doctoral thesis

How to Write Your Doctoral Thesis/Dissertation As a Physics Major

Estimated Read Time: 7 minute(s)
Common Topics: thesis, graduate, school, work, writing



At this stage, you have performed your doctoral research work, maybe even have published (or about to publish) a paper or two, and may have presented your work at a physics conference. It is time for you to think about finishing this part of your life. However, before you can do that, you have a couple more obstacles to get through – writing your thesis/dissertation and defending it. We will discuss the first one in this chapter.

You and your adviser should have narrowed down the main points that you will need to cover in your thesis. More often than not, you would have done more than you need during your graduate research work. It is not unusual that a graduate student has studied a number of different areas within his/her field of study, especially at the very beginning of his/her research work. However, it doesn’t mean that anything and everything needs to be included in the doctoral thesis. Your thesis must present a coherent research work that you have accomplished that no one else has done. So you and your adviser do need to be very clear on exactly what area should be included, and what shouldn’t. Chances are if you have published your work in a peer-reviewed journal, the area being covered by that paper would qualify as something that should be covered in your thesis.

Once you and your adviser have agreed on the general scope that should be in your thesis, it is time for you to organize your thoughts and figure out what to write. You should have plenty of practice already by now if you have published a few papers already. So all the advice on writing a paper applies here. Figure out the central points that you wish to convey and try to make your point as direct and as clear as possible. Note also that depending on your school’s requirement, you may have to explore the background of the issues/physics in general terms. This is because, in many schools, your thesis committee may comprise not just individuals who are familiar with your field of study, but also individuals from other fields or even other departments. So pay attention to what needs to be covered based on what kind of thesis committee that you will be facing.

When it comes to the actual writing process, this is where you will need (i) your institution’s thesis guidelines and (ii) copies of the thesis that have already been written. The first one should be available from the graduate school program at your school. Read it carefully. It will tell you a number of things you must follow, including (i) thesis formatting/typesetting requirement (ii) the format and order of the thesis (iii) thesis committee requirements. Pay attention to how your thesis should be written, especially in terms of figures(*), captions, bibliography format, section titles, etc. In some schools, they might even have a read-made template for you to use with your favorite word processor (or even Tex editor) that can make your life easier. Looking at older thesis from your department will give you specific examples of what can and cannot be done. Chances are, your adviser will give you examples of already-approved thesis, or you may even have been referring to one already. So look at all of those as guides. Do not relegate this as something trivial. Your thesis will be looked at by a thesis examiner, who can and will reject it if it does not conform to the format required, and thereby possibly delaying your graduation. Note also that in many schools, the graduate program often has a short briefing on those who intend to submit their thesis in that particular semester. This can be either a 1-hour class or an individual meeting with the thesis examiner. Make sure you attend this and be aware of what is required.

How long a thesis should be is highly subjective. I’ve seen advisers who don’t care how long it is, while others who don’t want it longer than, say 150 pages. I’d say that it should be as long as it needs to be. Don’t ramble on and on and turn it into War and Peace, but you also do not want it to be lacking in details, because these are the details that probably no one else has worked on.

As you are writing it, pay attention to the deadlines that your school has listed if you wish to graduate at the end of a particular year or semester. This is very important because missing it could mean that your graduation will be delayed. If you wish to graduate at the end of the semester, look at first and foremost, when your thesis is due for submission to the graduate program. Now work backward. Move that date two weeks earlier. Why? This is because you want to be sure that if there are unanticipated problems with your thesis, that there’s plenty of time to correct it. So that two-weeks-early date should be the latest you should hand it in. Note that this is your planned FINAL SUBMISSION. This should NOT be the first time you have shown your thesis to the thesis examiner. So you should plan on a meeting with the thesis examiner even earlier than this two-week-early date. For the sake of illustration, let’s put this like 4 weeks early than the final deadline. So 4 week’s before the graduate school’s published deadline, you should meet the thesis examiner for the very first examination of your thesis. There’s a very good chance that you will need to make modifications, hopefully, minor ones if you have paid close attention to the required format. This will give you two weeks left to make the correction and to make your final submission two weeks before the graduate school deadline. Confusing? Hopefully, not.

So it does mean that if you wish to have a completed form 4 weeks before the hard deadline, you need to already have done your thesis defense by then. This means you have incorporated comments you received during your thesis defense into your written thesis, AND have received final approval from all your thesis committee members [thesis defense process will be discussed in the next chapter]. This again takes time. This means that you should schedule your thesis defense at least 2 months before the graduate school’s hard deadline (I would even suggest a little longer). This will give you time to make changes, to send the corrected version to all the committee members, to allow for more changes, and then to get their approval. These things can be time-consuming, trust me!

So if you have to schedule your thesis defense 2 months before the hard deadline, then you should need to contact your thesis committee members before then to schedule your defense. Sometimes it can be a chore to get a suitable date, so plan ahead. It also means that you now have a good idea of when you should be done with the writing of your thesis! So pay attention to that date! It is the clearest indicator that, if you want to graduate at the end of that semester, you must be done writing by that date! Your thesis committee members will need to have your thesis in their hands at least a week before you can call for your defense. So if you work this backward again, you should have a good idea of the date where you should be all done. Knowing this, it will guide you on when you should start writing your thesis, and how fast you have to work to be done by that date.

Note that, depending on how involved your adviser wants to be, he or she may want to see the progress of your thesis as you are writing it. You may also want to consult with him/her along the way as you are progressing. This may save major revisions afterward especially if both you and your adviser don’t see eye-to-eye. Fine as this may be, you should always keep in mind that the thesis should be your own work and not expect your adviser or anyone else to write parts of it for you.

Hopefully, this guide will give you an idea of what to expect, especially on time management. The last thing you want to have is sleeping deprivation while writing your thesis simply because of things you haven’t anticipated, or you didn’t give yourself ample time.

(*) The issue of how figures can be displayed in a thesis can be a major headache. Most thesis requirements do not allow for color figures because your thesis will be sent to a service that will archive it as microfilm. This destroys all color effects. In some schools, they will allow you to make two versions of your thesis – one with a color figure that can be used as the distribution/department/library copies, while another for microfilm archive.

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