September 24, 2013

Thesis Truths

As of 1:01 PM my dissertation draft has been mailed off to my committee. Six years of work written down onto 200 pages. Yes 200, exactly. It feels surreal to not be working on it right now. I have been consumed with writing, proof reading, and re-writing for the past month. This is what I learned about thesis writing that everyone told me, but I didn’t quite believe until I sat down to write my one myself.

My thesis when it was 172 pages, just 3/4″ tall. They grow up so fast, don’t they?

It will take at least six months to just write your thesis.

I figured using excerpts from a few polished papers as the bases for my thesis would help cut down on the time it takes to write the thesis, but it read like excerpts from separate published papers. It takes time to combine ideas behind several papers into one narrative.

I had a sketch of my thesis last winter. It may sound silly, but I would occasionally spend time tweaking my table on contents to make sure my thesis narrative was clear. I wanted my committee members to be able to gleam not only the problem space and my approach, but also my contributions from the table of concepts, like one might from an abstract. The last few weeks I focused on the cross references, and making sure the hypothesis brought up in the conclusion section of one chapter would be explored in another.

Solid writing isn’t a replacement for solid content. Poor writing, however, can make it difficult for your committee to understand your contributions. It takes time to write well.

A Thesis is Never Done. But it can be done enough.

One my mentors at Microsoft told me that at some point you just have to decide it’s done enough. It can always be better.

A dissertation is supposed to represent very deep knowledge in a single problem. You want to address questions your reading committee might have before they have a chance to have them. When ever you reach a conclusion, you try and think of the implications, the holes. What are the questions my committee will ask? You then come up with experiments to address these ideas, but that begets new ideas and new conclusions that warrant further exploration. There are always more avenues to explore.

One of my committee members suggest writing a “sufficient” thesis, one that is good enough to graduate and not to stress about making it perfect. Her thinking: conference papers and journal articles are more likely to be read, and a good published thesis trumps a near perfect draft.

It’s not about intelligence, it’s about tenacity.

Once you have the green light to write from your adviser you will graduate if you stick with it, it just may take time.

When I started writing my thesis I wasn’t certain that I would graduate. The whole process just seems so daunting. It wasn’t until I was about two thirds done that I really started appreciating all the work that had lead me to this point. At some point during the writing process it just sort of dawns on you that yes, you really are the expert on this topic.

Your committee members will undoubtedly have ideas on how to improve your thesis, and they may want to see changes before they are willing to sign off on it. If you’ve reached this point, however, it’s just a matter of sticking through to the end. You will graduate. I will graduate.

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  1. Yay! And … um, it is daunting to look ahead.

    • Don’t worry, you will get through it too. It just takes time.


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