Writing a PhD thesis

By Sathya Muralidhar

At the heart of the MELGEN consortium are the PhD students, who have been conducting melanoma research, as part of their PhD. There are many facets to a pursuing a PhD degree, conducting research actually being only one of many. For instance, sharing the findings from our research to a non-scientific as well as a specialist audience, is something that the MELGEN students have actively participated in. However, there is one important aspect which is an important part of a PhD and is common to all PhD students: the PhD doctoral thesis.

The thesis-writing process is a ‘rite-of-passage’ which in some ways marks the culmination of our PhD research. Because of this reason and as someone who is currently in the process of writing my thesis, I have put together some thoughts/observations, which offer an insight into the PhD thesis and the thesis-writing process.


What exactly is a PhD thesis?

Simply put, a thesis (or a Dissertation, as it is also known) is a compilation of one’s entire PhD research. To break this down further, a PhD thesis covers the following topics:

1) What was the aim of the research project(s)?

2) How exactly was the research conducted?

3) What are the findings produced from the research project(s)?

4) What do these findings actually mean?

5) How do the findings fit into what is currently known in the field?

6) What are the limitations of the work conducted within the thesis?

Each of these topics is explained in detail in separate ‘Chapters’. When combined together, these chapters form the core of a thesis. The finished product may be of different sizes- depending on the field of research and the quantity of findings. The range could be anywhere between 100 to 300+ pages. In the current digital age, the thesis is often written using a word processor, the most common one being Microsoft Word.


Why is the thesis important?

One of the important aspect of scientific research is to be aware of the most recent findings in a particular field of interest. The thesis is an opportunity to review the current research, which helps to keep oneself updated. The thesis not only includes positive findings, but also ‘negative’ findings. For instance, if a certain experiment did not produce the expected results (or did not work at all), the thesis is an opportunity for the researcher to explain and identify the reasons behind this. The thesis is also a detailed record of the research conducted. It contains details of how a particular experiment was performed. This is available to future researchers, if they need to repeat the same experiment. Moreover, thesis writing is a great exercise and learning process of scientific writing. This skill is very important, especially when one decides to pursue a career in scientific research.


What are the most common factors which can affect thesis writing?

Rewinding back to a time when I had not started writing my thesis, the thought of me writing of a 200+ word document seemed daunting, to say the least. Since the thesis is typically written towards the end of the PhD, which is also a period of finding the next step in their career for a lot of PhD students, the entire combined process can prove to be quite stressful. However, a thesis is a sum of its parts, so tackling each individual topic (mentioned above) can be a helpful approach. Also, because a thesis is compilation of work done over the course of a PhD (typically between 3-6 years depending on the country), maintaining continuous records of the research can be helpful. There are other factors which affect the thesis-writing process such as support from one’s PhD supervisor, time-related limitations and personal constraints.


What happens after the thesis is written?

The final version of the thesis has to be approved by the PhD student’s supervisor. After the approval, the thesis is then sent to the PhD ‘assessors’. These are experts in a similar or related field, who will review the thesis in detail. After a certain period of time after the assessors receive the thesis, a ‘PhD Defence’ is conducted. This is an opportunity for the assessors to question the student about the research (based on what they’ve read in the thesis). It is also an opportunity for the student to answer the questions and ‘defend’ his/her research, hence the term PhD Defence. So, the thesis is an important document which is the basis of the PhD Defence.


The thesis-writing process is an important part of the PhD process and can indeed be daunting, stressful, and time consuming. However, thesis-writing can also prove to be enjoyable, since it is after all an opportunity to present the significance of a researcher’s work and a measure of how much work was performed for the thesis (usually it is huge!).