Physics thesis: 9 tips you must know before starting to write

In Tips & Advice by Rossá Mac Ciarnáin12 Comments

Rossá Mac Ciarnáin

Rossá Mac Ciarnáin





1. What is a thesis?

Firstly, the main point of the thesis is to prove to the club of proper physicists (your examination committee of professors) that you are good enough to join their club. It is not going to be a complete, perfect book on the subject which will be read by many people.

You just need to show that you can quite independently research and find out scientific answers to important questions.

Secondly, your thesis should serve as a guide to any researcher trying to replicate or understand part of your work, just like a very long publication or paper.

2. Motivation

If you are feeling very stressed, know that around 75% of your thesis is already done and is in your head, in all the calculation scraps of paper you’ve kept and in

your lab notebook, you just need to get it down on paper!

A good tip is to just start writing, it is much easier psychologically to edit a page of ideas than to start with a blank page. It is very difficult to really get motivated before starting, as we all know. Real motivation comes during the work when you see your progress. And as with most tasks, it is always easier than you think, so just stop thinking and start now!


3. Rules and regulations

Before starting you need to find and exactly understand the examination regulations for your university (usually the physics faculty website has the PDF to download), how long the thesis should be, can you simply include unedited publications? etc.

Your thesis grade significantly depends on your understanding of these regulations. This is also the right time to find and ask appropriate Professors to be examiners of your thesis. This takes a lot of time and your preferred examiners may not be available for your thesis, so start the ball rolling on this task now!

4. Structure the thesis first with your supervisor

Your supervisor usually has much experience and has probably supervised a lot of theses along with finishing their own successfully. They know exactly what it takes to finish a great thesis. They have many insights which you might never have. Question them to find out exactly what they think makes a great thesis.

Before you really start writing the thesis, make an outline containing all the titles and sub-titles connected to your work and show it to your supervisor. Your publications will help you a lot with this, even if they are not yet published. A thesis is composed of the abstract, introduction, theoretical background and methods, then each publication is a results and discussion chapter. The thesis is finished off by your conclusions chapter, reference list and whatever else your university requests in their examination regulations.

This meeting also alerts your supervisor to expect a chapter to review every so often. Your supervisor will be much happier checking small sections once a week rather than large complete chapters towards the end! Your supervisor will also now have a copy of the outline in order to follow your thesis as you give single chapters or sections for them to review.
Now that you have your supervisor’s agreement, you shouldn’t be making time-wasting and confusing big changes to structure in the middle of writing your thesis.

Try to re-read anything you will give to your supervisor a day after writing it, so you can clearly see any mistakes, and not stress them and waste their valuable time. Now with a good structure, instead of starting a thesis you just have to fill in the blanks of each sub title, one chunk at a time. I found it also a good idea to make short term deadlines, such as “the methods chapter in 2 weeks’ time”. This forces you to be more productive, even if it won’t really be ready. It keeps you working at a high tempo, rather than a long-term deadline saying “I will finish the thesis by the end of the year”, in this way you won’t be very focussed.

5. Organise your collection of papers.

In order to reference every stated fact which you write in your thesis, you need quick access to the exact paper or reference. What I found to be the best way to do this was to make a folder system, starting with wide scope topics such as LEDs, OLEDs, Laser spectroscopy etc. Then, in each of these folders, get more detailed, e.g. “Silicon LEDs”, “Heavy metal LEDs” etc. Since one paper or reference can contain many precise topics, I found it a good idea to allow for duplication in my file system. That meant that if a paper detailed Iridium molecule OLEDs and laser spectroscopy, I copied it into both folders.

Think about references as you write. It is a waste of time to leave them all to put in at the end, because you will have to spend time to read and think about each sentence of your thesis again. So, try and put as many references in when you are beginning to write to save time.

Make the file name of all your papers/references in the same format. The file name should Include the author, journal, page, journal edition, year and it is useful to put content keywords in the title too. In this way you can easily search for any paper file using your computer operating system’s search function.

6. Summarize every paper you read.

This should be done from the start of your PhD work.

When you read a paper in detail, do not believe that you will remember what you have taken from it in 3 years’ time! A great idea so as not to read a paper fully twice, is to make a Powerpoint file screenshotting all the important images or even text parts relevant to your work and writing summary bullet points around the screenshots.

Detail every important or interesting part of the paper, because you don’t know what may have become relevant to your work by the time you are writing your thesis. Have this file in an individual folder along with the original publication. You cannot believe how nice it is, when writing your thesis, to check out a paper again and only have to look at the Powerpoint file quickly to see if it has the information you are looking for.

7. Backup your thesis every day in 3 independent systems.

If your institute or university does not automatically backup your computer files, you need to do it yourself. Do it every day and you will be thankful! I found that the ideal way is in three independent systems.

These systems can be cloud storage, such as

  • Gmail
  • Google Drive
  • Dropbox

or this could be 3 different storage mediums (simply 3 removable storage drives, such as external hard drives or USB mass storage devices).

I recommend cloud storage, as it is quick, cheap and you would probably keep your physical hard drives close together, so somebody could steal them or lightening could strike and take them all out ?! In a multiple-year job such as writing a thesis, computers can malfunction! Backing up your thesis ensures that you will only lose a maximum of 1 days’ work.

8. Make a rigid filing system for your work.

I wrote my dissertation in Word. Word has been known to crash with a full thesis in one file, so a good idea is to have one Word file for each chapter. In this way, if a file corrupts due to its large size your whole thesis is not messed up. You should also have a physical paper filing system for all the calculations, presentations and data you have on paper over the years. These should, of course, follow the same structure as your computer filing system. For the paper files I recommend separate folders for each chapter, with sub-dividers for each subsection.

9. Who is the reader?

The examiners are your main, most important readers to keep in mind as you write your thesis. The examiners will be experts in a related topic of physics, for example, solid-state physics but they haven’t been thinking about your exact topic for the last 3 or more years like you! You are the world expert in your topic. So, you need to get into this mindset when writing. Question every sentence to see if it is clear for other senior physicists.

Secondly, usually your successor in your workplace will need to consult your thesis to continue your work. They should be able to learn all the background details using your descriptions and references and carry out experiments following your instructions.

I found that it is also a great idea to ask your fellow PhD students to read your thesis to see if they can follow it. You can buy them many teas or coffees to motivate them ?. They are your perfect audience, being senior physicists but not working in your exact topic.

You probably know from trying to follow other theses that it is much better to write clearly and with English that is not so complicated. Do not try and sound clever by using fancy words or descriptions, simple is always better. This is also good to show the examiners that you know your stuff, because if you can explain something simply then you must understand it very well.

Start preparing now using those tips which work for you. Preparation is half the battle! To start writing in the correct way from the start, read my next article 10 tips you must know – how to write a physics thesis or dissertation to help save much time and get the best grade you can!

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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    Have you ever felt that you want to give up, or were there times when you lacked motivation? How did you get past this and how did you handle the stressful situations?

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      Hi Burghelea,
      there are definitely times where nothing is working, results are not coming and motivation disappears. To get past this, I asked myself “why are you doing this?” and the answer was I wanted to prove to myself that I could be a physics PhD, that I could be determined and work hard enough to reach this longtime goal I had. I remembered how awesome physics was and how noble a pursuit. These thoughts helped me continue through the hard times. When I felt physically very stressed, I told myself that this thesis is not so important, the Sun will burn the Earth in a few million years and nobody will care haha! So, I should just relax and don’t take life too seriously, physics is not just about the understanding of nature, but the enjoyment of nature too.
      How do you feel about your motivation?

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    I am MSC physics student, still I have read it. This is very informative.

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    Thank you for the post, very clear and precise. Can the post be downloaded in pdf format?

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    Very good information .I searched so many books for this idea but none of them were as usefull as your’s .thanks alot ,keep updating about new discoveries and innovation in physics especially in Stephen Hawking’s contribution

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    Thanks for your kind information..It’s really helpful for me..It cleared all my confusions about thesis..Once again Thank you..And I request you to continue this work..

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    Hey ! I am in highschool now . I am really curious about a thought ,
    Can I write my Phd thesis on a completely new idea of mine ? What happens if , at the end I could not firmly support it due to some lack of evidences or experimental verifications ??

    1. Avatar

      Hi Yash,
      thanks for commenting with a great question!
      I believe that, with anything in life, worrying about not being successful should never stop you doing it.
      To be a good physicist, you need to make all the mistakes possible, so that there are no mistakes in your final work. This is the only way.
      This is because, in a PhD thesis work, you are the first person to try these specific experiments. So, there is nobody to tell you the right way out of all the wrong ways.
      You have to discover this yourself. Every experiment I do, I never predict the exact results, if we could, then there would be no point to do all the work 😉
      So, regarding your own idea, even if your idea is wrong, this will guide somebody else in their work. If it is an interesting idea, it is equally important to show that it is wrong. This is what physics is all about. Of course it is nicer to feel, “Oh I was right, great!” But, we don’t choose nature, we just have to uncover how it works 🙂

      My advice for you is to find a Bachelor of Physics degree course in a university which specializes in the field of your idea.
      Every university physics faculty lists their areas of research on their website.
      Then, while you are studying, find the researchers/professors who are working in this area, and ask to start working with them.
      Then, when you have learnt all the necessary skills of the field, you should be ready to propose a PhD project and hopefully verify your idea.

      Also, it is very good to hear that you already know the importance of evidence and experimental verification, this is the single most important concept in physics research so you have the right attitude.

      If you have any more questions, you can always ask (in private if you like to the email of this website).

      Best regards,

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