Monday, October 19, 2009

Your thesis means nothing. Worry about the papers.

Whether it's tradition or a lack of well communicated expectations, grad students seem to be enormously focused on The Thesis. Students fixate on this document for months before writing it and then for weeks to months of actually writing it. I have to say, I've never quite understood that, because if you had to put odds on the people who will read your whole thesis it would look something like this:

2:1 Advisor
3:1 Committee/Examiners
10:1 Over-eager new student who takes on aspects of your project when you leave
1,000:1 You, after it's done.
100,000:1 Your parents
1238947692092y47nc783et687:1 Everyone else

When I got my thesis back from the binders, I opened it up and read the first sentence. In that sentence, I had a typo that made the word "three" into "tree". Seeing that, I promptly shut the thing and that was that. Never opened again.

The one caveat to this is if you never publish the papers. In that case, the community might find it and someone might crack it open, but probably not. But that's the point. Uncommunicated science might as well never have been done in the first place. Get the papers out. Don't focus on an arcane document that will gather dust for the next 50 years until the departmental office needs space and throws the old ones out. Write the papers, or at least write the chapters as papers so you can get them out quickly after the thesis. If you publish before you graduate, writing your thesis should be about as simple as slapping together a half-assed intro and conclusion (complete with typos that no one catches) and be done with it.

16 comments:

  1. My advisor, thankfully, told me that nothing was going to go into my dissertation that wasn't publishable. So my lit review and all of my chapters were written to be published, and that's exactly what happened. Then when it came time to defend, I merged all those PDFs and had it bound. End of story.

    More departments should go that route IMO.

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  2. I'm not sure I agree. Maybe not many people came across dissertations when they were bound and stored in libraries, but now that everything is online everyone has access to it. I remember finding a dissertation a few years ago that had a description of a failed experiment - one that I was thinking of trying. I got a head start knowing the outcome of the conditions the person used. Publications highlight what works, in a thesis you can outline your thought process, pitfalls and have a complete description of your methods. And if it is online, google will find it.

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  3. Sure, there are occasional exceptions, but keep in mind that even though access to that thesis helped you, I'm talking to the students who are writing up. Having a thesis written up in pub form drastically cuts the time needed to turn it around for publication, which is what counts if you plan to continue in academia.

    Plus only a small percentage of total finished thesis are going online at this point. It'll get better, but the majority of theses written even now are not showing up in Google.

    Even though the traditional thesis format allows for more detail, if it's at the expense of a year before a publication comes out, is it worth it for the student? I would argue no.

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  4. True - in the long-term view of your career! It's hard to live by this advice though when the thesis is an absolute requirement for graduation, and publication isn't necessarily (not in every system, there are many local variations on what is required).

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  5. I wholeheartedly agree! I don't understand why some people spend months writing the damn thing when no one will ever read it. Focus on the papers.

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  6. I totally agree that The Thesis should be converted into publishable material, before or after the defense, but I also think it should be much more than that. I think it is a good thing for a PhD student to go through the exercise of writing/assembling a cohesive 200-page document. I don't think it should simply be a stapling together of 5 research articles, include more background, more derivations, more process and methodology, and a journal of the failed attempts along the way.

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  7. Completely agree, at least for my field. I finished my last manuscript draft a month before a defended, and in that last month, slapped four results "chapters" (i.e. manuscripts) together with an intro, methods, and future directions section. Beautiful. Done. No one cares. People asked why I wasn't more stressed about the damn thing.... I just didn't care anymore.

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  8. I definitely agree. When writing my thesis I was really writing 2 papers to put in. I also totally didn't get why people agonized over the thesis writing - if you are staying in academia papers matter. Write the papers - put some kind of polish on them (even if they aren't done yet) so they can be read by your committee- then get back to the papers.

    Luckly, my thesis advisor was totally on board with this approach and I so I was saved useless extra writing (eg a lengthy Intro and conclusion).

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  9. Space Prof, why make the students do that when it has no relevance to their future career? It's like saying everyone should run a marathon in college because they should have the experience. I actually think it's harder to write a good concise article than to blather on and on about the minutae of failed experiments. It's much more important that students learn what is and is not appropriate for a journal article than it is for them to reach some sort of arbitrary page milestone just to see how it feels.

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  10. I agree completely. This is the advice that I give to all of my students - write papers. It helps with a job search also, since the work will be out there in the community and people may have read it.

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  11. What about learning how to do both? I just finished my MA Thesis and started my Doctorate degree. Even though the pressure is on to publish and I feel lost in how to do it, I loved the experience of writing a thesis. Without it I would not grasp the background work that goes into generating publishable findings. You are correct to say that not many will read my long thesis but I will and know that it represents my learning process. We cannot forget that journal articles leave out the tedious processes behind conducting research. I would argue that BOTH ways of writing teach us different skills and should be taught at school.

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  12. Thta's fine if you felt you needed that experience, but I'm mainly talking about a PhD thesis and what you need to do to move on. It doesn't matter if it was a fulfilling experience for you in the eyes of a postdoc supervisor or a funding agency. You need the papers for that. Plus, how exactly does learning to write a thesis prepare you for anything you will to write after your PhD? It doesn't. You'll never write another document like that unless you work in some European countries that require a similar process for supervising grad students.

    The bottom line is that the papers are all anyone will look at after you graduate. It's great that you enjoyed writing the thesis, but also realize that if you are writing a PhD thesis and need that experience in order to grasp the background to your project, you have a serious problem on your hands. A MSc and a PhD are very different beasts, so don't assume that one experience translates to the next level.

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  15. Cassandra MilfordJuly 2, 2013 at 2:46 AM

    I agree with you that grad student should really concentrate not only on thinking about the thesis paper, but also on writing it. As much as possible, it would be a good idea to have thesis help every once in a while to ease the progress of thesis writing. Anyway, this would certainly help people realize to put your mind on every work.

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