting it all together in your head at the same time.  And when that happens, there really isn't enough room for anything else in there!

4. Despite the amount of work, it really is cathartic.  If you're in a biomedical Ph.D. program, you've spent at least 4, if not 5 or more, years doing research before you start thinking about your thesis.  It's a massive amount of time to spend on one thing, and there are lots of frustrations built into that time.  Even though it's not something everyone will read in the future, putting everything together in one document and seeing how much you really did is very cathartic.  You (hopefully!) realize how much you've put into the work and how it really has paid off - even if your publication list is pretty slim, you probably know more about your topic than anyone else, and at the end of years of work and frustration, that can be rewarding.

5. At some point, you have to accept things being just "good enough."  Although graduate school is all a practice in being "good enough" since grades aren't very important and evaluation is less concrete, writing your thesis is the ultimate lesson.  Coming straight out of college, it's taken me a while to learn this lesson - and as a perfectionist, it's not something I totally want to resign myself to.  But when it comes to the thesis, something that big will always have a few mistakes.  No one's really going to read it, and if they do they won't mind your typo on page 76.  It's time to finally embrace being "good enough" to graduate - because no matter how much work you put into it, that's all it's ever going to be.

I think this cartoon pretty much sums it up!


It's a lot of work, but it wasn't so bad!  I'm happy it's done now, and I can spend my last few weeks here getting things together for moving, trying to do a few last-minute projects in the lab, enjoying Philly.

And now that it's (mostly) done, I promise a return to the regularly-scheduled programming of interesting recipes and thoughts more applicable to normal people!


  1. I love that graphic! I felt the same way (but I didn't do years of research) about my master's thesis. When you graduate, it's such a weight lifted off your shoulders, and I didn't know I HAD a weight on my shoulders :)

  2. So true! I go through that a bit after every thesis committee meeting....I can only imagine what it'll be like after the defense!

  3. I was a workaholic throughout my 20s. I'm now 36 and I prefer a more relaxed life-style. I've got a part-time job that I can do from home and all my other time is spent on writing. If only I'd applied my twenty-something workaholic attitude to creating novels, I'd have a lot more than 2 published by now!