Often they tell me the most important thing they have learned, or give me tips and ideas for a post based on their experience of doing a PhD. I thought I would start sharing some of these letters with you in a “Dear Thesis Whisperer” column.
Here is the first, from Joanne Hall who recently submitted her thesis in maths at RMIT. When she isn’t studying maths Joanne volunteers with Girl Guides, plays in puddles with her son and discuss geeky things with her husband.
June 14, 2011
Dear Thesis Whisperer
I have just submitted my Thesis. Hooray! Thanks for an excellent blog, it has helped me immensely. Now that I have a bit of time, I thought I’d share an idea that I have found useful. The separation of research from writing.
When you know a topic really well, as happens towards the end of a research degree, a lot of important facts are in the forefront of your mind. Sometimes your memory fails and you find yourself thinking `who?’ or `how many?’ or `when?’. It is tempting to stop in the middle of a paragraph to search for the fact. Don’t do it. This will kill the flow of ideas.
I take this advice from Sci- writer Cory Docotorow. When writing, don’t research. This sounds counter intuitive, especially when writing to obtain a research degree. Getting ideas written down is difficult. Finding facts is a much easier if tedious task. But it is a waste of creative energy. This is no disrespect to my colleagues in experimental or social sciences who must undertake months of labwork or fieldwork to find facts (I study pure mathematics.)
I use the symbol XXX in my writing:
`In XXX Schwinger discovered that …’ or ‘XXX is the smallest number for which …’
When I have done a solid creative writing stint (maybe 30min), I then switch to the easier task of chasing down the facts required to fill in the blanks. I can go through and find all the places where I have written XXX and fill in the blanks:
‘In 1960 Schwinger discovered that’ or `14 is the smallest number for which…’
Ideas are the valuable part of research, but if not written down, they can be lost. Facts can be retrieved. You read it somewhere? You can find it again. I also use XXX to surround pieces of text that need fact checking. e.g:
‘A quantum state is described by a XXX density matrix XXX.’
I have a bibliography item XXX, so that I can include a reference that I can’t remember.
In summary, collecting facts is an important task in any research project, however it is not a task that should be done in the middle of a sentence.
If you would like to send me a “Dear Thesis Whisperer” letter you can find my details on my contact page.