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How important is your written PhD thesis for an academic job search, assuming the results are already written in papers? Do search committees ever read your thesis in addition to your papers? My PhD advisor said that the written thesis is not important and I can write whatever I want as long as it's not about Star Wars.

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You will presumably have to defend your thesis in an exam. Don't expect to pass if it's not a reasonably large contribution to knowledge in your discipline. Look at other theses by candidates who have passed recently. That will give some idea of the scope and scale that's expected. – Joe Corneli Feb 1 at 22:23
    
Due to time constraint, I completed my PhD dissertation in a week so I'm pretty sure others have better quality than mine, but at least I did not write about star wars! – user10694 Feb 1 at 22:45
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Counterexample – Federico Poloni Feb 1 at 23:01
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I'm insulted with a high quality star wars thesis XD – user10694 Feb 1 at 23:16
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I revised the post to make it clear your question was just about the write-up and not the results, as this is what I gathered from the comments. Please clarify if I misrepresented anything. – Kimball Feb 2 at 2:16

Your thesis and what is written about it your letters of recommendation will have a big effect on your career initially. To get a good postdoctoral position, you'd better have a good thesis. Later in your career, your thesis won't matter much any more, because people will be more interested in your recent achievements.

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I got lucky and received a pos-doc offer even before written my PhD thesis, but I was worrying about the quality of my last-minute PhD thesis. – user10694 Feb 1 at 23:10
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@user10694 You mentioned in an earlier comment that the "meat" of your thesis existed before the "bun". It's entirely reasonable that you got a postdoc offer on the basis of the meat; buns don't matter so much. I often have to write letters of recommendation for Ph.D. students who have proved enough theorems for a thesis but haven't yet written the thesis itself. A letter of recommendation saying that the thesis will contain such-and-such theorems is fine (as long as people trust me on that). – Andreas Blass Feb 1 at 23:14
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Thanks, while writing those "buns", I feel I'm just repeating myself. I just don't think the whole thing is good for the show tho. – user10694 Feb 1 at 23:24
    
i think this question is highly field-dependent. – MichaelChirico Feb 3 at 3:39

I am a faculty member who sits on many PhD thesis committees. I always read the thesis. More than once I (and other committee members) have decided to fail a student at the thesis defense because of a thesis that was poorly written. This usually was a combination of both small issues (like rampant grammar and spelling errors) and larger issues (like lack of clarity, lack of motivation, no clear indication of the student's contributions). Usually these students rewrite the thesis and retake the defense successfully later.

You cannot fully separate the quality of the writing and the quality of the work. Excellent work can be masked by poor writing; poor work can be made to appear good superficially by superficial (hence poor) writing. Surprisingly often I find that as one digs into the writing issues, one finds significant scientific issues.

Even if your institution and/or your advisor advertises low standards and is willing to graduate you with a poorly-written thesis, it is probably in your best interest to produce a well-written thesis. Writing is one of the central skills that will get you an academic job, and writing a good thesis will help substantially in the development of that skill. At this point you probably have few papers, so it is likely that potential employers will look at your thesis. It is often the first thing I look at when hiring a postdoc, and if it is poorly written then I assume I will need to spend a large amount of time helping that person learn to write and editing their work -- which usually means I won't hire them.

Finally, a well-written thesis should be wonderfully satisfying to you. Your thesis should be your magnum opus, a thorough explanation of this new corner of knowledge in which you are the world's leading expert! Put in the effort to do it well.

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At my university, if a student fails the final Oral for a PhD, they do not get a second chance. It's all over. Especially with that in mind, how would a student be allowed by their advisor to function in a vacuum to such an extent that anyone is surprised by what shows up for such a defense? Shouldn't the defense be delayed until people are satisfied? Here, also, theoretically, the committee has to sign a form that the thesis is ready for defense. If I were thinking that it's not, and would fail the student... I'd not sign that form, etc. – paul garrett Feb 2 at 13:59
    
I think this is very dependent on institution and field. In many cases the thesis can consist of an introduction chapter, copies of a number of published papers (the main body of the thesis), and a discussion chapter. In these cases the quality of the published papers can be very different from the rest of the thesis. – Bitwise Feb 2 at 16:35
    
@paulgarrett Your experience sounds a lot like mine. I got some interesting comments on my answer (which cites that type of experience) to What makes someone deserving of a PhD? that might speak to some of your questions. – Joshua Taylor Feb 2 at 21:07
    
@JoshuaTaylor, yes, some people believe, and enjoy believing, in the mythology that even novices can somehow come up with wonderful research projects, and that the old people don't know anything worth hearing about, etc. At the very least, there are conflicting/competing mythologies. – paul garrett Feb 2 at 21:22
    
@paulgarrett Yes, I know it works that way at many universities. At my current institution the student need only provide a complete thesis two weeks before the defense, whereas it usually must be scheduled much further in advance. And there is a "fail with possibility to retake" option, which is primarily used in cases like this. – David Ketcheson Feb 3 at 5:47

This will depend on your field, and how your thesis is formatted. That being said, I don't think your advisor's (hopefully) flippant answer is correct. If nothing else, while the content of your thesis might not be read, your thesis topic is the thing you're best positioned to present yourself as The Expert on, and as such will have a pretty significant impact on your job search.

You will, on the academic job market, be expected to talk about your research, etc.

Beyond that, many people repackage their thesis as a series of papers - indeed, many institutions now allow (or require) a thesis to be formatted this way (sometimes called a "sandwich thesis"). In this case, you're dividing your thesis into several hopefully published papers, and you should absolutely plan on those being read.

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I did the sandwich thesis, but my concern is that the "bun" was written in a haze and was not as good as the "meat" in between. – user10694 Feb 1 at 22:33
    
thanks for the comment tho. – user10694 Feb 1 at 22:34
    
In principle, several years of work worth to be written is worth to be written well. However, cumulative theses are not unheard of. – Captain Emacs Feb 1 at 22:36
    
So, nobody actually read your PhD thesis/dissertation except the title? How about the job search commitees? – user10694 Feb 1 at 22:41
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@user10694 I don't even think they could have gotten a copy of the fully-fledged dissertation. As mentioned however, they did read the papers that made up Chapters 2, 3, and 4. More than once a copy with scribbled notes was on someone's desk during interviews. – Fomite Feb 1 at 22:52

As for your academic career, it's not the most important, but it's not unimportant either. A sloppy thesis gives a bad impression about you, even if the research itself is good. It's true that if you did a "sandwich" thesis, the majority of people will only read your published papers and not your thesis. But not all of them: think of the people on your thesis committee and the future members of your research group for example, do you want them to have a bad impression about your work?


Besides, there is one central person that you need to please when writing your thesis: yourself.

A PhD thesis is something for which you put tremendous amounts of effort, personal commitment and sacrifice (salary, free time, etc.). You should be happy with the result. You might browse it in the future and that might annoy you that such good research is presented so poorly.

One week, counting the nights, is a lot of hours, enough to turn an ugly draft into something you will be proud of in the future.

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From my experience, at least with regard to life sciences your advisor is absolutely correct. In life sciences, journal publication is the standard and everything else is typically considered "unpublished" and "unreviewed" - and most people will not bother reading it.

The only exception I can think of is if you have important material in your thesis that is not published yet (for example if the project is still ongoing). Even then, you would have to specifically point out that this is the case and urge the relevant people to look in your thesis (and it may still seem weird).

Of course I am not passing judgement whether this state of affairs is good or bad.

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My thesis has, as far as I know, never been read by anyone. But the paper it was based on has been published and cited, of course! I'm in pure mathematics. – Tom Church Feb 3 at 4:48

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