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29 PhD thesis writing tips

29 PhD thesis writing tips

PhD thesis length

A PhD thesis is a long and detailed piece of academic writing that requires significant amounts of research and careful planning. Depending on the discipline or field in which you are pursuing your PhD, the length of your thesis may vary. However, in general, PhD theses tend to be quite lengthy, typically ranging from 50-100 pages for humanities disciplines, to 200-300 pages for scientific disciplines. PhD students typically spend several years working on their theses, and therefore it is important to carefully consider the length and structure of your thesis before you begin writing.

PhD theses are typically divided into chapters, with each chapter serving a specific purpose. For example, the introduction chapter may present an overview of the research topic and discuss key concepts, theories, and methodologies relevant to your field. The literature review chapter may focus on a selection of existing research related to your topic, highlighting important findings and gaps in knowledge. The results chapter is where you present the findings from your own research, while the discussion chapter allows you to reflect on these findings and place them in the wider context of existing knowledge. Finally, the conclusion chapter offers a summary of your key findings and recommendations for future research.

PhD students should consult with their supervisors to determine an appropriate length and structure for their thesis. However, it is important to keep in mind that a PhD thesis is a significant investment of time and effort, and therefore it is important to make sure that you are prepared for the challenges of thesis writing before you begin.

PhD thesis format

To successfully complete a PhD thesis, it is important to have a clear understanding of the different sections that are typically included, as well as the format and style required for each section. Some key elements to consider include:

Section Format

Introduction

This section provides an overview of your research topic and sets the context for your work. It should briefly summarize previous research on the topic, explain your specific research objectives and approach, and highlight any key findings or conclusions from your research.

Methodology

Methodology: This section details the methods you used to conduct your research, including any specific techniques or analytical tools you employed. It may also include descriptions of your sample group and data collection process, as well as information on how you analyzed and interpreted your results.

Results

This section presents the main findings of your research and discusses how they relate to previous work in the field. It may include tables, charts, or other visual representations to help communicate complex data or results in an accessible way.

Discussion/Conclusion

In this final section, you will recap your key findings and discuss their implications for future research in your field. You may also include recommendations for future work or suggestions for policy changes based on your research findings.

Overall, PhD theses are highly structured documents that require a significant amount of time and effort to complete. By understanding the key elements and formatting requirements of a PhD thesis, you can ensure that yours is well-written and effectively communicates the results of your research.

PhD thesis defense

PhD thesis defense is an opportunity for the student to present their research findings to faculty, other students, and the general public. The defense is also a chance for the student to get feedback on their work from knowledgeable people. PhD thesis defenses can be nerve-wracking, but they don't have to be. By being prepared and knowing what to expect, you can feel confident and fully engaged in the process.

As part of your PhD thesis defense, you will typically need to:

PhD thesis defense

1. Prepare an outline of your research findings, highlighting the key discoveries and conclusions that you have reached through your work. This should include a summary of your methodology and any key data or results that support your conclusions.

2. Make a presentation of your findings to an audience, which will usually include your PhD supervisor, other faculty members, and students. This presentation should be well-organized and clearly explain the significance of your work.

3. Answer questions from the audience about your research findings and methodology. Be prepared to discuss any criticism or feedback that you receive, and be ready to defend your work and any conclusions that you have drawn.

If you feel nervous or overwhelmed leading up to your PhD thesis defense, remember that this is a normal part of the process. By being well-prepared and confident in your work, you can approach your PhD thesis defense with confidence and ease.

Thesis vs disseration

The PhD thesis and dissertation are two very different types of academic writing. While a PhD thesis typically focuses on original research, a dissertation is generally more theoretical in nature, exploring existing literature in the field and analyzing it from an academic perspective.

Thesis vs disseration

At the PhD level, students typically conduct their own original research as part of their thesis, while dissertation research is more often based on existing literature. PhD theses are usually longer and more detailed than dissertations, and they typically include a wider range of research methods.

PhD dissertations are typically shorter than PhD theses, and they focus more on analytical interpretation than original research. PhD dissertations are also generally less comprehensive than PhD theses, and they typically do not contain as much data analysis and interpretation.

Despite these differences, both PhD students and dissertation writers should approach their writing with a critical eye, approaching each task with rigor and thoroughness in order to produce high-quality academic work. Whether you are writing a PhD thesis or a dissertation, it is important to carefully consider your research question, methodology, and analysis in order to produce a well-written and insightful final product.

Thesis writing Tips

1. Set yourself PhD thesis writing goals

By the time you write your PhD thesis, a few years may have passed since you last composed a piece of scientific writing. Maybe you wrote a paper in the meantime which will be a huge help and give you the right start to putting your PhD thesis together. However, if you haven’t written a significant piece of scientific writing in a long time this may affect your writing style and can result in an uphill battle to get words down on paper or the computer screen.

2. The Laptop trick

This is a fairly easy and motivating tip for writing your PhD thesis or dissertation. So what you do is place your charger as far away from you as possible (but not too far!!!) and start writing without your laptop cord plugged in. It’s now a race of time to see how much you can write before your laptop goes dead, but remember save regularly!

3. Write now, Edit your thesis later

Putting words on paper will be the biggest challenge during your dissertation and not editing what you have put to paper. Getting as much down as possible and letting those scientific juices flow will allow you to write a lot of your PhD fast. Next step is to take a break and reflect, only for you to return to what you have written and cleaning it up. Remember, editing is as important as writing as your PI/Professor will soon get tired if you aren’t serving up a PhD quality piece of work.

4. Talk your thesis out on Evernote

Sometimes it’s easier to talk than it is to write, using Evernote to type your speech might save you a lot of time and get your thoughts on to paper a lot more clearly. Again you will need to return to your Evernote recording as it will not correctly translate what your have said, some words like Phosphorylation or de-ubiquitination just won’t work, try use keywords in these instances to save time.

5. Place writing blocks in your calendar for writing your thesis/dissertation

If you haven’t got a calendar, get one, but don’t become preoccupied with it. Set up your week in advance and block book where you are going to spend time writing, give yourself time to relax, and remember putting in 12 hour shifts will get your nowhere fast, pace yourself.

6. Set a thesis/dissertation submission deadline

In many cases you will be given a thesis submission deadline by your University which will be based on when your academic year finishes or for how long you have paid fees for. However, in some cases this is just a mythical deadline with many Professors keeping their students on as unregistered students to allow them carry out some more experiments or allowing them to delay correcting due to more “important” issues. If possible you should try and work towards a final deadline, so as to avoid problems with having to re-register.

However, working towards a long term goal won’t be as easy as just writing and submitting on the day, you will need to incorporate more short term goals to keep your motivation up and project how hard you need to work as you come to the finish line. If possible try and break your chapters or segments of chapters into chunks and work towards writing those chunks in a defined period of time. Getting these chunks together and corrected will keep your motivation up and ensure you stay on the right track. Something you will also need to do is give yourself some breathing space at the end, you do not want to be getting corrections in the days or week before submission as you will still need to find the time to print your thesis, collate and submit it to the University.

I had to print my thesis three times before I submitted the final copy, which was down to how I still had to make corrections and print. Printing your PhD thesis will also be an expensive day at the printers, if you can, try and put some money aside for printing and binding. It cost me 250Euro to print mine, money I didn’t have aside as a student, so saving for this rainy day will give you some extra cash for partying that night!

7. Talk with Professors/Post-Docs about your thesis

By now you will have probably spent the past 4-5 years working on your PhD and will have just spoken about it to a a handful of people. Talking about your project to other Professors or Post-Docs in your department will help you articulate what your project is about before your put pen to paper. It will also allow you to think logically about your project and how you need to tell the story during your PhD thesis.

8. Tips when writing your PhD thesis

When you discuss writing up you thesis with some of your colleagues, some will say all they have to do is format their figures and write up. However, collating and formatting figures can be one of the most time consuming parts of writing up. With blots to scan, crop and label, histograms to prepare and legends to write, composing figures can be a mammoth task. Preparing your data in advance, will also show you where you are lacking data, where you need a nicer image or where you need some more numbers.

Reviewing data in the short term will hopefully help with paper preparation once you have submitted. Obviously the most mundane part of the thesis is writing the materials and methods. A piece of work only subsequent PhDs in the lab will read or most likely no one at all. Made up from notes from your lab book, your materials and methods can result in you trawling through your books to find concentrations, numbers of cells or what concentration antibody you used. If you can, write down a concise version of your materials and methods.

More than likely you will have to edit this come thesis time, but you will save time in sifting through notes. Adjusting your writing style will save you time in the long run. Identifying how your PI likes to phrase sentences and structure paragraph will reduce the amount of corrections you have to do and ease the relationship with your PI when writing up. Some PhDs theses will contain over 200 references. Structuring your referencing with Mendeley or some other referencing programme will save your time.

9. Place figures in your dissertation

Sometimes it’s just damn difficult trying to convey what your project was about, how a protein complex formed or how signaling elements looped to create feedback. Creating diagrams/pathways of these complexes and signalling cascades will help your convey your message and give your examiner an easier time to understand certain concepts.

10. Stay on top of scientific publications

Just like the news you will need to keep up with scientific publications doing your thesis writing. Sometimes publications can add to your theories and overcome vagueness in the field. Also, when it comes to VIVA time knowing your field in depth will only get your through to the PhD finish line, so read read read!

11. Use Google Docs for feedback

Placing your thesis in Google Docs will allow you to maintain a single version of your PhD and prevent you from saving your thesis everywhere. It will also allow your Professor to access the copy, makes edits and hopefully hasten the process, especially if your Professor travels a lot.

12. Cite your sources

Everyone reads then writes, but might forget where they got the data from or a certain quote, make sure to update your references as your write. Using Mendeley will help and here we provide some tips for using Mendeley.

13. Take a break from Thesis writing

After reading ten papers or more finding a point to start or a good open line to a chapter can be tiresome. Allowing the data from the papers to settle in your head will allow you to run through some opening lines in your head and allow you to formulate some ideas or hypothesis regarding the subject.

14. Look at old posters or presentations for thesis content

During your PhD you will have probably attended a few meetings and presented a few posters. Using the figure legends and abstracts might save you time in putting together figures for your PhD thesis.

15. Write about what you know

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up on sections in your PhD thesis due to lack of knowledge about a subject or an area or your just are finding it hard to convey your message. Go for the low lying fruit and write about content you already know something about, by the time it comes to writing about the hard stuff you’ll have the confidence to sail through it.

16. Don’t count words

As long as your PhD is full of correct information and your arguments support your data it doesn’t really matter how long your PhD thesis is. If you can, strive for 150 pages, this should give you enough space to tell your story and get your message across.

17. Follow the PhD thesis writing cycle

What can help is setting a reasonable goal of 500 words a day in the beginning which will help get your wordsmith juices flowing and hopefully keep you at the computer till something happens. Some days you may only write 400 words, maybe even 100 words or a sentence which I just about managed on may occasions during my PhD write up; however, some days you will write 2,000 words if not more and you will steam through your PhD thesis write up.

Keeping your motivation while writing is extremely important and if you are not making significant progress, this can be a huge stumbling block. Sometimes graphing your word count can help to motivate. This is especially useful information when you have had a slow day and gives you a target to readjust to for the next day’s writing. Finding time to write while you are on the go will also be hugely helpful. If you have time while waiting for a bus or a train, why not write a few words and email them to yourself. Every little helps, especially in the long run and will get you over the line faster.

18. Accept help in writing your PhD thesis

Although your name will be on the front of the thesis countless friends and family will have helped you a long the way. When writing up don’t be afraid to ask people for help, they’ll understand and it will definitely remove some of the stress of running small errands.

19. Do as much as you can in advance

You might think this is a bit of a weird one to start with as you have time at the end of your PhD to write up right? Correct but here me out.

For me, if I had opened up my laptop on that first Monday after I finished in the lab to write up and I saw a blank page I would have completely freaked out. Over the course of my three and a half years in the lab collecting data I also had to write a transfer thesis and I had the opportunity to start writing manuscripts about my research too. All were sold foundations to build my PhD thesis upon.

I realise this is not going to be possible for everyone and there might be cases where you do have to start with a blank page, but any prep you can do before your writing up stage will ease you into it a little more. As you progress through your PhD maybe write out your methods in thesis style, or whenever I had a new result that would make a figure for my thesis, I put it into my final format ready from day 1. It was always good to have the thought of writing a final thesis around and I tried to prepare myself for that as best as I could in advance. And I cannot stress enough how much that helped me.

20. Set out a clear structure with your supervisor beforehand

In case you didn't know, PhD theses are split up into different chapters. Traditionally, that is one for the introduction, one for the methods, usually three results chapters and a discussion chapter primarily. So even if you have prepared anything in advance, I highly recommend not starting to build it all until you have sat down with your supervisor and had a good old discussion about what results contribute to what story and the order of your chapters. It might have to be adjusted further down the line but hopefully will only be smaller adjustments then rather than huge shifts in order.

My supervisor and I spent a good 3 hours in a meeting debating the order of my results in each chapter and then the order of the chapters. Why? Well, your thesis will ideally have structure to read well. If it reads well then your examiners in your viva will, fingers crossed, be happier and make your viva much more relaxed.

21. Work to a time when you are most productive

I am a firm believer that if you are not in the zone for something then it is pointless forcing yourself to do it. Unless you have to of course. But I, for example, just cannot focus in the mornings. When I was at home writing up, I would be much more productive by binging Netflix or something in the morning, cracking on with a short writing stint before heading to the gym for a break. Come back, grab some lunch and then I would be focussed for the rest of the day normally. Some days I wasn't ready to write until about 7pm and could write until 2am if I was in the zone. This obviously won't work for everyone so find something that works for you.

22. Use the Pomodoro technique

One thing that did help me to focus on the more difficult days was the Pomodoro technique. 25 minutes of writing followed by a 5 or 10 minute break and repeat for however long I could or had scheduled. A simple technique that I am sure most of you have heard of, but it helped me to get back in the writing zone when I was struggling.

23. Keep hydrated

I cannot stress this enough. Your brain is going to be doing a lot of work when writing up so make sure you keep hydrated so you can focus and keep going. It also helps to get up and walk around every so often. Not far just to stretch your legs out and feel like you've had a bit of a break away from the screen.

24. Switch up your workspace

After 2 months of writing up at home at my desk, every position was uncomfortable and I had lost all motivation. There were suddenly too many distractions around and I wasn't getting anywhere. So I packed all my stuff up and headed to a different environment. Over the last month of writing, I spent my days in the library, at my work desk, some days at home, local cafes or even a hotel when I was away at an event. It helped me get finished so quickly in the end that I wish I had done it sooner. So I highly recommend writing in different places to refocus again. Preferably in a place with a good supply of cake.

25. Break it up into smaller chunks

Okay so theses are already chopped up into chapters, and each if those chapters as a series of subheadings. And sometimes even the sub headings have sub headings. So I say why not take advantage of all these smaller chunks when it comes to maintaining progress and accomplishing a little each day when writing. This also links in nicely to my next piece of advice.

26. Set yourself a goal schedule

Set yourself a submission deadline. It might sound obvious but there were so many students I know that didn't have the hard deadline that I did and just kept writing and refining and not really getting any closer to submission. Utilise all these smaller chunks that your thesis is broken up into and set yourself a realistic and attainable schedule. Remember to factor in time to get any feedback from supervisors too. So you might say that in week 1 of writing up you want to complete Chapter 1 and then edit that chapter in week 7 for example. Find a plan and schedule that works for you.

27. Find yourself a thesis writing buddy

Whether you're writing in a cafe or the library or even at home find someone that can keep you accountable. I joined an amazing Slack community set up by the amazing Krishana Sankar called Grad Write Slack. There were loads of researchers from all across the world working on various writing projects. So no matter what time you were working there was usually somebody - perhaps someone in a different time zone - that you could be productive with and start a few rounds of ‘pomo’ aka tip 4. But having that writing buddy definitely helps, especially if you are stuck and you can bounce some ideas around too.

28. Review your thesis/dissertation before submission

Read through sections you have written to look for spelling mistakes, bad sentencing and bad scientific phrasing. Reviewing your work will also help you to generate ideas for the next sections or chapters and determine what you need to write about next. Going for easy wins (i.e content you already have a good depth or reading) will help you generate content faster and remove some of the procrastination associated with writing. Finally, depending on how busy your PI is or how long they take to read your chapters, the review process can add weeks to how long it takes. Submit your chapters regularly to your PI for correction and critique.

29. Enjoy the day you submit your thesis

The day you submit should be one of the greatest days in your life. You will have spent a lot of time preparing your PhD thesis so why not put some effort into celebrating your achievement. You’ll only do it once so make it epic!

PhD thesis discussion and conclusion

The discussion section of your PhD thesis is where you detail the significance of your findings and explain their implications. It is important to make sure that your discussion is clear, concise, and grounded in your data. Here are some tips on how to write a successful PhD thesis discussion:

If you are struggling with writing your PhD thesis discussion, consider working with a skilled academic writing service. Professional writers can help you develop a strong discussion section that effectively engages with your research findings and conveys their significance to your readers. With their help, you can be confident that your PhD thesis discussion will effectively convey the findings and implications of your research, resulting in a strong final product that is sure to impress your professors and earn you the success you deserve.

PhD discussion and conclusion

1. Start by restating your research question or hypotheses and explain how your findings addressed them.

2. Discuss the broader implications of your findings, linking them to other research or real-world applications.

3. Be sure to discuss any limitations of your study and how they might affect your findings.

3. Finally, end with a conclusion that summarizes the significance of your work and its contribution to the field. PhD thesis discussions are an essential part of any PhD thesis, so take the time to craft one that is thoughtful and well-written.

2nd May 2022 Sean Mac Fhearraigh

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