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A significant number of colleagues had their thesis defense in the past year and talking to them got me thinking about my own dissertation to come in about 2 years (I am approximately half-way through my graduate studies).

Based on my experience, the norm appears to be so that the focus of a PhD student shifts from initial getting-used-to-things, to getting-papers-out, do your coursework/teaching (if applicable), getting-papers-out (repeat)... until you are a couple of months away from the dissertation date, and you panic your way into writing your thesis. The panic then leads to stress and errors, which I witness with many colleagues.

Seeing as my projects are particularly detached from one-another, it would perhaps be good to start thinking about some structure, and perhaps even start jotting down some text; not long paragraphs but at least some bullet points on the points I want to mention, statements I want to make in my thesis.

Seeing that I am only half-way in, is this a reasonable approach? ... or am I stressing way too early? Does one need to leave the thesis writing to the end when the stress is maxed-out, or are there smarter ways to handle the writing? I imagine one drawback of starting now, is that I do not yet have the "bigger picture" but yet again, since the projects are not built up on one another, I don't know if it's a real issue in my case.

Any perspective on the matter is welcome, of course.

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    Short answer: Today. (And where were your colleagues' advisors?) – JeffE Jul 8 '13 at 12:32
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    What field are you in? (The answers may vary because of subject area and the kinds of research you are doing.) Also, I would like to suggest an edit to the title: "...to start thinking about writing the thesis," unless all the work that you're doing now isn't all going into your thesis. – user7123 Jul 10 '13 at 22:26
  • @dd3 My field is kind of hard to define; I would say biomedical research with quite a bit of bioinformatics. (I agree that an edit would make the question more clear, fixed it just now) – posdef Jul 11 '13 at 9:21
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    The revision doesn't change my short answer. – JeffE Jul 11 '13 at 10:58
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    But you're presenting a false choice; writing and publishing are integral to "carrying out projects". Always be writing. Always be publishing. Always be working toward a bigger picture. Then when it's time publish, most of the writing is already done, and when it's time to make a thesis, you only really need a stapler. – JeffE Jul 11 '13 at 15:19
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I think it is a good idea to start writing down parts of your thesis early on. You need to consider possible structures for the thesis as well so that you know what you might need to write.

Starting early will, however, not remove the need for significant efforts at the end because the thesis evolves and it is only when you have your last papers/experiments/equivalent done when you really know how the text will have to look. This means you should write down text early on with the clear understanding that this text will likely undergo lots of revisions. While this may seem like a waste of time, I have found it useful to have the thoughts down on paper, it also provides a sense of fulfillment, "that you are on your way". In some cases I have had to scrap the texts altogether and start over but I see this as part of the iterative process of scientific work.

By going through the iterations your text will improve and the last efforts will be ever closer to a final product than were you to start from scratch at the end. I went through this myself and I have seen countless students do the same. Being prepared and realising that much awaits ahead is just a realisation that must be clear. Going blindly into the final stages without having a grasp of what is needed is what causes extra and unnecessary stress.

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What many folk find difficult is recalling what they did at the start of their thesis work - the literature review. They come to start writing their literature review with all the experience of the in-depth, detailed analysis conducted during their research phase and have perhaps forgotten all those papers that they read, reviewed and used to fill in the background and inform their research.

I suggest that, right from the start of your literature review reading, make short notes about each paper, perhaps at the top of the first page. e.g. "Great introduction to the field, a bit basic though"; "Good for a thorough review of method X"; "Not relevant" etc.

This makes the job of sorting through your massive (!) pile of literature easier when it comes to setting out the path you took through it to come to your research idea.

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It is not clear from your post whether your dissertation will just mostly be a collection of your papers, perhaps with some filler material added, or whether it will require a substantial amount of writing from scratch. I've heard that publishing papers as a grad student and assembling them into a thesis is done depending on one's academic discipline, and perhaps depending on the university.

If you are just putting papers together there will be less work involved. Regardless, 2 months sounds like a very short amount of time to be writing a thesis in. Are you sure you got that right? I suggest you talk to other students who left it till late, and ask them if they regret doing so.

I would certainly recommend getting started on a draft immediately, if you haven't already. Things to keep in mind, depending on your area, is that heavily mathematical writing is very time-consuming. Computer calculations, writing software and so on, are also very time-consuming. I would also include graphs and figures in writing software. Figures, in my opinion, are best handled by writing code, making it easy to alter after the event, and giving the best results. Actually, graphs are a good thing to try to get set up early, because they can be a pain. Even if you don't have actual data to work with, you can use dummy data, as long as you know roughly what your final structures will look like.

If your work has significant components of either, you need to allow extra time. You definitely don't want to be in the position of frantically debugging your code a month before your defense to get some important result out, for example. You should also not rely on your adviser(s) to tell you what schedule to keep. It is not their thesis on the line.

Two months before submission is the time for reviewing the thesis for errors, hopefully with the assistance of your advisor, and getting ready to hand it over ot the thesis committee. My impression is that the norm is to allow the committee some time to read it, like a month. They may not read it, but that is considered polite.

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