Help with Graduate School Thesis & Degree

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Need help developing your thesis for an engineering, science, or business graduate degree? Or perhaps you want to know what you’re getting into before you sign on for grad school? Maybe you're researching engineering degrees online and found this article?

Assuming you're not about to take a course-based Masters program1, the most important new challenge that graduate school poses is the thesis. It's a daunting problem: you need to get up-to-date in the latest research of your field, pick an entirely novel problem, develop a research plan, conduct careful experiments, and write a detailed thesis defending your work. What problems can you attack? How should you structure it? How can you avoid getting bogged down in the details? When are you doing enough to complete it?

After some asking around, I present two of the better articles on the subject. There’s some detailed and humane advice.


For Prospective Graduate Students

You Must Know Why Your Work is Important.

When you first arrive, read and think widely and exhaustively for a year. Assume that everything you read is bullshit until the author manages to convince you that it isn't. If you do not understand something, don't feel bad - it's not your fault, it's the author's. He didn't write clearly enough.

If some authority figure tells you that you aren't accomplishing anything because you aren't taking courses and you aren't gathering data, tell him what you're up to. If he persists, tell him to bug off, because you know what you're doing, dammit.

This is a hard stage to get through because you will feel guilty about not getting going on your own research. You will continually be asking yourself, "What am I doing here?" Be patient. This stage is critical to your personal development and to maintaining the flow of new ideas into science. Here you decide what constitutes an important problem. You must arrive at this decision independently for two reasons. First, if someone hands you a problem, you won't feel that it is yours, you won't have that possessiveness that makes you want to work on it, defend it, fight for it, and make it come out beautifully. Secondly, your PhD work will shape your future. It is your choice of a field in which to carry out a life's work. It is also important to the dynamic of science that your entry be well thought out. This is one point where you can start a whole new area of research. Remember, what sense does it make to start gathering data if you don't know - and I mean really know - why you're doing it?

Read the full article here (Html version)


How to Write a PhD Thesis

Iterative solution

Whenever you sit down to write, it is very important to write something. So write something, even if it is just a set of notes or a few paragraphs of text that you would never show to anyone else. It would be nice if clear, precise prose leapt easily from the keyboard, but it usually does not. Most of us find it easier, however, to improve something that is already written than to produce text from nothing. So put down a draft (as rough as you like) for your own purposes, then clean it up for your adviser to read. Word-processors are wonderful in this regard: in the first draft you do not have to start at the beginning, you can leave gaps, you can put in little notes to yourself, and then you can clean it all up later.


Your adviser will expect to read each chapter in draft form. S/he will then return it to you with suggestions and comments. Do not be upset if a chapter---especially the first one you write--- returns covered in red ink (or its electronic equivalent). Your adviser will want your thesis to be as good as possible, because his/her reputation as well as yours is affected. Scientific writing is a difficult art, and it takes a while to learn. As a consequence, there will be many ways in which your first draft can be improved. So take a positive attitude to all the scribbles with which your adviser decorates your text: each comment tells you a way in which you can make your thesis better.

Read the full article here.

Some random advice for considering or pursuing graduate degrees:

  • Know your experimental apparatus. I've heard of PhD students flubbing a thesis defense because they had no idea how their volt-meter worked
  • If you're still in undergrad, find out if there's any way you can learn what graduate students are doing. Talk to your Teaching Assistants (TAs). Many schools force the grad students to give periodic presentations to their peers about what they're doing. Sit it on a few if you can
  • As a grad student, try to keep yourself on a student lifestyle if you can. You'll need the help saving money
  • Find out the formatting rules of your thesis as soon as you can, so you do not invest work writing it the wrong way. (“Oh, I have to put all my pictures in an awkward appendix at the back? Oops.”)
  • Some theses are done in conjunction with or on behalf of industry, or to solve a problem for industry. If you’re looking for a job in industry, this could be good option
  • If you are considering a graduate degree just for the increase in earning power or job opportunities, stop, and carefully research it. In some fields it will lose you money, or there is a huge glut of graduates no guarantee you’ll get to use your advanced degree. I know becoming a professor or researcher in some humanities in America is especially brutal right now. Ex: The Disposable Academic, Overeducated Underemployed
  • Click here if you're considering an MBA
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  1. A course-based masters degree usually lasts 1-2 years. You focus on taking graduate-level courses and no thesis is required. It provides advanced education, but does not give you the same preparation for research []

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