Ten Things I Learnt During My (PhD) Thesis

For the past three years I’ve been doing my PhD in applied maths at Manchester. Now that I’m almost ready to submit my thesis I thought I’d write up some tips for those who are just beginning their PhD journey.

1. Use the best tools for the job

Spend some time at the beginning of your PhD learning how to efficiently use the software necessary to research in your field. For example learn LaTeX and pick an editor, learn how to use version control, and learn a programming language like MATLAB or Python. I like to use Emacs for writing up all my research: it has great LaTeX support and numerous extensions for handling version control, code completion, blog writing, etc. A list of my favourite Emacs packages is here.

2. Write up EVERYTHING you do

I cannot overstate how important it is to write up your thoughts as you go along, don’t just wait until the end. Some of the major reasons for this include the following.

  • Scribbled notes are easily lost.
  • Writing a full argument helps you find flaws in it.
  • Your research is easy to share with colleagues and your supervisor.
  • “Writing” your thesis becomes a cut and paste job at the end.

3. Keep a detailed bibliography

Keep the details of all the articles and books you read during your PhD. You never know when something will become useful and trying to find the same paper in three months time is hard!

I recommend using BibTeX to store all your citations since it has great integration with LaTeX and Emacs. To manage your BibTeX database I recommend using JabRef which is available in the Ubuntu repositories. It has some handy features for searching and outputting bibliographies based on a LaTeX .aux file which I use often.

4. Attend lots of conferences

At first conferences seem quite daunting; you get lost after slide 3 and spend the next twenty minutes thinking about your own research. STICK WITH IT!

After you’ve seen a few talks on a new subject you’ll grasp the main concepts and be able to follow most of the presentations with no problems. Conferences are actually a great place to get new ideas, meet new collaborators, and learn about different areas. As a bonus you get to travel the world and try different cuisines, what could be better?

charles_bridge.jpg Charles Bridge, taken whilst at a conference in Prague

5. Talk to people

This can be a little difficult (especially for us shy mathematicians) but speaking to people at conferences can be very rewarding. Trading expertise and ideas with one another can really jump-start your own research and even lead to interesting collaborations. For example, two ideas that I’m working on at the moment arose from idle conversations at conferences.

It’s also a great opportunity to network with current researchers and other PhD students (they could be your future colleagues!) who you’re likely to meet again at the next major conference. Getting to know researchers in your area can also help you choose an appropriate external examiner for your thesis.

6. Don’t be afraid to try crazy ideas

Sometimes weird ideas can lead to big insights and take your research in directions that you’d never have thought of originally. For example, I had a little idea that I was working on for a couple of weeks and a small part of it was proving quite difficult. Looking into the problem eventually turned into two journal papers and half of my thesis!

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?“.

On the other hand, if your quirky idea isn’t going anywhere after a couple of weeks don’t waste your time. You’ve only got a few years to get your thesis together and your time would be better spent on something fruitful.

7. Work on your writing

To communicate your research to others you have to write it down. Making your work easy to assimilate means that more people will read your paper, more people will use your ideas, and your thesis will be easier to mark. The average quality of scientific writing is notoriously poor so writing good papers makes you much more likely to get published too.

For any subject reliant on maths I’d recommend the Handbook of Writing for the Mathematical Sciences by Nick Higham as a good place to start.

8. Join a professional society

Another great way to meet people in your area (and get discounts on major conferences) is to join a professional society. For applied mathematicians in the UK this typically means the IMA and SIAM. Both offer student membership packages and you get a free newspaper by joining SIAM.

9. Get involved with student societies

Organizing student activities is a great way to have fun whilst improving your CV. I’m President of the Manchester SIAM Student Chapter, which means that we get money each year to organize conferences for the PhD students in Manchester. If you’re university doesn’t have a SIAM student chapter you can find information about starting one here.

I’ve really enjoyed organizing the conferences and getting some very interesting guest speakers. At our latest event we had Pete Lomas from the Raspberry Pi Foundation talking about the future of the device and education in computing. I wrote a blog post about this here.

10. Perform daily backups

This should be obvious but lots of people forget to do daily backups. Personally I’ve been saved a few times by backups: once because my laptop died and a few times when accidentally deleting something important.

Your backups should not be on the same computer and should be automated, so you don’t forget to do it. For instance, I have the folder “Dropbox” in my Home folder synced with Dropbox (which automatically saves the last few changes to a file). I then run a backup script, written in Bash, on a daily basis to copy all new files across. You can automate this using cron in a Linux terminal. Windows users can automate this using the Windows Task Scheduler.

Finally: Don’t forget to have fun! Your PhD is your project and there’s something wrong if you’re not enjoying your research.


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