Physics thesis: 10 tips from experience to get through writing yours successfully

In Tips & Advice by Rossá Mac CiarnáinLeave a Comment

Rossá Mac Ciarnáin

Rossá Mac Ciarnáin





1. Plan each day

Before turning on the computer and getting lost in the endless internet, write down a plan on paper for what you want to get done that day. Do the most important or difficult things first while your brain is fresh, later in the evening is best for doing menial repetitive tasks such as drawing setups or searching for repeated grammar mistakes. Take one small task at a time and block the rest of the thesis out.

Concentrating on drawing one setup diagram is much more agreeable than thinking about your whole thesis! It also feels good to strike small tasks off the list with a red pen! Also, remember that it is much more efficient to finish a task while you are into it (“in the zone”) and working well, than leaving and planning to finish it in the next day.

In the morning you will only have to get your head back into the process of what you are doing, which would be using up valuable time all over again. This can also be clearly experienced from experimental work. Also, batch work is a good idea, i.e. do all your setup diagrams in a row. Tasks are easier when you are repeating them and “in the zone” for this exact type of work.

2. Writing
I suggest brainstorming each chapter and sub-section on paper first, writing a list of all topics that come into your head which should be covered, then play around with their order.

Have a section in your file system (physical or computer) where you write your common grammar or other writing mistakes. You can use the search function of your word processor to find these mistakes and fix them all at once, saving your supervisor time and not making them upset by seeing the same mistake repeated ?.

From my experience of my physics proofreading service, everybody has characteristic writing mistakes which they repeat. After your supervisor giving you your pages back covered in red ink a few times, you will see which mistakes you keep making. Do not feel down when your supervisor crucifies your work, remember they are the expert, each thing you fix will have your thesis moving closer and closer to a higher grade.

3. Abbreviations
Make abbreviations for often repeated phrases in your work.

Make an index of these abbreviations to include in your thesis.

This will make your thesis a lot more readable. Make sure your abbreviations do not cause confusion like this famous example!




4. Give yourself a boost by starting with methods
To increase your motivation and confidence, start with the methods chapter. You can get a good start on it by simply making sense of and writing down the information in your lab notebook etc.

This is the easiest chapter to write. You just have to think back and detail what you have done, giving all the necessary details for a physicist reader to follow your work.



5. Importance of introduction and conclusion

These are the parts that everybody apart from your supervisor and examiners will read to judge your work. The introduction should introduce the reader to your field of research and its importance.

Problems and questions when you started should be addressed along with which tools and results of other people you started with.

It is very important to be clear here exactly what work you did. Then state and briefly explain the key goals of your work. You do not need to give your exact results in the introduction. This makes people interested to read more of your thesis, or at least to read the conclusion too.

6. Diagrams

It can ruin the readers appreciation for your whole work if your diagrams do not look professional. If you want the reader to take your results seriously, you need to have serious presentation. For experimental setup diagrams I found Powerpoint to be the ideal program.

You can really make any kind of shapes and lines necessary to quickly show a setup with a professional look. Remember to keep all your setup diagrams throughout the thesis in a consistent style.

For data diagrams, please do not use Excel or Word, Origin is quick to learn and you can control every aspect of the diagram’s form. As with every program, simply search the web for instructions on how to perform any function and the answer will be there.

Throughout your thesis, check that you have given error bars in diagrams and written errors for every quantitative value. Label all axes clearly with units. Always label multiple panels, with letters a,b,c for example. This enables the text to clearly reference the exact point in the diagram you wish to talk about.

7. Mental block

If you become stuck while writing, don’t waste time, get away from the computer! Get outside, take a walk, meet a friend for a cup of tea.

With this freedom, your subconscious will work on the problem and when you return your brain will have come up with some new ideas and you will be much better able to work.

Take breaks often to keep your brain fresh. I found it very important and rewarding to keep scheduled sport and social commitments while writing my thesis. You will be able to work better when you are writing because of your time away from your desk. It really is more about quality productive writing time than quantity!

8. English grammar

If you find you are spending too much of your precious time trying to find the correct English words and grammar you can ask me for my help.

I am the expert in physics and English, for example, it might take you 10 hours to get the English right for a section, I can do it quickly in one hour. One hour of my time is cheaper than 10 hours of your time.

As a recent physics PhD graduate, I understand the stress of writing a thesis so I offer my service at a student price to help physicists get their work properly communicated.

It is my passion to help great physics ideas and results be read by the world.  

9. Style and voice

The most important thing in scientific writing is that the sentences that you use should only mean one possible thing, that is to say, do not be ambiguous. Secondly, be concise to avoid confusion.

Use one word instead of a longer phrase where possible. For example, use “because” instead of “due to the fact that”. Another word I’ve also seen improperly used a lot is “similar”.

Something can be similar in many ways, so simply say in which exact way it is similar. For example, do not say “parameter A is similar to parameter B.”, say “parameter A is similar in frequency to parameter B.”

Avoid vague statements. “The pulse was very short” does not really give any information. Try “the pulse was very short compared to the relaxation time” for example.

A main question is whether to use the active (“I measured the intensity.”) or passive (“The intensity was measured.”) voice. I much prefer the passive voice as it takes the person out of the writing and focusses on the physics. I think it also gives the necessary formality to a physics thesis.

I believe that “I” should only be used in an informal setting such as this blog post. A physics thesis is important and serious! You can give off this aura from the beginning by writing in the passive voice.

Also, as you never really work alone, you should probably be saying “we” a lot to be strictly correct and this may give the reader a subconscious impression that you did not do any important work yourself!

10. Make clear what is your original work

It may seem tempting to leave some parts open to the reader’s interpretation as to whether you actually had the idea/did the work yourself.

There is no shame in cleverly using the work and ideas of others as long as you clearly cite it.

Integrity is of the utmost importance in physics, no one will ever judge you for using others ideas and results a lot if you reference correctly and then have some original result of your own. Everybody respects that you are adding to the store of human knowledge.

Finally after all this, remember that a thesis will never be finished!
Make a deadline and work your best, then hand it to your supervisor. Only fix what your supervisor requests then send it in.

To make sure you have done all the preparation steps before starting to write your thesis, have a look at my article Physics thesis: 10 tips you must know before starting to write. I hope i t will help you to make the best start on your thesis and save a lot of time when you do start writing!

Thanks for reading!

If you need any help with your thesis, feel free to contact me! 

Have I missed any important points? Please let me know in the comments and I will edit the article! You can help to make this a complete guide for any student starting the hard journey of writing a thesis!

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