PhD thesis writing: a humility lesson


My thesis abstract, as it currently stands.


This is what I’ve been up to for the last 3 months. My PhD thesis recently grew to have more pages than my Master’s thesis, without having nearly as many figures. I remember writing the Master’s being a tough exercise, but there are several things I forgot.

The thing is, in large collaborations, you don’t get that much experience doing some scientific writing, unless you have the fortunate experience of being an editor on some note. I’m discovering that I’m not only rusty, I’m not that good at having a neutral objective tone. I write things because I have a vague idea in my head that I try to convey, use imprecise wording to do so and end up being completely misinterpreted. And it turns out the vague idea is not really informative or relevant. Those are things I learn by submitting chapters for revision to my supervisor…

After getting over my feelings, I realize that of course, he’s right. He’s a very brilliant guy who knows me very well. If he sees these things in my writing, what are other people going to read? I like to think of myself as someone who has some clarity of thought. Yet, this assertion is promptly destroyed by an honest assessment of the first version of any of my chapters. Academia is full of character-building experiences. Thesis writing is no exception.

You hear stories of people who locked themselves up in a room for 2 weeks and got out of it with a full thesis. I know some of these stories are true, and I have no idea how that’s remotely possible. I’ve been told I’m writing at a very decent pace, yet, it would be impossible for me to do anything like that.

I try not to blame the fact that I’m not a native english speaker, but honestly, I have no idea how much that affects the quality of my writing. I’m not self-aware enough to notice it. I’ve been thinking about particle physics in english for the last 6 years. It’s actually more difficult for me to think or talk about particle physics in french. I have a few french-speaking colleagues, and we always try to discuss in french. Sooner or later however, we revert to english because the conversation is too tedious in french.

I think I’d be fine with getting these comments if I didn’t care about explaining things clearly when I write. Then at least, I wouldn’t be surprised that my first chapter drafts are confusing and sometimes misleading. The worst part is that every time I write a new chapter, I think I’ve applied the lesson I just learned. But it turns out I just crank out new incarnations of the same mistakes.

In the end I take comfort in the fact that the final version will be much better, thanks to these frank comments from my supervisor. I actually think my thesis will turn out to be something I’m very proud of. I’m also hoping that I’m retaining the humility lessons I’m getting right now. Everything, from science to art, from sports to politics, is made better by a fresh outside perspective. It may hurt your feelings, but whatever you are trying to do will be much better for it. Just make sure you get that perspective from the right people. I believe that people who do not want to hurt your feelings, but risk doing so anyway for the sake of honesty are the most important people you can ever have in your life. They are the secret to success.

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One Response to PhD thesis writing: a humility lesson

  1. Ryan Reece says:

    write yourself due dates for chapters. don’t feel bad about taking longer than 2 weeks. I think 6 months is about right for writing a phd, after all the results are done.

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