Lessons Learned from My Master’s, Part 3: Writing

When I started my master’s degree I had envisioned 3 experiments, each taking up a chapter. My plan was to write up the results of the first experiment while performing the second and so on until I had the bulk of my thesis written. It seemed easy, but it did not turn out that way! The combination of the traveling required to do some of my analyses, and a rocky start to a few of my first experiments resulted in the axing of my seemingly straightforward writing plan before I could begin. Rather than my nicely timed data flow, I ended up having a massive data set that came in all at once, which left me with lots of writing all piled up at the end of my time as a student.

Although it did not go as planned, I still learned a lot about managing a huge writing task. I figured out some things that kept me writing even when I had no data yet, and also discovered some strategies later on that I wish I had enacted right from the beginning. So without further ado, here are some ways to keep on top of things, even when it doesn’t end up going as planned!

1. Write up your methods when you learn them

If you are doing lab work, you can write up your methods. Even if you’ve been given a sheet of instructions by someone else, you should take the opportunity to sit down and write up the methods in your own words. When you have everything ironed out and working, sit down and start typing! Write your methods out in excessive detail, and if you can, get someone who knows the instrument to read it to make sure you haven’t missed anything. You can always pare your descriptions down for inclusion in papers later, and you’ll have all the gory details in case you get asked about your experiments 5 years later (or even 25 years later… it happens!).

This does not only apply to the use of instrumentation. It also goes for your experimental design. Although you should be writing down the details in your lab book, take time out to type it up! You have to do it eventually, so why not now? So what if you don’t know which experiments are going to be written up in which chapter yet. Start a document for each one and edit the document as you work. Again, write in gory detail. You’ll be rearranging and editing later, but the bulk of the typing will already be done when you’re ready to work on your thesis document.

2. Keep your brainstorming and data interpretation well documented in an organized way

When it came time for working on results and discussion sections, I found myself faced with a large data set which was at times challenging to interpret. The result was an extended session of brainstorming and ever changing data interpretation which slowly crystallized into the story I presented in my thesis. It can become challenging to balance all these thoughts, and it is important document them in an organized way. How you do it comes down to personal preferences, and I learned a lot about mine during my master’s.

At the beginning, I decided I would use my lab book as a log of all my data-related activities from daily lab work to ideas about interpretation. However, I found part way through that the notes from my brainstorming made the rest of the information difficult to access. The technical details were getting lost in a sea of ideas about what my data was telling me. I also ran into a second problem later on. When working up my results and discussion sections I often had multiple trains of thought going, as I was trying to tie together three separate but related experiments into a single document. I am a very visual person, and spreading results and ideas out on my desk helps me organize them a great deal. However, this doesn’t work when your ideas are all in bound volumes. Part way through the writing process I switched to writing out my ideas on loose leaf paper (for better spatial organization). That helped that process a great deal, but it required a lot more effort to keep track of everything.

I think next time I will keep the brainstorming out of the lab book, and instead have a binder where I can record all of my ideas and interpretations to go along with the lab book. Of course it is important to make sure loose leaf pages don’t get too jumbled up, but dates, page numbers and colour-coding can help with that.

3. Update your literature review

Do you remember the Monday morning coffee date with recent publications we talked about? In addition to reading the latest papers, make sure you modify your literature review to keep it up to date. I will admit I let mine slip in the last couple of months as my data started pouring in, and it ended up being a bigger job than it needed to be. Maybe you don’t end up following your proposal as closely as you thought you would. Maybe not. Regardless, your field will change during the time between your proposal and your final submission, and you will have to address that in the literature review that becomes part of your final thesis. Why not chip away at it a little bit at a time?

Well, that’s the final installment of “Lessons Learned” for now. If you haven’t already seen them, check out Part One on keeping your data organized and Part Two on good weekly habits.