With 9 months left on the clock before I have to submit, it’s time for the bakingbiologist to start writing. Given I haven’t exactly finished lab work this is a slightly terrifying prospect, but two weeks ago I took to it with gusto on the instruction of my supervisor. It turns out that ‘You should start writing’ is actually supervisor-speak for “We should have a meeting about how one writes a thesis and what I expect from you” and cheerfully producing a first draft of Chapter 1 is liable to lead to cross words rather than exclamations of joy, but more on that another time.
This week’s most valuable lesson is: Before you start writing a thesis, write a thesis plan! For one thing, it allows you to defend your structural choices and talk about figures before you’ve put in two weeks of solid work, and when you’re not feeling protective about the work because you haven’t already done it.
But what is a thesis plan supposed to look like, anyway? Opinions seem to vary widely, and given the absence of any recently graduating students to steal a previous draft from I took to the internet in the hopes that I might find inspiration. Alas, it seems that there are as many ways to write a thesis plan as there are to extract DNA and I was none the wiser of what was expected of me. Two days later, and having gleaned help from a geneticist friend, a cell biology friend, a plant sciences friend, and two physicists I have come upon a structure that led to a happy meeting with the supervisor, and so I thought I’d share it.
Step 1: Write out your chapter titles, even if that’s just Results Chapter 1 (but if you can manage to make it ‘The characterisation of GapDH in Solanum persicum’ then all the better!)
Step 2: Split each of those chapters up into everything that goes in them. (Think about all of the different techniques you used. Include sections for cloning and sequencing and subsequent bioinformatics.) You may want to include separate Methods and Discussion sections within each chapter.
Step 3: Figure out what the Objectives and Hypotheses for each chapter are. This shows your supervisor that you actually know what you’re talking about and why you did the work.
Step 4: Make a list of Figures and Tables that go in each chapter. The pack was split on this one, but I included them so it was clear what data I had and where my argument was going to go.
Step 5: Bullet point the Introduction and Discussion sections of each Chapter. Again, this is about showing you know where your chapter sits in the context of the thesis, and that you know what will come out of it eventually.
Step 6: Annotate to make it clear what is done already (e.g. figures you’ve already prepared for posters) and what needs doing
Step 7: Add a timescale (or include a separate Gantt chart)
Step 8: Wherever necessary add explanatory sentences to make it clear what is going on in each section. A few lines here and there will make it much clearer what the section is about, and could save you 10 minutes of discussion later on.
I’m not saying that this will fill your supervisor with joy, but mine seemed suitably placated, and it might be a useful starting point.