How to Write a Ph.D. Dissertation

E. Robert Schulman and C. Virginia Cox
Charlottesville, Virginia


In this paper we demonstrate that writing a Ph.D. dissertation can have many benefits. Not only do you obtain extensive typesetting experience, but afterwards you can have your frequent-flyer literature addressed to "Dr. Your Name."

Chapter I: Introduction

Ph.D. dissertations (e.g., Schulman 1995a; Cox 1995) are commonly believed to be comprehensive compendiums of the original research done by a graduate student in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.² In reality, the Ph.D. thesis is usually a number of disparate chapters whose most important feature is not the thoroughness of the experimental description but rather the width of the margins. In this paper, the second article in a series on scientific writing that began with Schulman (1996a), we will discuss the phenomenon of the Ph.D. thesis.

Chapter II: Preparing to Write

There comes a time in the life of every graduate student when she or he realizes that another two years of graduate school cannot be endured. Even though a year spent writing your thesis will be filled with frustration and angst, it will end up being worth it in order to escape school forever.

Remember the following phrase: "No one will ever read your thesis.'' You'll hear this phrase a number of times as you finish up, and it's vitally important that you believe it to be true. The phrase is important because without it you would be tempted to work on your thesis until everything is perfect, and you would never finish.

(Image credit: Flickr user lunita lu)

Say "It's good enough for the thesis" to yourself several times a day. Tell yourself that you'll correct all the mistakes when you turn the various chapters into independent scientific papers, even though this won't happen (see Schulman 1996aand references therein).

Chapter III: Your Thesis Committee

Your thesis committee should consist of between four and nine researchers in and outside of your field. Each committee member has a specific duty.

Your thesis advisor has the most important job: to reassure you that you don't have to do many of the things you're positive you should do. She or he will likely say, "It's good enough for the thesis'' fairly often.

You also need one committee member who will insist on more mathematical rigor, one who will demand that the thesis be made more concise by getting rid of all that irrelevant math, and two or three to say that you should do all the things your thesis advisor told you didn't need to be done.

There should also be at least one committee member who will never read the thesis, and who will therefore ask only general questions at your thesis defense. The other graduate students who attend your defense will often bet on which professors read your thesis. Be prepared to determine the winner (note that it is not considered sporting to participate in this game yourself).

Try to set a defense date early so as to give your committee ample time to schedule conferences, vacations, and/or elective surgery for that day.

Chapter IV: Producing the Thesis

Legend has it that doctoral students in ancient times used to produce their dissertations using a device called a "typewriter." While there is some archeological evidence for typewriter use in the past, many researchers doubt the plausibility of such claims (e.g. Schulman 1995a).

(Image credit: Flickr user urbanmkr)

These days, dissertations are produced using word processing programs such as Word or Word Perfect, or computer typesetting systems such as TeX or LaTeX. The former will give you practice in drawing by hand all the symbols that aren't supported, while with the latter you have the opportunity to craft new typesetting definitions to satisfy your university's dissertation policies. For example,
\long\def\printfrontnonchapter{\vfil\eject \rightpage\null\vskip 1in \centerline{{\bf \Uppercase{\frontnonchapterheader}}}\vskip 22pt plus 73pt \relax\bigskip\setwidespacing \frontnonchaptertext\par} (Jerius 1992).

Be sure not to choose the wrong method of producing your thesis.

Chapter V: Writing the Thesis

The Ph.D. thesis usually begins with a pithy quote, after which there will sometimes be a dedication to one's parents, life partner, and/or pet tapir.

Following this is probably the most important part of the dissertation: the acknowledgments section. This is the only section that everyone who picks up your thesis will read. They will happen upon your dissertation in the library and flip through the first few pages, looking for a juicy acknowledgments section. This is your chance to make obscure references to secret loves, damn various faculty members with faint praise, or be very mysterious by having no acknowledgments section at all so that everyone wonders what you're hiding.

After the acknowledgments should be the various tables of contents, denoting the page numbers on which the reader may find every section, subsection, subsubsection, figure, table, appendix, footnote, and semicolon in the thesis.

Next comes the first thesis chapter, the introduction, which is judged on the basis of how far back in the past you start. Although the introduction is supposed to enable someone with no knowledge of your field to read and understand your thesis, this is an impossible goal. Instead, simply reference sources such as Rontgen (1896), Galileo (1610), Aristotle (-350), or other similarly ancient researchers. The idea to get across is that your work, being based on the work of great scientists of the past, must be truly worthwhile. Even though these works have little to do with your research, your committee isn't going to look up the references.

After the introduction come chapters that describe what you did, where you did it, when you did it, why you did it, and how much more work has to be done before you can obtain definitive results. This last point is usually discussed in the concluding chapter.

Chapter VI: The Thesis Defense

Remember those dreams you used to have about going to class and finding out that there was a big test that day for which you hadn't studied? The thesis defense is worse, because you find out that although you studied very hard, you didn't study the right things.

Your committee members aren't going to waste their time asking you about your research, because you know more about that than anyone else in the world. Instead, they will ask questions that are really about their research or--if they are in a particularly punchy mood--about fundamental mathematics.

The fun part is that at most universities the first part of your defense is open to the public, so that your parents will probably want to come and videotape the event.

(Image credit: Flickr user chnrdu)

Chapter VII: Rewriting

Your thesis defense was tough, but you survived. Your committee members have signed a piece of paper saying that they are satisfied with your dissertation as long as your thesis advisor is happy with the revisions you make. Don't fall into the trap of trying to make everything perfect! Remember the phrase from Chapter II, "No one will ever read your thesis."

Once your advisor is happy with the revisions, take one unbound, unperforated, paginated copy of your dissertation, two copies of your abstract, one extra copy of your title page, the signed evaluation forms from your committee members in a sealed, notarized envelope, the receipt proving your payment of the Thesis Publication Fee, your diploma application, and proof of your doctoral candidacy enrollment to the Bureaucratic Office of Records, Education, and Dissertations (your requirements may vary; void where prohibited).

The folks at BORED will take a ruler to every page in your thesis, making sure that all the margins are correct and insisting that you go back and redo them if even one page is wrong.

Chapter VIII: Distributing Your Thesis

You've passed the format check, and it's time to make a hundred copies of your thesis and distribute them to departmental libraries all over the world so that everyone in your field can read it. Your advisor should pay for the photocopying and postage (see Schulman & Cox 1997 for a detailed justification).

Try not to think of all the errors lurking in your thesis as you address the envelopes to Professor Famous or Doctor Influential. You want to publicize your dissertation as much as possible so that prospective employers will at least have heard your name.

Some journals will publish brief summaries of your dissertation (e.g. Schulman 1995b; Schulman 1996b), but be warned that these journals may want you to format your summary quite specifically. The requirements for the mini-Annals of Improbable Research are particularly restrictive; it can be difficult to summarize five years of work in five lines of text.

Chapter IX: Conclusion

(Image credit: Flickr user Mr.Tea)

Congratulations, Doctor! You've escaped from graduate school and can now have your frequent-flyer literature addressed to Dr. Your Name, complain when forms only list Mr/Ms/Mrs, and smirk when surgeons whine about all the people with academic doctorates who are making the title meaningless for medical doctors. Go out and make the world a better place.



1. There is no note 1.
2. One does not actually need to include any philosophy in the thesis unless one is getting a Doctorate of Philosophy in philosophy, and even in that case the philosophical component can be minimized (e.g., Kaplan 1996).


This article is republished with permission from the September-October 1997 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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