What’s in a Thesis?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m graduating this spring, which means I need to write that most foreboding of documents, the thesis. As I work on it, I’ve been thinking about how the nature of the thesis varies from field to field.

If you don’t have much experience with academics, you probably think of a thesis as a single, overarching achievement that structures a grad student’s career. A student enters grad school, designs an experiment, performs it, collects data, analyzes the data, draws some conclusion, then writes a thesis about it and graduates.

In some fields, the thesis really does work that way. In biology for example, the process of planning an experiment, setting it up, and analyzing and writing up the data can be just the right size so that, a reasonable percentage of the time, it really can all be done over the course of a PhD.

Other fields tend more towards smaller, faster-paced projects. In theoretical physics, mathematics, and computer science, most projects don’t have the same sort of large experimental overhead that psychologists or biologists have to deal with. The projects I’ve worked on are large-scale for theoretical physics, and I’ll still likely have worked on three distinct things before I graduate. Others, with smaller projects, will often have covered more.

In this situation, a thesis isn’t one overarching idea. Rather, it’s a compilation of work from past projects, sewed together with a pretense of an overall theme. It’s a bit messy, but because it’s the way things are expected to be done in these fields, no-one minds particularly much.

The other end of the spectrum is potentially much harder to deal with. For those who work on especially big experiments, the payoff might take longer to arrive than any reasonable degree. Big machines like colliders and particle detectors can take well over a decade before they start producing data, while longitudinal studies that follow a population as they grow and age take a long time no matter how fast you work.

In cases like this, the challenge is to chop off a small enough part of the project to make it feel like a thesis. A thesis could be written about designing one component for the eventual machine, or analyzing one part of the vast sea of data it produces. Preliminary data from a longitudinal study could be analyzed, even when the final results are many years down the line.

People in these fields have to be flexible and creative when it comes to creating a thesis, but usually the thesis committee is reasonable. In the end, a thesis is what you need to graduate, whatever that actually is for you.

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