How I Completed My PhD Thesis

I just received my books from the printer–my PhD thesis printed as a book! It’s truly an astounding moment. I can leaf through this book and know that I wrote every page of it… crazy.

It was certainly a journey of perseverance that got me here, and I’d like to share the main steps along my writing path.

My PhD thesis describes my empirical research in neuroscience, which includes reading papers, coming up with a research idea, creating the research design, getting feedback, carrying out the experiment (collecting data), analyzing the data (lots of analyzing…), getting feedback, writing a paper, presenting the results, and getting more feedback. (Do you see a pattern with all the feedback?)

What’s in a PhD thesis?

I started my PhD in October 2016, so I did research for five years before beginning to put together my PhD thesis, and fortunately I already had two published papers, which became chapters 2 and 3 of my book (you can find them here and here). I finished another experiment towards the end of 2021 and wrote that up to become chapter 4. (I’m glossing over this part a bit, but writing a chapter or a paper is a lot of work on its own. However, I’d like to focus on something else here…)

Then came the hard part: writing the introduction and discussion. The introduction became chapter 1 of my thesis, and in it I aimed to summarize the main theories in the field and explain how my research answers an important question. It’s a difficult part to write because it starts out very general and all-encompassing (e.g., what is visual perception), and yet it needs to become very specific (e.g., explaining how my experiments inform the field).

Break it down

I felt that writing the introduction was daunting. It felt like a big thing looming over my head. Could I do it? I decided to apply the approach I advocate to other people: break it down. Identify the small parts and focus on one at a time. A small part is much less daunting, and I felt like I could handle one small part to write.

I broke down the big introduction into paragraphs, and I tackled one paragraph at a time. In order to do this, I created a detailed outline, where one sentence indicated one paragraph. The text color was black, and as I completed a paragraph and moved on to the next, I changed the color of the completed paragraph to gray. Early in the writing process, my outline looked like this:

An excerpt from the outline of my introduction.

In the end when my introduction was complete, the whole outline was in gray. Ah, was that a gratifying sight! Then, I received feedback from my supervisor and edited the text, after which the introduction was DONE!

In the flow

It was time to write the discussion. This is the part where I bring my research findings together and integrate them with the rest of the field. Basically, I explain what my work has contributed to our knowledge and how it fits with the rest of the research. I approached this in the same way: I made a detailed outline where each sentence indicated a paragraph and tackled one paragraph at a time.

Wow, was this part fun! The reason we do research in the first place is because we want to expand our knowledge, we want to contribute to the understanding of the brain, in my case. And in the discussion, I had the opportunity to go wild and explain what we know now, what we don’t know yet, and speculate about what could be the ground truth… exciting!

The fact of the matter is, though, I had time pressure during this part. My husband’s father was very ill at that point, so we chose to visit Jacob’s family in South Africa. We booked our flights, and I had five days to write the last 2-3 pages of my discussion. This may not seem like a lot, but it involves lots of reading papers, thinking, and synthesizing information.

I experienced laser focus during those 5 days. I wrote my conclusion (the final part of the discussion) on Saturday morning (our flight left on Sunday). I wrote for 4 hours straight in the bedroom, occasionally uninterrupted by William who was curious about what was keeping mama so busy on the laptop. Finally, I was done! It’s crazy how circumstances can truly cause us to focus sometimes.

Practicalities

This was hardly the end of the process, however. There are lots (and I mean LOTS) of practicalities that need to be completed after finishing the writing part. I compiled a Trello board with all of them and checked them off one by one as I completed them (this is only an excerpt and by no means the entire list of tasks):

Some of the tasks I had to do after completing my PhD thesis.

There were lots of little tasks to keep track of, and I’m glad I used my favorite Trello boards, lists, and cards to keep track of everything. I am still doing this now as I am organizing the defense and the events around that. It’s exciting to be organizing my defense, but I could also easily get worried about forgetting some small but crucial step. Fortunately, this method allows me to stay calm as I take care of tasks, one by one.

It was a true joy to receive my books! Wow, what a process it’s been to get me here… Now I get to enjoy the end product and defend my thesis, of course!!! More on that coming soon!

Me, super happy, holding my book.

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