02 November 2007

Notes on Fisher Files, Sequence II, Episode 3 - Your thesis

Here are my notes on the Fisher Files episode entitled "Your thesis."
  • For the student, the thesis is their first real attempt at scientific expression
    • Time when you stop and summarize what you've done in last few years
    • Watershed moment in your career
    • Your thesis should be well-written, well-formatted, well-thought out and represent a good piece of work
    • Your thesis might not be read much, but that's not the point; the point is the process
    • The thesis is an exercise in bringing something to completion in a graceful and elegant manner
  • Start writing thesis about 9 months before defense
    • Typically work is still in progress at this point
    • The intensive stage of writing comes 3-5 months before the defense
    • Should have data analysis done before intensive phase of writing
    • Advisors and students should decide consciously when the thesis officially starts
  • Length of thesis
    • Length of thesis is debatable; Sam Ting wants 25 pages, Peter starts with a low figure of 40 pages, but his students theses typically end up being 70-80 pages
    • The thesis should not be a bloated work that includes everything
    • It should be concise and readable with an emphasis on what *you* did
  • Steps to planning the thesis
    1. Write an outline down to level 2 (level 1 is the chapters, level 2 is the sections of the chapters). If the student writes a good level 2 outline, Peter usually finds that half the battle is won.
    2. Figure out how many pages each section will be (typically 15-25 parts which are a few pages long).
    3. Make up a writing schedule. Typically encompasses 7 months which may seem long, but that's how long it takes.
  • Writing the thesis
    • Read Strunk and White to get a sense of what good writing is; you want to write a good thesis so that you end up with something that you are proud of
    • Peter's philosophy: the student should minimize explanations or descriptions of work they weren't involved in
    • Example: description of L3 detectors. Student would describe each major component, give major numbers describing their performance, give rough dimensions of the components, and provide good references.
    • Technical details like construction of hardware should go in the appendix and not the main body
    • The thesis should be a story that explains the motivation, design, and execution of the work. However, it should not rely on narrative.
  • In physics, professors won't let their student defend their thesis if the content of the thesis is wrong
  • Peter: won't schedule the thesis defense until he and the student have agreed that the thesis is in its final form (meaning that they know what the result is although the writing of the thesis itself may not be finished)
  • Advisor's role in thesis
    • Key point: good communication between student and advisor early on, otherwise a lot of time can be wasted
    • Advisor should guide and not write the thesis, especially in matters of style, how the thesis is worded, logic
    • Advisor should allow the student to express things in their own way
    • However, the advisor and student obviously have to agree on the conclusion
  • How to mitigate the onerous task of writing the thesis
    • Set intermediate goals (weekly if possible)
    • Give yourself a little treat after you accomplish each goal (e.g. a nice dinner)
    • Ask fellow graduate students and postdocs to look at your drafts as you go along
    • Postdocs can be extremely helpful because they recently wrote their thesis and they haven't been jaded by reading dozens of theses like faculty
  • Senior theses
    • Typically shorter than PhD theses
    • Not necessarily a scientific statement, can simply be a description of what the student has done
    • Peter: will often have students write about instrumentation or a calculation they have done
    • Student should finish their research by September of the senior year, spend fall term writing the thesis, and turn in their thesis during spring semester
    • This gives the student time to enjoy spring semester of their senior year and avoids the crunch of writing just before graduation
  • Summary
    • Plan your thesis well ahead of time
    • Take it slow (which allows people to make reasonable decisions)
    • Talk to lots of people
    • Communicate well with your advisor
    • Remember the goal of writing the thesis is to have a product that you're proud of
    • Remember that the goal of graduate school is to show that you can take command of something
    • Often, while in the process of writing the thesis, the student will become enthusiastic about his/her research topic and realize that he/she can be an expert in a difficult topic that few people understand (this can be quite charming from a faculty standpoint)

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