The result must be a substantial, original contribution to scientific knowledge. It signals your official entrance into the community of scholars. Treat it as an chance to make a mark, not as a 900-page-tall memorial to your graduate student life.

Beyond stapling

The cynical view is that if you’ve written several related papers, you staple them together to get a dissertation. That’s a good first-order approximation — you should incorporate ideas and text from your papers. But what is it missing?

First, a thesis should cohere — ideally, it should feel like one long paper. Second, it should provide added value: there should be people who would prefer reading it to simply reading your papers. Otherwise writing it would be a meaningless exercise.

Here’s what to do after stapling:

  • integrate the pieces
    • craft a substantial introductory chapter that ties the work together and highlights the novel contributions
    • reorganize the remaining presentation into a series of chapters that support and develop your story from the introduction
    • write a (brief) concluding chapter that recapitulates your story and summarizes what was learned
    • make the notation, terminology, and style consistent throughout
    • do keep good ideas, text, and results from your previous papers (giving credit to any co-authors)
  • expand the text
    • make the text clearer, more tutorial, and more thoughtful
    • add more examples and intuitions to help the reader
    • add new experiments/theorems/significance tests to leave no stone unturned
    • consider counterarguments, variations, and alternative explanations
    • give enough details to allow a reader to replicate the work or apply it in new settings
  • contextualize the ideas
    • open the thesis with a page or two that sells the work to a general audience (e.g., a science reporter)
    • mention all obviously related work and explain how it relates to yours
    • discuss alternative solutions that you rejected or are leaving to future work
    • point out connections to other areas, including other possible applications of your ideas
    • describe possible generalizations (and try them if possible)
    • lay out future work for yourself or others
  • acknowledge help (usually in a preface)
    • acknowledge any collaborators on this work, such as your advisor
    • acknowledge financial support on this work, and perhaps also other financial support you’ve received as a grad student
    • thank other people who have helped you technically, administratively, socially, or emotionally over your grad student career
    • state which parts of the thesis text (if any) have appeared in your previous publications; get permission to republish if you are no longer the copyright holder of those works, or if you had co-authors

 

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