After three months of thesis writing the end is in sight. Since my last post I’ve been finishing off my discussion chapter and have completed the introduction. I’m happy to say that it’s all nearly over as last Friday (30th), I had three copies of my thesis printed and sent off for binding! With that in mind I thought I’d share some of the things that stood out for me in the final month and finishing off.
Firstly, I found the introduction the most difficult chapter to write. After four years of work there are a lot of things buzzing around in your head that probably need introducing. This hectic thought process is of course the same for all chapters in your thesis; yet for the introduction I found it particularly tough. For the results chapters it’s not such a big issue, you know the job that needs doing and clear description is key. For the discussion chapter those buzzing ideas and thoughts weren’t too much of a problem either. Collecting them together and looking back through the results sections focussed the thoughts and gave a narrative thread to my thesis, which helped in picking out what rambling ideas were actually important for the discussion.
For me these buzzing ideas raised, what I think, are some of the most important things to consider when embarking on your introductory journey. You’ve just worked your way through your own data, selling all the good stuff you’ve done and placing it alongside the rest of your field. You’ve hopefully been able to pose some interesting ideas of how you “think it all works” and raised the most important things that need to be done moving forward. It is therefore quite tricky to take a step back from your thesis and think “what if I didn’t know all that stuff I’ve read over the last four or more years?”. The key question is what do your examiners need to know to work through your thesis and how are you going to cover all those relevant issues? This was something I found really difficult with the introduction.
During my initial thesis planning I had just thought, well I’ll need to introduce X, Y and Z, listed bullet points and subsections, leaving what seemed like a fair and thorough summary of the relevant literature. That’s all well and good, but when you actually sit down to write it and realise that X, Y and Z actually means X.x, X.x.x, X.x.x.x and so on, the task seems altogether more daunting and ultimately, wrong. It was at this point that a new plan was required!
To further complicate matters, I had to plan how I was going to integrate two very large bodies of literature. My work focusses on events that occur in moving cells when two sets of instructions – both of which are extensively studied independently – intertwine. It was here that I realised why, in my mind, it’s important to write the introduction last. I went back to my results and discussion to see what themes had most consistently reared their head and combined this with those big aims you have at the start of your work. This gave a single idea off which I could hang relevant literature for the two sets of instructions. This kept me focussed on my message and was also handy as it gave me clear boundaries for what I could refer to as “beyond the remit of this introduction”.
I found that being able to fence off parts of the literature really emphasised the need to tell a story. Having a core idea that you hold throughout that introduction is great, but without regular referral to that idea – and an interesting smattering of your own critique of other peoples work – it can easily become a random brain-dump of literature. This is where careful citation is required, but also welcomes another elephant into the room – what papers do I cite and how in-depth do I go?
The prevailing opinion from my supervisor and other lab members was that extra attention is required when selecting literature that is central to your work. This meant that if a certain set of instructions in the cell are really important for your work, it is crucial that you go back and find the relevant, original literature for that field. I also read a really interesting post by Pat Thomson about the age of the literature cited in a thesis, what its says about you and what an examiner might think. This really helped me in selecting a mixture of older original literature for core ideas and then some newer review articles for broader concepts.
Once I had considered all these things I was able to get back into the flow of writing and although it was a slower process than in other chapters, it did come together in the end. I think that the process of planning and keeping organised have been key in completing my thesis and hope that some of the things I’ve shared will help those who might read them. In the end it’s just exciting to have my own “big blue book” to look at.