Writing a PhD thesis and thoughts from The Thesis Whisperer

Jul 29 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

I've just found the thesis whisper blog. The post I read first was about academic assholes, something that resonated deeply with me. I spend a lot of time on a subspecies of AA, the BSD.

I started reading other posts from TTW and came across this one on The Zombie Thesis. Her idea of a Zombie thesis was one that didn't live - it was ideas but no structure. One of her examples was a thesis with the comments:

he got his draft back from his supervisors with comments like “it is not a thesis yet”, “Where is your voice?” and “this is boring”.


A Zombie thesis can walk and talk, but it isn’t really alive.

A zombie thesis looks like a thesis – with title pages, chapters, graphs and charts – but the parts aren’t quite hanging together yet. This is largely because the apparatus we rely on to orient us in the text: introductions, transitions, topic sentences and so on, are not always in the right order, or they are missing in action.


Although the post was interesting, after reading it I can't give you a one sentence summary. I'm not sure why these problems make it a zombie thesis. But it did make me think about what makes a good thesis.

I think some, if not many, of the problems that TTW outlines in her blog can be / are easily avoided by science PhD's. If you think in terms of scientific papers. The best thesis, which I blogged about before, is one that you get published before you defend. This is not easy. I know. If you write your thesis as a series of publishable papers, then you are being held (by the journal) to a slightly different standard that a "normal/usual thesis". With respect to science, the standard is usually higher. With respect to clarity of presentation, it is almost always higher. With respect to filling in the little details, literature review, and a bunch of other stuff that I think unimportant, the standard in a journal will be lower. No one there cares about a lit review.

I have never understood people who say "you must write a classical thesis, with chapters, and a lit review". In The Olden Dayes, when scientists wrote Bookes, this made sense.  One was producing one's first piece of adult work. Now a days, many of the BSD's write books for their own greater glory, but seldom are they (the books, but possibly the BSD's) the cutting edge science that gets jobs, tenure and grants. Why make students do something that has little relationship to what their Growne-Uppe Job is going to be?

I often joke with my lab that we are a factory that is assessed on our widget production and our widgets are scientific papers. (I know this is a dreadful reductionism that leaches the joy and substance out of what we do. Please, its a joke). If you are going to go work in a widget factory, why insist that the student build a dishwashing machine, if they are never going to do that again (or at least not till they are an old fart)?

My PhD advisor occasionally had a good thing or two to say to his students. One of them was: doing science is not putting another brick in a large edifice. Doing science was part of a living organism that could grow, and contract, and remodel itself. The parts were interactive with other parts. But the bits we make that interact are the papers, the posters, the talks we give. I believe, strongly, that asking trainees to do something that has nothing to do with what they are being trained for is a waste of their time, my time, and an insult to the organism.




3 responses so far

  • whizbang says:

    A thesis or dissertations should represent a body of work that encompasses multiple papers. Yes, the published journal article is the currency of science, but there is some value to putting several papers into the context of "the bigger picture."

    I have seen a number of young scientists who say that they need another paper from their current work. That's the wrong tactic; they need to be thinking about what the next part of the overall story might be and then pursue those experiments to generate the next paper.

    Otherwise, science can end up as a series of observations (no matter how mechanistic at the cellular level) that fail to build a coherent story.

    • mistressoftheanimals says:

      this is exactly right. Part of this is teaching trainees to craft the narrative of their work. I agree that learning how to perceive and present the bigger picture is important. But that still can be done in the context of a paper, or an additional chapter.

  • Dave says:

    The best thesis I ever saw was from an excellent Dutch program, where every chapter MUST be a published paper, and the papers are basically copied and pasted with minimal bells and whistles thrown in. It was much more interesting and, importantly, easier to skim! In the UK, where I graduated, it's still a mixture such that the thesis structure is typically traditional (loooong lit review and very detailed methodology) but you are expected to have already published components of it. I think the view there is that if we old boys had to write a 400 page thesis, then you will too.

    The important point, however, is that by publishing in a good peer-reviewed journal, your thesis will have effectively met the requirement for a PhD (contributing new knowledge) before any official examination. I find that this gives students confidence going in to the oral exam.

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