How I Wrote My PhD Thesis

Today’s post is by Anne Pawsey, who recently completed her PhD at the University of Edinburgh working on the behaviour of colloids dispersed in liquid crystals. She is currently a post-doc at the Rowett Institute of the University of Aberdeen, but based in Edinburgh. 

I’ve just finished a PhD in soft matter physics and I’m now working as a post doc. Now that the dust has settled on the thesis I can begin to reflect on the writing process. I wrote up in three and a half months.

thesis-anne

Because of an internship, the process of writing my thesis was entirely separate in time from the experimental period and had a hard deadline as I had to submit before starting a post-doc. Despite beign told to “write as you go along” I hadn’t in any meaningful way, so I started with a very rough thesis outline and two published papers. What follows is a collection of things that I learnt along the way. These are simply things which worked for me, there is a lot of advice out there from people more experienced than me (e.g. this blog, The Thesis Whisperer, and others). I read quite a lot of the advice given, mainly as a means of procrastination if I’m honest, and then used the bits which worked for me. I’ll group the things I learnt loosely into practicalities and the writing process and software tricks.

Practicalities

I wrote most of my thesis at home to avoid the distractions of colleagues and to have access to a ready supply of coffee. I took over a small corner of my living room with a desk, desktop computer and a good chair. This was my office. I typically worked there from 8:30am to about 5pm every week day whilst writing up. One of the most important things for me was to treat writing as a job, as such I did not work on my thesis in my pyjamas. I also did not work weekends, I tried to use them to get some fresh air, take a break and see other people.

This approach has downsides, although I kept up some hobbies, there were days when I would not see another human being as I live alone. I wish I’d built more regular excercise and socialising into my days as there were times when I was extremely lonely.

The writing process

I worked 8:30am to ~5pm on my thesis during week days with coffee and lunch breaks. I did not use any specific productivity techniques other than blocking time-wasting sites on the internet but often made bread which requires attention at regular (~30min) intervals. I did not spend the entire day writing, I also revised text, reviewed results or read background material in preparation for writing the next section. I aimed to write a minimum of 500 words a day, this is acheivable and gave a sense of process. I decided that complete figures with a caption and all the correct formatting and cross referencing were the equivalent of 1000 words. Keeping to a regular schedule and having acheivable goals were the best way for me to stay motivated.

I started my thesis with a rough outline, essentially just the chapter headings. I then agreed a timetable with my supervisor about when he could expect each chapter and when he would give me feedback. This was really important for keeping me on track as I work best with fixed deadlines. On the other hand this was really hard work, I think I might have been happier with a slightly more relaxed schedule as there was no let up.

anne-scripts

I structured each chapter into sections and then began to fill them in. I tended to write out the opening paragraghs of each section long hand in a notebook and then type them up editing as I went. Once I had got started on a section it was then easier to keep going, typing straight in. I would then do a full edit once the section was complete. I handed each chapter to my supervisor for feedback and started the next chapter whilst I waited for his comments.

Once I had all the chapters and comments back I made the suggested corrections and sent the revised chapters to a small army of proof readers, one per chapter. Finally, I gave a final copy to my supervisor to check over before printing. With the exception of the first chapter I wrote, I only made one set of major revisions to each chapter prior to submission as this was all there was time for. This resulted in quite a lot of pressure to make the work as complete as possible before my supervisor saw it and required me to spend a time editing and tidying my own work, something which I intensly dislike doing.

Would I do it like this again? I think I would, although, maybe I’d allow myself slightly longer to write or have written more during the PhD. However, the process was hard work but not painfully so. I’m glad I had the support of my supervisor to write in this way as without promt feedback this would have been impossible.

Software

There were three distinct types of software I found useful: LaTeX and associated packages, referencing software, and “productivity software”.

The latter was I’m ashamed to say the most useful. These plugins for your web browser (I used leechblock) block your access to the distracting parts of the internet (facebook, twitter et al) during the working day and crucially do not allow you to alter the settings during this time. I allowed myself 5 minutes access in every hour.

For referencing I used a combination of Mendeley and Jabref. I found that whilst Mendeley was great for searching papers and adding notes, its bibtex output left something to be desired, so I exported these to Jabref before inserting. I have Mendeley set up to watch and sort my random papers folder, I save all papers here and Mendeley sorts them and makes them searchable.

Finally, I wrote my thesis using LaTeX, which I recommend. LaTeX has a steepish learning curve so if you are in the early stages of a PhD I recommend using it early on to get the hang of it. One of the good things is that there are add-on packages which will probably solve the problem you are having. On the downside, you can waste a huge amount of time looking for them and getting them to work. Three hours spent getting a package to work properly does not increase your word count but does function as a very efficient form of procrastination.

This aside, I found there were a few packages which I wish I’d known how to use before I started.
First, the short caption option. To avoid a table of figures sixteen pages long use:
”\caption[short caption for table of figures]{Full caption with all the details}”
Second, the fancy reference package. I’m not a perfectionist and frequently fail to format cross references consistently; this does it for you. The SI package does the same thing for units.
Finally, the subfigure package and all its options, to lay out multipart figures. This page explains all the of the options well. When writing in LaTeX it is useful to be able to count words, I used texcount.

And what about you? How did you write your thesis? Any advice or tip you wish to share with us? Let us know by leaving a comment below. 

Are You Struggling With Your Writing?

Computer-Frustration-Cartoon-2‘How do I write an introduction?’

‘What do I put in my conclusions?

‘How do I manage to keep on track when I feel I have completely lost my motivation?’

‘My submission deadline is approaching fast but I still haven’t completed my thesis and I’m now panicking. What can I do?’

‘How do I decide what to reference in my text?’

These are just some of the questions that I get asked all the time.

Do you relate with any of these? If so, don’t miss my FREE Webinar:

‘How to Write Your PhD Thesis, Proposal, or Research Paper in 5 Easy Steps That Will Save You Time, Stress, and Sleepless Nights’

In this webinar, I’ll be sharing:

  • The single most important thing to get right in your thesis, proposal or research paper
  • My top 3 tips for productive and effective writing
  • The worst mistake you can make and how to avoid it
  • My proven 5-step approach to writing that will help you enjoy it and become more confident

Interested? Then, make sure you register now as spaces are limited and they are filling up quickly.
http://www.handsonwriting.com/webinar

After the webinar, I’m also going to open up registrations to my online course ‘Hands on Writing: How to Master Academic Writing (in the Sciences)’ where I teach the very same strategy that I now use for my own writing and when supervising my PhD students.

And… I’ll be telling you about some juicy bonuses on how to avoid procrastination, stay on track, enjoy a great work-life balance so you can feel confident and in charge again.

I’ll tell you more at the webinar, so just make sure you do not miss it! :)

Here is the link again:
http://www.handsonwriting.com/webinar

good academic writing – it’s about revision not editing

Originally posted on patter:

Creative writers are accustomed to the idea that their writing must go through several drafts. However, much of the advice on offer to academic writers proceeds as if all they have to do is produce a draft which is then edited, tidied up, everything made neat and clean. I have seen many a thesis completion timetable come unstuck because doctoral researchers do not grasp the fact that by and large this is not what happens. Most of us have to do more than one draft of a piece of academic writing. In reality, very few of us write the scintillating introduction, the elegant conclusion, the persuasive argument right from the start. It takes several iterations.

A few people do of course produce brilliant prose early, and consistently. Prolific writers and those who just happen to be good with words do seem to be able to just gallop off a chapter…

View original 815 more words

How Much Feedback Can You Give? (or Take?)

Feedback is a word associated with very ambivalent feelings.

By and large, students need it and seek it. Faculty are loath to give it.

Admittedly, from the students’ perspective, getting feedback is often one of the best and easiest ways to make adequate changes and improve on performance.

For them, feedback should be prompt, relevant and easy to take on board.

On the contrary, from the academics’ perspective, providing feedback is often an extra burden to an already heavy workload and often translates into a painful and tedious activity.

No wonder so many universities score low on feedback on the National Student Survey. We are no execption.

Yet, providing useful, personal and detailed feedback is – or should be – a core activity of any teacher or supervisor who wishes his/her students to do well. So how does one reconcile two apparently conflicting demands?

I found my answer to this question some time ago, as I stumbled upon a blog post almost accidentally.

As it often happens with any serendipitous event, I have soon lost track of the original post, so I’m unable to give explicit credit to its author. But I’m happy to share its wisdom further.

The post suggested a (at least for me) radically different approach to giving feedback. It was an approach that would allow me to give plenty of valuable feedback to each of my students in a relatively short time and with comparatively little effort.

The students, in turn, would enjoy the novelty but most importantly, they would get the benefit of a very detailed and personal feedback on their written work that did not require them to decipher my handwriting or figure out what I had meant exactly with those funny scribbles of mine on their paper.

So, what was this magic bullet, then?

Simple.

Video feedback.

And here is a short video-clip of a real case example of feedback I provided to one of my PhD students on her first year report (the clip is published with my student’s permission):

Cool, isn’t it?

I have become a great enthusiast of this approach because it offers lots of advantages compared to more traditional approaches. Some of the most obvious ones are listed here:

  • I can record the video any time it suits me without arranging a meeting with the student (this is especially useful when one of us is away and arranging for a Skype call may prove difficult)
  • I can provide lots of useful verbal feedback that would probably take me ten times longer if I had to write it all down
  • The student can watch the video whenever it suits him/her
  • the student can watch the video as many times and s/he wants to or needs to
  • I still have the option of adding written feedback on the original document (either through annotations on the doc or pdf file as in my example about or through handwritten annotation using a smart pen on tablet)

So, how does it work in practice?

Well… the way I do it is as follows: the student sends me a report, a chapter draft or any written document that I am supposed to read and provide feedback on. I read the document and take quick notes as I go along, often annotating the pdf or doc file directly. I decide what I want to say in my feedback: I typically start with some general points and then move on to some very specific issues. And finally, I hit the record button on my screencast software.

If a 5-min video is enough for your purposes, the easiest thing is to download and install some free software that allows you to take a screen-capture of your computer screen. When I started off, I used Jing (http://www.techsmith.com/jing.html ): it is very intuitive and easy to use. You launch the program, open the student’s report, select the area on your screen that you want to capture and start recording. Once finished, Jing provides a number of different ways to share your videos, including copying the link to it straight into your clipboard. You can then send the link to the video via email, save the recorded file on your computer or even upload it to screencast.com to share further.

Jing’s only limitation is time. You cannot record videos longer than 5 minutes (although of course you are free to record as many 5-min videos as you want).

If you feel more adventurous or need longer recording capacity, you may consider more professional packages. The video clip above was taken with Camtasia Studio (http://www.techsmith.com/camtasia.html ), a video recording and editing suite. Camtasia is not free, but its capabilities are amazing. (In fact, I have started using Camtasia also for producing high quality videos for purposes other than giving feedback.)

Admittedly, the learning curve with using Camtasia is much steeper at first, but once you grasp the basics you can record, save and export your videos in a matter of minutes.

I’m sure there are plenty of other software out there for you to choose from. These are just a couple of examples that work well for me.

Have I gone away from providing feedback in traditional face-to-face meetings? No. But video feedback has come extremely handy on lots of occasions.

Of course, like everything you do for the first time, providing video feedback may take you a while to get used to, but the time you save in the long run is definitely worthwhile the initial hussle.

So, if you are an academic struggling with finding the time to give your students valuable and detailed feedback, why not give it a try?

And if you are a student who would love to receive video feedback from your supervisors, why not share this post with your them?

I’d love to hear from you. Just leave a comment below.

PS Oh, and if you happen to be the author of the blog post I mention, please know that I’m hugely grateful to you (you know who you are!).

Do You Recognise Yourself Here?

issues

  1. Making a start;
  2. Sticking to a productive routine;
  3. Lacking confidence;
  4. Getting the right structure;
  5. Using the appropriate academic style;
  6. Managing distractions…

These are just some of the most common struggles amongst PhD students according to the survey (over 100 participants) I carried out while preparing for my webinar ‘My Top 3 Tips to Help You Write Your Thesis or Research Paper’.

To be honest, none of it came as a surprise.

That’s because as a student I faced exactly the same problems. And as a supervisor I see my (and other) students struggling with the same issues all the time.

For most of us, academic writing does not come easily. In fact, writing up a PhD thesis or a research paper can be such a daunting task that almost stops you in your tracks.

The good news, though, is that academic writing is a craft that can be learned. All you need is someone to show you how.

As a student, I have been incredibly lucky to have a supervisor who would spend tons of time reading my drafts, providing feedback and telling me exactly what I was doing wrong and how to fix it.

Has it been easy? No.

I struggled and worried and fretted, up to the point I honestly thought I would not make it to submission. But then, little by little, revision after revision, I got there in the end.

And I learned a lot.

This is what I now try to teach my own students and all those who have got in touch asking for help and support.

So, if you see yourself in the figure above, I have good news for you.

I have created an online course for people like you who want to improve their academic writing skills but don’t quite know how.

It’s called Hands on Writing: How to Master Academic Writing in the Sciences

Yet, you do not need to be a scientist to benefit from lots of powerful strategies and tips that can make a difference in your writing and help you become a more productive, confident and successful writer in your discipline.

Registrations for the course are now open. And if you sign up by January 14th (midnight UK time) you get 50% discount.

Several people have already enrolled. Here is how you can join us.

PS If this is not for you but you know someone who might be interested, please pass this on! They’ll be grateful to you :)