Spring semester is the time for bittersweet realizations. Some realize they're graduating in a few short months, some realize it's their last semester living in what has been their hometown for years.
Others realize it's time to get started writing their thesis.
Sooooo.... what's a thesis.
The thesis is a 20 credit project you complete in your fifth or sixth year of medical school. You can choose any department (theoretical or clinical) and sell yourself and your idea (if you have one) to a potential advisor. They can either take you under their wing or suggest you to another advisor who might be a better fit.
Which department to choose
Selecting where you want to write should feel natural. Is there a particular field or subject that interests you? It's important to note however, that you don't have to write your thesis in the field you want to specialize in, you just have to be interested enough in a certain topic to be able to write about it for months on end.
Literature based vs research based
Then the bigger question. Do you want to conduct your own research, or write a literature based thesis? I will write a separate post about answering this question as I have experience in both options, but basically: conducting your own research involves a hefty amount of time compared to a literature based project. While time consuming, the great benefit of conducting your own research is the experience. But more on this later 😉
Since so many of my friends and classmates are buckling down and getting their $hit together (hooray productivity!!!), I thought it would be a good idea to compile some tips on how to get started writing your thesis. Because I certainly was at a loss when I first got started!
- Start early
I'll start out with the best piece of advice, and that is to start early. The project will take longer than you expect, and you don't want to leave it to the last minute. When you start your project is entirely up to you! So you really don't have any excuses to say in the 6th year in the middle of your rotations that you don't have time. Hard truth: it's your own fault if you feel rushed and stressed, so do yourself a favor and start early!
- Make a schedule
Something that surprises everyone when starting to write their thesis, writing the thesis itself is not what takes the most amount of time. You need to calculate time for research, article searching, formatting, making tables, layout, and contacting your supervisor. In addition to the benefit of not leaving such a big project to the last minute causing major stress in your 6th year, the project always takes longer than you expect. So once you've started (early 😉 ) make a schedule for yourself. What is your ultimate deadline? Most people work well with deadlines and use self-projected timelines as motivators. To solidify these deadlines, set up a meeting with your advisor to meet and discuss your progress. When you have to physically meet with someone, you're kept accountable compared to just letting yourself down if you don't meet a deadline. It's much more difficult to cancel on your advisor than tell yourself "I'll just do it tomorrow."
- Finding the right question to answer is key
Before you even start writing, start by learning your topic properly. Understand everything about the subject in general, not just your specific topic or question you want to answer. A broad understanding of the subject will benefit you not only when writing but also in the long run when defending your thesis, instead of just being an expert in your specific question. Once you have a good understanding of your topic, find a specific question you will attempt to answer. Discuss this with your advisor before you even start writing your thesis and dive into becoming an expert.
Finding articles and sources
I definitely needed help with this. I know my topic, my question I want to answer, I've read a ton of journal and articles about my topic, and now I want to start writing. Now what?
Instead of staring at a blank screen waiting for knowledge to just diffuse into you, ask a friend for help. I won't make a tutorial how to use citation software like Mendeley/Zotero/End Note, because tutorials are cumbersome and annoying to write and read. The best way to learn how to find and cite sources is to ask a friend who has written or is writing their thesis for help. Once you know what to do and how to navigate, it's incredibly easy to explain to someone else. Get a group of friends together for a pizza night and just learn Mendeley together 😉
A weird tip to finding articles: often when I was searching for an article in Mendeley, I'd find other articles that were similar. For example, I wanted to find an article called, "Staphylococcus aureus re-colonization in atopic dermatitis." And ended up finding a bunch of articles that were similar in nature, either about Staph Aureus, or atopic dermatitis, or other bacterial infections in atopic dermatitis and ended up using these articles as well, even though I wasn't searching for them specifically.
- take full advantage of your advisor
An additional benefit to setting up regular meetings with your advisor, is to receive their guidance. The advisors are there to advise you, not just critique you! So these meetings will be beneficial in progressing your writing. Discuss your projected schedule with them as well. Do you need to speed up your pace or are you on the right track? Is your thesis headed in the right direction or should you pull your focus in a new direction? You will feel much more powered after these meetings knowing more specifically what you need to do next.
- just write
This is probably the best tip I've ever received when overcoming writer's block. Don't think about what you're writing, don't try to make it sound fancy and scientific, just write. Factually correct literature is far more important than snazzy science lingo. This is also a great way to avoid even unintentional plagiarism. If you want to use someone else's research, read a paragraph, close it, go to your document and just try to recall what the paragraph was stating, and write it in your own words. If you stare at another author's words and phrasing, the chance of copying it a little too closely is very high! Which brings me to my next point...
- learn how to cite your sources correctly.
This is the only area of your thesis where you can make a BIG mistake. I used the citation software Mendeley, but there are many other programs out there which can help you make proper references. When in doubt of citing something correctly, ASK, because plagiarism is highly shunned upon in the medical community and you can get in some serious trouble if you're caught (even unintentionally!) copying another author's work. Run your paper every now and again through http://www.plagtracker.com to identify high risk areas of your thesis.
- allocate a proper chunk of time each week purely for thesis writing
When I first started a research project, I told myself I'd delegate every Friday for research. I only had a few lectures on Friday so I prioritized. It was nice to have one entire day dedicated solely for the project. The benefit of having nothing else in your calendar was the low risk of other distractions popping up. Also, I tend to get into a "zone" when I write, so it was nice to not be distracted with other obligations while in the writing process. Additionally, when studying, I wouldn't think "I really should be doing research" because I knew I had an entire day coming up later in the week, and vice versa while studying.
- save often and BACK. UP. YOUR. WORK
Everyone knows someone who knows someone who has lost their whole project the night before it was due. To prevent your own horror story from happening, save your work frequently, send it to yourself on e-mail, spend $5 on a USB stick and save your work. Don't be irresponsible because no one will pity a careless mistake.
Specifically for POTE students:
- The RO webpage has specific guidelines for the thesis (can be read here). Read this in full both before and after finishing the thesis to make sure your thesis fulfils all of the requirements!
- When I finished my exams in January I had three and a half weeks to write my thesis. Since Lars had practice every day in the hospital, I decided to wake up each morning with him at 7:00, walk him to the hospital, and park my butt in the café and mooch off the hospital's intranet. Not only did waking up early each morning on my "vacation" help motivate me to write (we all know what would happen if sleeping in was an option...) but at the hospital, I also had access to many of the otherwise closed journals on PubMed! Go to school or the 400Bed hospital to use the EduRoam intranet to get free access to pubmed and UpToDate articles 😉
- When you have your department and topic settled, hand in your thesis declaration form to the RO. This is usually due the last Friday of the instruction period (week 14) of the spring semester in 5th year.
I'll end this post with a great piece of genius my friend Thea said when I asked her "What advice should I write in my blog post about thesis writing?" Her answer was marvellous, and I will just copy and paste here to demonstrate the privilege I have of being surrounded by this amount of wisdom daily:
"Find a good advisor and department and challenge yourself! Use [this experience] as a stepping stone for something even greater."
She 'ain't just a pretty face.
Question: What are you best thesis writing tips? Comment below and let's help each other out! Thesis writing is daunting, but trust me, starting is the worst part 😉