Friday, August 7, 2020

How to Write a Thesis

 [ This piece is, supposedly, originally by one A. W. James, who seems to have been a professor in the Dept. of Biology at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., perhaps as much as a century ago; I didn't put much elbow grease into tracking down his history.  My mother recently found it in her files; she says it was a source of great amusement for her and her fellow graduate students at Cornell some fifty years ago.  I am retyping this from a copy that my mother suspects she herself typed back then (on a typewriter, not a computer!).  I guess I'm viewing retyping it as a sort of passing on of the torch.  Enjoy!  –B. ]

On Selection of a Research Project

Be sure to select a topic which has been thoroughly explored by previous graduate students in your department, so that characteristics of your organism will be well known and basic procedures fully established.  Also, you can borrow reagents, ideas, and perhaps data from your colleagues.  Select a very limited, circumscribed, orthodox aspect of this topic for your investigation – preferably one where you don't have to believe the results of your work, certainly not one in which you will become emotionally involved.  Don't attempt to discover anything new – you can do that later on a higher salary – concentrate simply on obtaining data, quickly and in quantity.

Experimental Approach

Set up experiments which will give meaningful results regardless of whether data are positive or negative; once you set up a procedure, never, ever alter it or you will have to explain how and why and what difference it made.  Restrict your study to a single variable so that you don't have to concern yourself with complicating factors and there will be no necessity for a comprehensive discussion.  Avoid experiments which must be presented in the form of figures or graphs and, by all means, exclude photographs.  If all data can be summarized in typewritten tables you will save yourself time, money, and frustration.  (It's even better if you don't need tables!)

The Literature Review

If you've followed the advice above, your review will have been written for you by a former student and all you need to do is paraphrase it slightly and bring it up to date.  If you should work on a topic which hasn't been reviewed recently, depend exclusively on Chemical and Biological Abstracts for information for your own review.  Thus you will avoid the problem of trying to track down journals which were hidden away at the bindery all the time; you'll also save yourself many hours of reading and trying to organize experimental details which only make those lovely, sweeping generalizations more difficult.  It goes without saying that you should have made sure there is no significant foreign-language literature on the subject.  Remember to document thoroughly every statement you make.  It really doesn't matter that the idea is now out of date or that the author turned out to be an idiot – just so it's been published.  One thing you don't have to worry about is punctuation; trust your committee to put in any commas you have omitted and to delete most of those you have used; it salves their consciences for failing to understand or for not caring about what you have to say.

General Principles

Be sure that the organization of your thesis follows established, accepted, orthodox, conventional, recognized, approved, hallowed precedents.  Whenever questions of form arise it is safest to check with the graduate school, though this may require a lot of hiking.  Never, never do anything new, even to improve clarity of presentation, unless you can cite an established, accepted, orthodox, conventional, recognized, approved, hallowed precedent.  Always keep in mind the basic purpose of a thesis: to satisfy the graduate school.  Unequivocal presentation of data is far more important than unequivocal data.  But most important of all is that the margins are correct.

A 25-year quest for the Holy Grail of evolutionary biology

When I started my postdoc in 1998, I think it is safe to say that the Holy Grail (or maybe Rosetta Stone) for many evolutionary biologists w...