Writing the Ph.D. Thesis: Remember to Read, too

October 10, 2015

An important part of writing the Ph.D. thesis (or any other long document) is to actually write and avoid stalling in fear of the writing not being perfect. The text will never be perfect, especially not the first time writing it, and is better approached iteratively in a “write, correct, write, correct, write, correct,…” sequence.

At the same time, gaps in understanding or in a line of arguments might reveal themselves during the writing, which may create an urge to read and re-read references to understand and to be able to fill those gaps. Especially in the beginning of writing my Ph.D. thesis, I felt this and did a lot of reading before writing – partially, I think, in fear of my presentation of the material not being perfect.

Later in the writing process, however, I have become more wary of a lot of reading, because as stated initially writing the Ph.D. thesis is mainly about writing and less about thoughts of writing. Therefore, when I hit those gaps, I often skim references to find the pieces of information that can fill my holes of understanding.

Researchers do a lot of this kind of skimming in the place of reading, to save time I presume, and often skimming is sufficient. But authors have taken the time to write a coherent document, and not fragments of information, for a reason, and in the process of skimming one might miss important arguments or reservations – which could make the interpretation of information retrieved during skimming incomplete or, worse, wrong.

I’m very much pro working at work, and doing something else at home, but as my thesis submission deadline is approaching, I felt like working on my thesis today (Sautrday). However, I also felt a bit stuck in the chapter I’m currently working on due to some holes in my understanding.

So instead of continuing the writing and/or skimming of references, I read two relevant papers in their full length (+ the supplementary material of one of them) and summarized my newly gained understanding and questions. In that way, I have a better starting point for continuing writing and also, with a relatively modest effort, made this day fairly productive Ph.D. thesis-wise.

In conclusion: Reading selected and relevant references in their full length during Ph.D. thesis writing is important, too.

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