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Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

Posted by on March 25, 2014

PhD thesisMichael Walsh, policy intern at the Society of Biology, gives a student’s perspective on the largest piece of text that a researcher will write

The British Library curates the Electronic Thesis Online Service (EThOS), which is an open access database for UK theses. They are currently running a survey to see how you use theses; give your view for a chance to win a £50 British Library shop token.

Piled Higher and Deeper is a popular series of cartoons documenting life in an academic lab from the point of view of a PhD student. It deals with long hours, changing expectations, and absent professors. Whatshouldwecallgradschool is another (equally funny) take on life as a postgraduate, and the existence of these two refuges is a demonstration of the old adage ‘if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry’.

Different countries have different structures and expectations for their PhD programmes. Some take the best part of a decade, and may have an absolute requirement for the student to have first author publications before they will even be considered for award of their newest degree. In the UK, a PhD is usually a three or four year journey which culminates in the submission of a document of War and Peace proportions, which is about as readable as the writings of James Joyce. This thesis contains in its pages the scientific progress which has been made over those years, but it fails to adequately portray personal development which is usually more significant.

For those of you who are lucky enough never to have laid eyes on one, let me describe a typical (UK biochemistry) thesis to you. First comes the literature review. This is the largest chapter, which outlines the current state of knowledge of the particular field and frames the questions which the thesis aims to answer. Methodology is next, followed by results chapters and a discussion of those results. Once printed, it shows surprisingly few signs of the blood, sweat and tears which have gone into its production. Depending on the area of research and abundance of data, it probably adds up to more than 50,000 words and 200 pages.

While PhD students are junior researchers who perhaps aren’t always working on ground-breaking projects and so might not all be publishing regularly in Nature, their output is to be valued for a number of reasons. At its time of writing, the first thesis chapter forms a comprehensive review of what is currently understood and accepted about a particular field, and so is in itself incredibly useful both for established researchers and new additions to the lab before the stabilisers come off. This is also true of methodology chapters, which are often written in greater detail than the average academic paper, and so in theory should be easier to follow – especially helpful if a certain method is particularly obscure.

Even if not worthy of a double-digit impact factor journal, the results can be fantastically enlightening. One continuing problem in scientific literature is a bias against the publication of negative results. ‘Something didn’t happen’ isn’t front page news. Nobody cares. But if knowing that somebody else tried and came up empty stops you from embarking on the same fruitless path for three years, you’ll care.

This is why improving access to theses is such a valuable enterprise. As well as this, most PhD programmes have at least some element of public funding, and so it is right that the work which results goes into the public domain and is easily accessible. This will help the progression of science in the same way as other open access methods: sharing knowledge leads to a faster pace of scientific advance and innovation.

One interesting thought which comes from all of this is will the content of a thesis and how it is written alter if the student (and supervisor) knows that it may be more widely read in the future? Maybe a different spin would be put on results, perhaps with some held back.

If you thought that your thesis would forever gather dust on a shelf in some dark corner, you might need to think again. Although if nothing else, it’ll make a great doorstop.

To share your views on how you use theses, take part in the British Library’s survey.

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