So, I guess most of you will know that you have to write and submit a thesis to get a PhD. It’s basically a book on your research, detailing what experiments you did and why, what you found, etc. Now, as you may have gathered from reading my blogs (thank-you!), I’m coming towards the end of my PhD, meaning I’m now starting to write this book... well, at least trying to anyway! It’s something that’s been in the back of my mind since I started, and now it’s time to start tackling it, it’s really scary! – I’ve never written anything that long, so it just seems daunting right now.
Some people will stop doing lab work and concentrate on writing full time – I’m not currently doing that, as I have not finished my projects yet. Now, I originally thought that writing while still doing lab work would be... well, not easy, but... do-able; it’s actually proving trickier than I anticipated. The difficulty is that lab work obviously takes time out of your day, so even if you start writing and get into a good flow, you may need to disrupt that to get back to lab work, which then makes it hard for you to get back to writing. Or, you may only have a short gap between stages of experiments, which makes it difficult to get started. How do you find the motivation in those scenarios?
Another thing that has an impact on me is the fact that my projects are still not complete, therefore what can I write about? Is there any point in starting something that may change anyway? – knowing what research is like, what you think will happen may not actually happen at all! Also, if you are aiming to get your research published, should you be concentrating on writing your thesis or the paper? – I personally say concentrate on the paper, as that will be an important factor when applying for jobs, and also when you come to do your viva (so I’ve heard). You can then modify the paper for your thesis – win-win really! Or put the papers together as a thesis, which I believe is now possible in my department.
One saving grace has been being around post-doc.s; it’s so helpful to hear about how they approached their thesis. Most have said something along the line of “start with your materials and methods/introduction”, and that’s the approach that I’ve taken. And I have to say that it’s great to know that I won’t have to sit down and write a whole materials and methods section from scratch! Of course, your supervisor/other academics will be able to advice you too; interestingly, I’ve had one piece of advice that it’d be better to concentrate on finishing lab work, and writing full time after; now, I can see advantages to that, as you probably gathered from above. However, due to the fact that my project is not finished, I’m currently concentrating on lab work. Who knows, I may finish lab work at some point in the spring, maybe I won’t...
How you approach writing a big “report” like a thesis varies from person to person; I guess the trick is finding what works for you. My advice for those about to embark on something similar, like your thesis or a final year dissertation, would be to start with the introduction and materials and methods, like I was advised. That has definitely worked for me, and that can be started even before you have a definite idea of what the outcome of your project is. Another thing I find helpful (and what I should start doing more often!) is finding somewhere to go and write; library, café, doesn’t matter. It’s better to be away from the office/home with the intention of writing, and I’ve recently discovered the graduate commons areas in 10W (4th and 5th floors); I went there with my laptop and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, as I find background noise distracting and music helps me concentrate better, and was more productive writing there than in the office. If you are still in the lab like I am, just find a couple of hours where you are not doing anything in the lab, go somewhere else and start writing.
Now, do I have a gap tomorrow...?