Friday, 14 November 2014

Writing up a PhD thesis doesn’t have to be hard (Sam Manna)


Write till you drop
(Photo by Nenyaki | www.flickr.com/photos/nenyaki)
Anybody who has completed a PhD will tell you that it’s not easy, and I'd agree.

Most people would say that the hardest part was writing, and that's where I disagree!

Don’t get me wrong: writing up my own PhD thesis and publications wasn’t easy. But the “I will start writing up after all the research is done” attitude of many PhD students makes the writing process much harder than it needs to be. It also leads to the PhD taking longer!

In this blog post, I want to share a few pieces of advice on writing up a PhD.



1. Write and publish as you go – make the time!

I was once told by a professor that I would never have as much free time as when I was a PhD student. So, being ‘busy’ is not an excuse for not writing throughout your PhD. Even 1-2 hours a week of writing will add up in the end.

In my second year of the PhD, I had already started writing manuscripts for publication. By the time I finished my lab work and was ready to write full-time, I had four publications. Putting my thesis together was a breeze! I cut 1-1.5 years off my PhD this way. It also meant examiners couldn’t pick on my research as it had already been peer-reviewed.

2. Don’t be a perfectionist – the first draft is never good!

"That sounds terrible," "I don’t know how to word this." Do these sound familiar?

Editing while you are still writing the document is a terrible habit! Whenever I began writing a new document, I always struggled (and still do!). I now realise that it won’t be perfect on the first go.

Don’t spend 30 minutes trying to get the wording of one sentence just right on the first try. Instead, aim to get your thoughts onto the page.

After you've written the document, fix the parts you don’t like. If you can’t fix a section, ask a colleague's opinion. Another person’s perspective can help!

3. Feedback and drafting – it’s nothing personal!

I have noticed that I am much better at editing other people’s drafts than my own. I can pick up errors in my colleagues’ work but then make the same mistakes in mine. This is why it is essential to have others review your work. They will pick up things that you can’t see.

Don’t be offended by the feedback. Nobody is perfect, and every first draft I have seen always has plenty of things that need to be fixed. I know of students who will hand a draft to somebody, expecting it to come back with minimal changes. This attitude is not productive. In fact, you should be disappointed to get something back from someone with minimal changes. That was probably not reviewing, but proof-reading (if that!).

Be open to feedback. You need to be willing to hear and accept negative comments from people or you will not thrive!

If you keep these things in mind, you will find the PhD experience - and the writing process - far more enjoyable.

So, regardless of what stage you are at with your PhD, don’t make it harder for yourself. Get writing now!

Sam Manna completed a Bachelor of Biological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University (2006-2009). He is a molecular biologist and recently completed his PhD (2010-2014) in mitochondrial genetics at the Department of Microbiology, La Trobe University. 

Sam’s work has been presented at several conferences and published in international journals. He currently works in the Department of Microbiology as an Associate Lecturer where he supervises honours research projects and lectures in microbial genetics and infectious disease to undergraduate microbiology students.

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