Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I've Been Down This Road Before

When I wrote my Master's thesis, I had the worst time writing Chapter 1 - Intro and Background. I hated it. HATED it.

It took forever. As far as I could tell, there were two ways to go about things. These two ways are the same when applied to writing the Intro section of a journal paper, too, not just a thesis.

First method

Write one sentence - "Widget A has cool properties 1, 2, and 3" - and then go find the paper that supports that. You look up the paper, print it out, read it (or at least skim, ahem) and file it away. Add the reference to the end of that sentence, then on to the next sentence. Rinse and repeat for an entire chapter. And if you needed to write a sentence like, "Many researchers have tried Process X," then that would be a good hour of finding all the papers to cite for those many researchers. And if you needed to say, "Research in this area has been going on since 1986," then you might as well just throw your hands up and dedicate the afternoon to finding the supporting papers.

Second method

Run a library/journal search for all papers relating to Widget A. Usually get search results in the thousands. Read all papers and try to determine the relevant ones. Then sit down to write your Intro section, citing the appropriate papers as you go. When you get to the end, check to make sure you have cited everything relevant and didn't miss any papers. Of course, I usually have forgotten a lot, because my brain doesn't hold details very well.

Either way I try it, writing the intro section is painful for me. But what made it especially painful for my Master's, I felt, was that I did most of my background and lit searches the first semester I was in grad school. And then I was writing the thesis a year and a half later. I can't even remember what I learned last WEEK (my saving grace is looking at old weekly PowerPoint update slides for reference).

Now I'm embarking upon the PhD, and I have my first committee meeting coming up on Friday. All you really have to present at the first meeting is what you PLAN to do for the PhD - that's why it's a proposal, after all. But in order to justify why I want to do what I'm proposing, I need to know the current state of the art in literature.

And learning about the current state of the art is what I've been doing for the past month of two anyway, while I was writing/updating my proposal document. I've even got all my papers categorized and fully searchable!

So now I come to my point for today: I feel like I've been down this road before. And heaven help me, I'm going to do better this time around.

So I started a document titled "Miss Outlier PhD Thesis." And I am going to add to that document AS I GO, gosh darn it. The intro chapter won't change much between now and when I graduate (at least I hope!), so why not write it now?

The past day or two I've spent tossing all my current knowledge into a growing outline of my thesis. Even if I don't have the info I need, I go ahead and create chapters and subsections that I can fill in later. And even if it's only bulletpoints, I put everything down anyway. It's much easier to expand a bulleted list than to come up with content from scratch.

When I got home from work today, I exported all of what I have so far to a .pdf, in the proper thesis format. Now the formatting means the first 11 pages are nothing - just title/table of contents/table of figures, etc. And the last 5 pages are nothing - just a list of references. And I have a LOT of pictures that take up a lot of room, and probably won't be in the final thesis. And bullet point lists take up a lot of room.

But still.

I have 86 pages.

Man, defining the problem really is half the battle, isn't it?


  1. Write as you go. That's about the only way to get a decent thesis out without massive pain at the end.

    Your reasoning here is sound.

  2. Yes, write as you go. I also think that writing intros to anything let alone a doctoral thesis isn't easy. As you say, defining the problem is really not easy at is half the battle.