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How To Write A Dissertation

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Bedtime Reading For People Who Do Not Have Time To Sleep

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This article is published with the permission of the author, Prof. Douglas E. Comer from Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, and remains the property of Prof. Comer all rights reserved. It has been reproduced word for word from the original article which you can find here. We would like to thank Prof. Comer for allowing his resource to be published on BetterEdit.com.

Prof. Douglas E. Comer
Computer Science Department
Purdue University
West Lafayette, IN

You can learn more about Prof. Comer at his homepage.

To The Candidate:

So, you are preparing to write a Ph.D. dissertation in an experimental area of Computer Science. Unless you have written many formal documents before, you are in for a surprise: it's difficult!

There are two possible paths to success:

Planning Ahead.

Few take this path. The few who do leave the University so quickly that they are hardly noticed. If you want to make a lasting impression and have a long career as a graduate student, do not choose it.

Perseverance.

All you really have to do is outlast your doctoral committee. The good news is that they are much older than you, so you can guess who will eventually expire first. The bad news is that they are more practiced at this game (after all, they persevered in the face of their doctoral committee, didn't they?).

Here are a few guidelines that may help you when you finally get serious about writing. The list goes on forever; you probably won't want to read it all at once. But, please read it before you write anything.


The General Idea:

  1. A thesis is a hypothesis or conjecture.

  2. A PhD dissertation is a lengthy, formal document that argues in defense of a particular thesis. (So many people use the term ``thesis'' to refer to the document that a current dictionary now includes it as the third meaning of ``thesis'').

  3. Two important adjectives used to describe a dissertation are ``original'' and ``substantial.'' The research performed to support a thesis must be both, and the dissertation must show it to be so. In particular, a dissertation highlights original contributions.

  4. The scientific method means starting with a hypothesis and then collecting evidence to support or deny it. Before one can write a dissertation defending a particular thesis, one must collect evidence that supports it. Thus, the most difficult aspect of writing a dissertation consists of organizing the evidence and associated discussions into a coherent form.

  5. The essence of a dissertation is critical thinking, not experimental data. Analysis and concepts form the heart of the work.

  6. A dissertation concentrates on principles: it states the lessons learned, and not merely the facts behind them.

  7. In general, every statement in a dissertation must be supported either by a reference to published scientific literature or by original work. Moreover, a dissertation does not repeat the details of critical thinking and analysis found in published sources; it uses the results as fact and refers the reader to the source for further details.

  8. Each sentence in a dissertation must be complete and correct in a grammatical sense. Moreover, a dissertation must satisfy the stringent rules of formal grammar (e.g., no contractions, no colloquialisms, no slurs, no undefined technical jargon, no hidden jokes, and no slang, even when such terms or phrases are in common use in the spoken language). Indeed, the writing in a dissertaton must be crystal clear. Shades of meaning matter; the terminology and prose must make fine distinctions. The words must convey exactly the meaning intended, nothing more and nothing less.

  9. Each statement in a dissertation must be correct and defensible in a logical and scientific sense. Moreover, the discussions in a dissertation must satisfy the most stringent rules of logic applied to mathematics and science.

What One Should Learn From The Exercise:

  1. All scientists need to communicate discoveries; the PhD dissertation provides training for communication with other scientists.

  2. Writing a dissertation requires a student to think deeply, to organize technical discussion, to muster arguments that will convince other scientists, and to follow rules for rigorous, formal presentation of the arguments and discussion.

A Rule Of Thumb:

Good writing is essential in a dissertation. However, good writing cannot compensate for a paucity of ideas or concepts. Quite the contrary, a clear presentation always exposes weaknesses.

Definitions And Terminology:

  1. Each technical term used in a dissertation must be defined either by a reference to a previously published definition (for standard terms with their usual meaning) or by a precise, unambiguous definition that appears before the term is used (for a new term or a standard term used in an unusual way).

  2. Each term should be used in one and only one way throughout the dissertation.

  3. The easiest way to avoid a long series of definitions is to include a statement: ``the terminology used throughout this document follows that given in [CITATION].'' Then, only define exceptions.

  4. The introductory chapter can give the intuition (i.e., informal definitions) of terms provided they are defined more precisely later.

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