How and Where to Write a Thesis

by Deepti Mathur

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a Ph.D. student in possession of data must be in want of a thesis. I was in this situation recently myself. I took to the streets of New York City to find the best writing spot in town. In my pursuit, the only criteria were free WIFI — so that I could VPN into university networks for access to scientific papers — and readily available outlets.

Top tips for finding a space to write a thesis

  • Work spaces that previously were productive for you may not be so good for a large task like a thesis.
  • There are many amazing libraries in NYC, or any city. The below guide can help you find the criteria that best suit your needs.
  • Moving to different study spaces on occasion will break up monotony and might help you re-focus if you are not too distracted by the new sights.

While the locations described below are in NYC, the findings can be extrapolated to any city.

At home: “I have total comfort here”

I began in my humble apartment, where I am now writing this post. In fact, most of my previous writing has happened while sitting at this very desk. I have total comfort here. I can regulate the temperature precisely to my liking, can get snacks or make tea whenever I wish. Also, I can go to the bathroom without worrying about someone stealing my laptop.  However, the comfort comes with a price: easy distraction. This has never been an issue with smaller pieces of work, but the thesis was too large and daunting. It was easier to go on YouTube, talk to my roommates, or even clean my apartment rather than face such a formidable task. I needed to get out of the house.

Coffee shops: “inconsistent noisiness”

Across the street are some coffee shops, where I’ve also been productive in the past. Le Pain Quotidien and Da Capo offer excellent croissants and espresso, and are super cute places to sit with a laptop and pretend you’re working in a café in France or Italy. The atmosphere spurred literary loquaciousness, but my focus was short-lived due to the inconsistent noisiness of the cafes. Just as with working from home, a document as large and complicated as a Ph.D. thesis appeared to require an atmosphere more fitting to the task.

The workplace: “Interrupted writing was not my best writing”

The most obvious location was at the workplace itself. All of my data at my fingertips without the need for VPN, programs like Adobe Illustrator for making figures, and a large monitor were all perks of working in lab.  However, I have the happy problem of being friends with my labmates, and ended up spending too much time chatting or fiddling with lab work. Interrupted writing was not my best writing.  Disappearing into conference rooms was fruitful until I had to once again move to make room for the actual meetings that required the room.

Libraries: “this is where I struck gold”

I next ventured to several libraries across the city, and this is where I struck gold. My best writing was done at some of these libraries, and, importantly, it was ­fun.

If you have never been inside the New York Public Library, you must. The grandeur of the high ceilings and beauty of the Rose Reading Room make you feel like whatever you are working on is of supreme importance. It awakens a certain thrill, as if you are cracking the secrets of the Da Vinci Code while unaware tourists peek into the otherwise quiet room.

New York Public Library

Heightened enthusiasm about my own work aside, I made each NYPL day into a culinary delight. Breakfast at Grand Central, a lunch break at the food stands in Bryant Park accompanied by a walk to clear the mind, and soup dumplings for dinner a few blocks away left me feeling satisfied rather than tired at the end of a productive day. It is also always nice to escape from one’s own neighborhood. It’s a good thing to shake off any feelings of cabin fever or monotony.

This is not to say that NYPL didn’t have its own cons. The main reading room is quite cold, no matter the season. Studying here also necessitates bringing a friend with you, since you can’t leave your stuff unattended even to go to the bathroom or to get a coffee from downstairs. You also aren’t allowed to bring in your own beverages. Though you can sneak in a water bottle buried in your bag. Inconveniences aside, I accomplished the majority of my background research for the thesis in this library.

Once you have your perfect zone, it’s time to actually write the thesis.

Here’s a few additional helpful tips:

  • Outline the crap out of it. Staring at a blank page is too daunting. The only way to make progress is to write a rough outline and to keep adding more and more details until you’re ready to string it together into sentences. Outlining also vastly helps with organization. This is because a detail from one paper may belong in a different paragraph from other details from the paper depending on its connections to other work.
  • Endnote as you go! It’s way harder to go back and add citations later.
  • Everything takes longer to do than you think it will. Be realistic while budgeting your time.
  • Have fun! Writing the thesis was one of my favorite parts of the entire Ph.D. You get to read other papers, put together all your knowledge about the field, present your own work exactly how you like with no restrictions from journals. Plus, your day is entirely your own to organize as you wish.  Enjoy the literary and scientific freedom!

Deepti MathurAbout the author

Deepti is a postdoctoral fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where she is using mathematical and experimental techniques to investigate metastasis and therapeutic resistance. She is also interested in science communication – she was a finalist for Science magazine’s Dance Your Ph.D. competition, and won her institution’s Postdoc Slam.