[Column] Keep calm and write your thesis

Padmini Manivannan is in the last phase of her thesis, and although she is no expert, she would like to offer some words of advice for first-time thesis-writers.

Summer has well and truly arrived and I am in the last phase of my thesis. If all goes well, I’ll be rewarded with a diploma and a firm handshake in a few months. Any master’s programme at TU Delft requires a thesis. This was something that I excitedly looked forward to and dreaded in equal measure, simply because I had never written a dissertation before. My bachelor’s, much like in Delft, involved working on a group project to graduate. I am no expert, but I would like to offer some words of advice from a first-time thesis-writer.

1. When you initially plan your thesis, add an extra month where absolutely everything goes wrong.

2. If you’re like me, it is more important to choose a supervisor who is available and encouraging than the one supervisor who knows everything about the subject. Luckily, I have one who is a good mix of both. The thesis is as much a test of mental strength as technical acumen. You will probably be looking for a job/applying for a PhD, trying to finish up your thesis and possibly looking for a house all at the same time. As easy as it might be, do not slip into a panic.

3. Be prepared for setbacks. Research never seems to unravel in a straight path. It is usually one step back, two steps forward. And if you are unlucky, two steps back and one step forward.

4. For distractions, look to the mundane. Sometimes it’s just good to appreciate the small things in life. For example, I started growing a plant from seed. I decided to grow some cayenne peppers. I couldn’t resist the urge of potentially unlimited spice and the Indian in me thought it was too good an offer to pass up.

5. Bugs in your code are much like bugs on your pepper plant. If you are persistent enough, they will eventually go away.

6. Practice story telling. Being able to present and tell a story with your thesis is vital, in written and in oral communication. You need to be able to sell your ideas convincingly and it is a life-long skill that will help both in research and in industry. In academia, if you have a unique idea, you need to be able to convince the stakeholders to fund your research. In companies, you do the same with your bosses.

7. Ask. And ask again. If you don’t know how something works, ask a PhD student to explain it to you, no matter how silly the question might seem. It is easy to get lost in a bubble and be immersed in a problem for a long period of time. Sometimes the outside perspective goes a long way.

8. Pick a thesis topic that you find interesting or feel invested in. Try to avoid choosing an area simply because it is available. Pick a topic you like and you’ll find those all-nighters a little easier to pull off. It also puts things in perspective for the long run.

This is definitely not an all-inclusive list by any means, but if you manage to incorporate most of these pointers into your schedule and work style, you are already doing quite well for yourself. Most importantly, remember to take care of yourself along the way. Research has its ups and downs and you might start with something that might mutate into something a little different. But you’re going to make it through this.

Padmini Manivannan is a Masters student studying Signals and Systems at TU Delft and hails from Chennai, India. She loves doodling in her free time.

Padmini Manivannan / Columnist

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