epidemiologista

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Category Archives: PhD

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Standing up for Science: beating the silence

The Silence: not to be feared by doctors (only The Doctor) – picture courtesy of geekygirlnyc

There are a lot of scary things to face when doing a PhD: supervisor’s ideas of ‘normal’ working hours, reviewers whose sole aim in life is to reject as many papers as possible, or the experimental equipment that only works when the right amount of blu-tack is in the right place and you karate chop the on-button. But possibly the scariest of all is the journalist.

This is why sense about science has set up their Standing up for Science media workshop: a one day workshop, specifically for early career scientist that gives a bit of insight into how science gets translated into news. It’s a great workshop that combines a session of scientists talking about successful (and less successful) experiences with journalists, with a session of journalists talking about what they actually do during their busy days. But most of all, it gets us early career scientists away from our lab benches for a day to talk about why we think it is so scary in the first place.

Most of us grad students (and scientists in general) are funded by public money, so it is a reasonable expectation that we try to feed our results back to the public. That’s easier said than done though. As scientists, we spend a lot of time getting the right results, and even more so, getting them just right on paper. Even though a scientific article might be only 3,000 words, it has to represents years of blood, sweat and tears.

So it might be understandable that we can be a bit hesitant when we have to hand this over to a journalist not familiar with our particular brand of science. We’ll just have to stand by while they condense it into a catchy headline and accompanying article that is often shorter than any summary we could write ourselves. Everyone knows someone for whom this has gone horribly wrong. Stories are abound about how a basic science paper on cells in a petri dish ended up promising to have found the cure-all pill for cancer, or how bacon is apparently responsible for doubling our (already 100%) risk of death.

It’s great to hear from experienced people like Dr Deirde Hollingsworth and Prof Stephen Keevil that talking to media gets easier after a while, and that the mess-ups are rarely remembered by anyone but yourself. Even talking to a news outlet with a reputation like Fox News can be a good experience, according to Dr Emily So who talked to them live on air after the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami.

In the Q&A session afterwards, Dr Hollingsworth advises us not be afraid of silence (unless you’re The Doctor, in which case you’re right to be afraid). It’s up to the journalist to ask questions, and if you try to fill the void you might end up saying things you didn’t intend to.

The journalist session is equally enlightening. Jason Palmer (BBC), Richard Van Noorden (Nature) and Jane Symons (former health editor at the Sun) assure us they’re not out to get us: they want to get the science right as much as we do. However, they do have a product to sell and a deadline to make (not to mention a mythical sleepy granny to keep awake), so it would be helpful to them if we do pick up the phone when they call.  If we don’t, they might go for someone even less qualified to answer their question.

Helpfully, sense about science has provided a booklet with some easy tips (and even a checklist) on talking to the media. Sense about science are organising the Standing up for Science workshop again in September (London) and in November (Glasgow).

Epidemiology courses: getting an idea of what’s out there

So I started my final year as a PhD student yesterday. Or so I am told, as the REF exercise is coming up, and PhD students finishing on time seem to make up at least part of that score. Also, my funding runs out in 12 months – 1 day which might be a bit more of a personal motivator to actually try and achieve that still seemingly unattainable goal (I seem to be slightly stuck in the valley of shit-part of my PhD at the moment).

Thesis relationship: it's complicated

As I go into that scary final year, others are just starting their perilous journey of pre-doctorhood and one of the questions that seems to keep popping up is what courses are good (all those newbies seem to swim in money!). I’ve been lucky enough to go on quite a few, and hear about even more during my two years of thesis-slavery, so I thought I’d try and make a dreadfully incomplete overview of epi & stats related courses. There’s bound to be lots more out there (apologies for the London/South-East England-bias) and I haven’t been able to find a nice summary of what’s available anywhere else. Though I suspect there’s probably a reason for that, which I’m about to find out.

So without further ado: some of the awesome epi education the UK (and again, very selective bits of Europe) have to offer:

UK

London: UCL – Institute of Child Health All year round short stats courses, from basic courses on logistic or linear regression, to Bayesian analysis and missing data

London: UCL – Primary Care & Population Health Organises courses in October/November on the use and analysis of electronic health records

London: UCL – Infection and Population Health Perhaps a bit too specific for this list, but IPH organises 2 courses in June for HIV/sexual health researchers (nothing wrong with a bit of cross-disciplinary education)

London: LSHTM All year courses on a wide variety of statistics, epidemiology and public health topics. The causal inference course (in November) is particularly good.

London: Imperial – Statistical Advisory Service All year round stats courses: introduction to Stata or SPSS and design and analysis of clinical trials

London: The Royal Statistical Society What better place to learn about statistics? They do lots of different stats courses, all year round. They also run a good course on presenting data (equally important as getting some results).

Bristol: Uni of Bristol – Social and Community Medicine All year round courses on lots of different topics related to statistics (mainly Stata focussed), epidemiology and social medicine

Cambridge: MRC Biostatistics Unit One day course on practical use of multiple imputation to handle missing data in Stata 12 – usually held once a year but exact date varies

Cambridge: Uni of Cambridge – The Psychometrics Centre run short courses on structural equation modelling once a year

Reading: Uni of Reading – Statistical Services Centre The SSC runs lots of different statistics courses, from introduction courses to advanced level using (almost?) every statistical software imaginable (30% academic discount!).

Leeds: Uni of Leeds – Statistical Thinking Courses on statistics for non-statisticians. Most courses seem to run in February/March, and there’s a summer school as well.

Manchester: Uni of Manchester – The Cathy Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research The CCSR run all year round stats courses ranging from intro to advanced levels, as well as some courses on (analysing) survey data.

Southampton: Population Health Sciences Research Network A 3-day course on epidemiology for clinicians covering measures of disease occurrence and risk, cohort, case-control and cross-sectional studies, randomised controlled trials, getting started in research, introduction to statistical analysis, statistical genetics, interpreting findings, and genetic epidemiology.

Lancaster: Uni of Lancaster – Department of Mathematics and Statistics Another university running all year stats courses from introduction to advanced level, using R, SPSS, Stata and AMOS.

Southampton: Uni of Southampton – Courses for Applied Social Surveys The name says it all: all the statistical and analytical skills you need to analyse (complex) survey data in one place.

Colchester: Uni of Essex – Summer School in Social Science Data Analysis Six weeks of mathematics and statistics, in collaboration with the universities of Oxford and Mannheim. The six weeks are split up in three sessions, each with courses increasing in difficulty. It’s a very mixed bag of courses, so there ought to be something interesting for everyone.

If you’re interested in courses on infectious disease epidemiology, the IDRN have a great overview on their website.

Europe

The Netherlands: Erasmus University Rotterdam (Winter / Summer) Three weeks of courses focussed on epidemiology in winter (February/March) and summer (August) with some excellent international speakers (PhD students get 50% discount on the course fees!)

The Netherlands: Utrecht University Summer School In July and August, Utrecht University organises 6 weeks of courses ranging from art history to theoretical physics. There are plenty of epidemiology and statistics related courses as well (mainly focussing on pharmacoepidemiology and environmental/occupational epi.

Switzerland: Epi Winter School in Wengen The course everyone wants to go on: lectures in the morning, skiing in the afternoon, practicals in the evening and it is actually relevant to epidemiology so you’ve got an excuse to go (though I didn’t manage to convince my supervisor of this just yet).

Italy: European Educational Programme in Epidemiology in Florence Just in case skiing isn’t your thing, there’s this course in summery Tuscany. Pasta, Pisa and P-values, what more could one want (clinically significant results and a publication in the Lancet, since you’re asking)?

World

US: University of Michigan summer school The school of Public Health is organising this one with courses varying from 1 to 3 weeks in length, and some online/distance-learning courses as well.

Canada: McGill Summer session Organised by the department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health so topics available for everyone!

 

Online

Coursera: Free online courses, too many different ones to create a list here (new ones keep getting added), but to pick just one as an example: Computing for Data Analysis (an intro to R)

EdX: Similar to Coursera (also free!), lots of different courses, but EdX has got a specific public health course, ran by Harvard – Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical & Public Health Research

Stata NetCourses: Online courses on how to use Stata, how to program in Stata and some time series modelling. They’re very affordable, and even more so with the current dollar/pound exchange rate 🙂

Elevate: Online courses organised by the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands on epidemiology and biostatistics, and also a few public/global health ones! Courses are priced similar to offline courses (which is my way of saying I think they’re quit expensive).

NIHES: The same people organising the Erasmus Winter & Summer programmes, but online this time. At the moment there’s only a course in diagnostic research, but I’m sure more will follow. You’ll have to miss out on visiting the Erasmus bridge and famous Dutch stroopwafels though.

UCLA: Quite possible the best stats resource on the internet. You can find web books, video lectures, explanations on how to run all commonly used statistical tests in Stata, SPSS or SAS, and lots more. Once you get into it, it’s a bit like that XKCD comic.

I’ll add courses once I run into them, but please let me know if there’s anything I should add (there are lots, I am sure!).

Update:

Thanks to @gingerly_onward,  @rlodw, @CedarUK, @lou_hurst, @jeanmadams, @rob_aldridge, @rebeccalacey and @Peter_Tennant for suggestions!

How to publish a paper: a student’s perspective (epilogue)

Thank you for all for reading my posts! I’ve managed to survive actually presenting it, and got some good feedback so I thought I’d share some other nifty things I’ve learned about.

The session on publishing included Dr Sean Hennessy, editor for the Americas for Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety, and Dr Tarek Hammad, deputy division director of the FDA’s Department of Epidemiology. As not-yet-doctor and the person with the shortest ‘this is what I did to get here’-slide I did suffer from imposter syndrome quite a bit, but hearing from other students afterwards, I seemed to have hidden it quite well.

Dr Hennessy, as both an academic and editor, give an outline of what should be in your article, and where it ought to be (and as his presentation hasn’t magically appeared on the internet yet, I definitely need to work on improving on the legibility of my handwriting so I can actually make sense of it afterwards).  Dr Hammad’s presentation leaned on years of experience of publishing papers, and boiled it all down into 10 useful tips, which I will let you read yourself. His first tip, publishing under the influence, is maybe the most relevant one. Although many PhDs seem to focus on getting that coveted thesis written, Dr Hammad emphasised that as a grad student you are also in the perfect position to get some peer-reviewed papers out. You’ve got your supervisors who can help you with the actual writing and hopefully give you lots of feedback so you know what you need to work on most (and as a student, you can still benefit from courses organised by your grad school).

The most interesting topics came up during the panel discussion afterwards. After I had ascertained the room that cover letters were very important, Dr Hennessy assured us that most editors don’t actually read them. Several academics in the room gasped as if they just collectively missed a grant deadline. After I tweeted about it, @Peter_Tennant enlightened me on the fact other editors are of the exact opposite opinion. A few days later Dr Hennessy came up to me to tell me that after inquiring with some other editors at his journal, they do seem to read cover letters. Phew, so I didn’t spend all that time writing convoluted sentences about how great the journals I want to submit my article to are. (As a side note: I suspect the importance of your cover letter might depend on the type of editor – part-time editors at specialist journals who are also academics might head straight for the article while full time editors read cover letters. It would be interesting to find out whether that’s what was behind Dr Hennessy statement).

The discussion on self-plagiarism was also interesting. A lot, if not most of the people attending ISPE work with electronic health databases. Be they electronic health care records, claims data or registries, the number of large databases available are on the increase. Given the size and range of information available in these databases, they can be used over and over again for new research. The team I work in has already published over 35 papers using THIN data. A problem arises when trying to describe this data source in a paper, a necessary and important bit of the methods section. In peer-reviewed papers (and theses, while we’re on it), you’re not allowed to copy text from another paper, even if it is your own. This means that ever time we write a new paper using the same database, we have to find a new way to describe it. Every single time. You’d imagine there are only a limited number of ways to switch between the active and passive voice, mention different aspects of the database or slightly rearrange the order of the words, but the GPRD/CPRD have managed to pull off over 400 research papers, so other options most be there.

A second tip came from a student: learn how to use Word. Most people getting into science now will have grown up with Word, so it might seem a bit too basic. However, there are lots of clever things Word can do that you might not know about as you didn’t need them when you were learning how to use it at age 8 (ah, the times when Comic Sans, Wingdings and the flashy gifs on geocities ruled the world). Again, grad schools might offer good short courses on what Word is actually capable of.

Jane

Finally, I got pointed in the direction of Jane. Jane is an amazing piece of software, writing by the biosemantics group at the Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. You put in an abstract or article title, and it finds journals and authors that have published similar stuff: an ideal tool for creating that list of potential journals to submit to, and to identify potential reviewers at the same time. Journals are listed by relevance, and listed with their Article Influence score, rather than those evil impact factors. As a bonus, it also finds relevant papers that you might want to cite. Jane’s perfect for impressing your supervisors with a ready made super-relevant list of journals.

So that’s it for now – I’m sure there are lots more helpful tips out there, so if you could add anything: I would love to hear from you!

How to publish a paper: a student’s perspective (part 2)

Well, thank you all for reading the first part – I got more visitors than I normally get in a month! Hope you like the second half as much as the first! Any comments/other tips are of course very welcome.

Step 3: Submission and waiting

Before you submit, you should make some final checks, for which most journals supply a handy checklist (sometimes you don’t run in to these until you actually register to their submission system, so have a look around there early on). Are you complying with the relevant reporting guidelines? Do you have all necessary forms, such as conflict of interest statements, and the perfect abstract and cover letter (those are two things an editor is sure to look at) to convince the journal your article is worth reviewing? Right then: hit those buttons and submit.

Peer-review wait

Waiting for my paper to go through the peer-review mill (it got accepted at this journal (International Journal of Obesity) so it was worth the wait!)

And now the wait starts. If you don’t hear from the journal within the next couple of days, your paper has probably been sent out for review, which is good, but could take weeks, if not months. Luckily, there are things you can do to slightly speed this process up, such as suggesting potential reviewers in your cover letter (if the journal doesn’t provide that option in their submission system). Even though the journal might have published lots of similar studies, it is always helpful to make some recommendations.

Step 4: Results!

Unless your are submitting to the journal of universal rejection, you can never be sure what the outcome of a submission is going to be. There are three possible outcomes: you’re paper gets rejected, the editor wants you to revise your paper, or your paper is accepted without changes (it’s theoretically possible, I’ve been told). In case of rejection, you can either appeal the decision or move on to the next journal.

Personally, I have never appealed, but it is possible to do so when you feel you’ve been unfairly rejected. Maybe the reviewers didn’t display any knowledge of the topic area (you’d be surprised how many reviewers accept to review paper on topics they have no or little expertise on), or the decision of the editor doesn’t seem to add up with the opinions of the reviewers. It happens. One thing to keep in mind is that an appeal can take a long time: if the editor appears to have made the wrong call, associate editors will have to make a decision, which can be fairly quick. However, if the reviewers were in the wrong, the editor will have to assert their incompetence, and find new reviewers. It might be faster to submit to a different journal (which might be preferable in the case of looming grant application deadlines).

The third option, revision, comes in two flavours: minor and major. Although the first one gives you a better chance of eventual acceptance, it’s still not sure you’re going to get in. The vestiges of published, peer-review science are guarded well, or that is the intended function of peer-review at least. Major revisions will require re-analysis, new tests or experiments, rewrites or explanations of unexplained concepts: the list is endless really.

Step 5: Responding to reviewers’ comments

Comic by PhD comics: Addressing reviewer comics

One thing to take into account when responding to reviewers’ comments is that is not personal, and that reviewers rarely agree. A large meta-analysis [1] actually found that peer reviewers only agree about 1 in 3 times (or even less if you focus on the larger studies with smaller confidence intervals). However, the editor would like to see your study published (that’s what is paying his their salary) and the reviewers’ comments are meant to be constructive, so it’s important to stay in character and be polite when you answer.

Bornemann et al. - Inter-Rater Reliability between reviewers

This might seem like pointing out the obvious, but under the guise of anonymity, some reviewers tend to lose composure. Although you might be tempted to give in and give such reviewers a piece of your mind, it will be the editor who will read your response first, so it’s better to hold your guns. Some reviewers might have a vested interest in whether or not your paper gets published: they work in your field, so they will have an opinion on whether what you’re doing is correct and line with their work. Other peculiar behaviour might happen when someone remarks you only cited one single paper by the distinguished Dr Scientist. Maybe you could also cite these other eight (barely relevant) papers by the honourable Dr Scientist, who you’re not supposed to guess is the actual reviewer?

Working through comments can get very frustrating. Here’s a beautiful pair of comments I got back from some reviewers (both on the same paper):

  • Reviewer #1: “The analysis and purpose of the study is confusing. The quality of the data is likely suspect.”
  • Reviewer #2: “I found the paper to be well written, the analysis rigorous and well conceived and the conclusions supported by the data and analysis.”

And this was just the start of both reviews, the disagreements between both reviewers got worse with every paragraph they dealt with. As mentioned before, these inconsistencies between reviewers are common, which is why it is an editor making the final decision, rather than the reviewers battling it out amongst themselves. Working through them can be become a bit tedious to say the least.

The final part of responding to reviewers’ comments (and you have to respond to all of them), is writing the rebuttal or revision letter. I like to start by thanking the editor for giving me the opportunity to revise and respond to the comments. That will take up one page, which I structure a bit like my cover letter (department-headed paper and all). Then I start the actual rebuttal:

“We thank the reviewers for their comments on our paper. We have changed our paper accordingly and addressed all the comments as listed below:”

[Short summary of major changes]

[Copy and paste comments from reviewers and write a short response to each of them for instance:]

Reviewer #1:

1. In figure 1, the authors have not included in which units the y-axis is labelled.

We thank the reviewer for noticing this omission. We have now correctly labelled our y-axis in rate per 100 person-years.

(the colour helps to distinguish between reviewer’s and my words) 

It might take a few pages to get through all of them, but it makes it easier for the editor to see what I did and why I did it – hopefully shortening my waiting time a bit. Then it’s time to resubmit the whole thing again. If the comments were only minor, it’s usually the editor who will make the final decision. If there were any major comments, the paper is likely to go back to the initial reviewers and you’ll have to wait a bit longer.

Alternative ways to get published

Writing papers isn’t the only way to get your name out there: give blogging a go! Or offer to write a book review (free books!), write science news articles (a good way to keep on top of what is happening in your field, and to practice those abstract writing skills) or enter a science writing competition. (I’m obviously not entirely subjective here). Significance is always on the look out for new bloggers, so why not try them if you’re tempted?

Last resorts

Nature efforts: because you tried really hard

So every journal on your list rejected your paper? Why not try the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine, the All Results Journal, the Journal of Pharmaceutical Negative Results or even the Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis?

And now go read some author guidelines! They’re likely to be shorter than this post.

Resources & Reference:

1. Bornmann L, Mutz R, Daniel H-D (2010) A Reliability-Generalization Study of Journal Peer Reviews: A Multilevel Meta-Analysis of Inter-Rater Reliability and Its Determinants. PLoS ONE 5(12): e14331. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0014331

LaTeX: http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/LaTeX

Wordle: http://www.wordle.net/

Zotero: http://www.zotero.org/

PhD2Published.com / @acwri (organisers of a fortnightly twitter chat – Thursdays at 7pm BST)

Twitter hashtags: #PhDchat / #ECRchat / #acwri <- useful to ask questions and find other good resources. If you don’t use Twitter, no worries: PhD-chat has an off-twitter wiki, and ECR (early career researcher) chat has a blog.

How to publish a paper: a student’s perspective (part 1)

With only 3 papers with my name on it, I’m definitely not an expert when it comes to getting papers published. However, those 3 papers (and one that’s waiting in some reviewers’ inboxes right now) have been rejected a total number of 12 times, giving me at least some experience in preparing and submitting them. Maybe that’s why I got invited to give a talk on publishing papers at the student skills workshop at the ICPE – the International Conference on Pharmacoepidemiology and Risk Management. Or it might have been that when a publisher dropped out last minute, and the organisers (one of whom I happen to share a supervisor with) really needed someone who had already booked their tickets to Barcelona.

Either way, I’ve got a presentation to prepare for, and in doing so, I’ve found that actually I have developed a bit of a five-step system when it comes to preparing papers. Even more so: when talking with other students and staff around my department, I’ve found some interesting tips and thoughts on how to get published. I felt it might be worth it to actually write all of this up in a blog (and get some last minute considerations to add to my talk?), as a reference to build on, so here we go:

Step 1: Selecting a journal

Nature vs. Science - Comic by PhD Comics

I’ll start at the point where you’ve done all your analyses and have pretty good idea what you want your paper to be about. Maybe you’re working on that first draft, or you’re already on version 17.3, but at some point you’ll have to start considering what journal to submit to. As my first supervisor told me when my very first paper was rejected by JAMA: “If the first journal you submit your paper to accepts it, you didn’t aim high enough”.

And there you immediately have your first problem: what constitutes aiming high? Impact factors are one determinant of ‘high’, though we all know now that using those in any decision making will only prove you are statistically illiterate. Rather, you could aim at submitting to one of the general medicine journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, the Lancet or BMJ. All of those boast large regular reader counts and even larger rejection rates.

The scopes of these journals are wide, but they will only consider the studies that will keep their impact factors up, so it might be good to consider some more specialist journals as well. You might not reach as many researchers, but you are more likely to reach the right ones. To find out which are best for your research, go over the papers your citing: there are bound to be some relevant journals there. Or ask an expert; you’re collaborators (if you have any) will probably be able to make some suggestions.

These can ideas can then form a list of potential journals to submit to. Being rejected becomes a lot less painful if you’ve your plan B at the ready. Final considerations will depend on your funder (should the journal be open access?) and funding (yes, it costs money to be published).

Step 2: Formatting and editing

However much I’d like it, there is no getting out of formatting or weeding through formatting guidelines (at least not until you’re senior enough to have someone do it for you), but there are some little things that can make it easier. One of these is Wordle, which creates a ‘word cloud’ highlighting the words you’ve used most often. The first time I copied a paper of mine in there (luckily just before I meant to send it to my supervisors), one word stood out like a sore thumb: However. Without really noticing it, I had started using the word in every other sentence in the discussion. Apart from highlighting unnecessary repetitions, it’s also a very nice tool for identifying key words in your paper: if the right ones don’t come up, you’re probably using to many different terms to describe one phenomenon.

Also important: use a reference manager (I like Zotero – it’s free and integrates with Firefox/Chrome, so you can you use it on any computer without needing to bring the most recent database file with you). Different programs will have different (dis)advantages, so shop around a bit before you decide upon one, there are a lot of options out there.

Draft approved - comic by PhD Comics

Another tip is to read your paper aloud. After taking six years of Latin, I’ve really come to love subordinate clauses and the dactylic hexameter. Unfortunately, they don’t work so well for academic writing, and reading sections aloud really helps in locating the overly complicated sentences I can come up when left to myself for too long (enter joke about ablative absolutes). It works even better when you leave your paper for a few days or even weeks, and then come back to it. Instead of reading what you think is there, you’ll suddenly be able to see what it is actually there.

When you finally come round to sending it to your co-authors make sure you give them enough time. Or even better: decide on a revision plan. How many times will each co-author see the paper, and in which order will you send it round? It can be hugely ineffective to send it to everyone at the same time, as you will end up with lots of similar or contradictory comments. Of course this will get more difficult with increasing numbers of co-authors, but it is important to keep at least the PI and supervisors involved.

One last formatting tip: LaTeX. It’s amazing. Like reference managers format your references, LaTeX can format your entire paper. It will take a bit coding (unless you opt for a program like LyX – thank you @JStreetley), but it will be worth it. One downside: the resulting text will be in PDF, making it harder for some reviewers to write comments or make changes.

Naturally, publishing involves a lot of waiting. So as my post is already past the 1,000 word mark, I’ll leave you to wait for part 2 (submitting & final checks, results!, and responding to reviewers’ comments) tomorrow.

Theses the world: a world of theses?

Today,  a copy of the thesis of a friend of mine from the Netherlands dropped through my mailbox. If you, like me, are from the Netherlands, that sentence will contain nothing out of the ordinary. People from Britain however, will be in awe at the apparent size of my mailbox, if it can muster up the capacity to have an entire thesis pushed through it.

It was one of the first things my now supervisor told me when I met her to discuss my potential PhD project: the thesis. Did I realise how much work it was going to be? Especially compared to Dutch theses? I’d always secretly dreamt about one day writing a book, so working on a magnum opus on three years of my own research seemed like it might be right up my alley. And anyway, I’d read a couple of (Dutch) theses and they seemed entirely within reach. Even if the British version was to be twice as big (which I was sure was an overestimation, a worst case scenario), it still would be attainable. The world of academia is full of PhDs, how hard could it really be?

As you might guess at this point, I was slightly baffled, to say the least, when I first encountered the doorstop that is a thesis in this part of the world. Now, a year and a half later, when I seem to have accepted what I’ve let myself in for, my friend’s thesis reminded me of what I could have gotten away with, so to say. And it got me thinking.

What should a thesis contain? How big should it be? I’ve heard many stories from PhD hopefuls and PhD completees over the last year and there seems to be a huge variation in theses. Not only between countries (I’ve only seen theses from the UK and the Netherlands), but also between universities, and even between different departments within the same university.

According to Wikipedia, a dissertation or thesis is a document submitted in support of candidature for an academic degree or professional qualification presenting the author’s research and findings. That description allows for many interpretations, which I am sure there are.

A bulky British and dainty Dutch thesis

A bulky British and dainty Dutch thesis

The most important difference between the two theses in the picture above is their aim. While the thesis is an aim in its own worth in the world of UK universities, it is merely a tangible summary of the work you’ve accomplished in the Netherlands. Publishing your results is deemed more important, and the thesis functions as a binder of those studies, with a short general introduction and discussion to hold the whole thing together (the Dutch thesis pictured about is actually rather bulky as it contains five papers, rather than the standard three). Whether you’ve passed your examination depends more on your thesis defence and publication record than what you’ve actually put in your little paperback.

Meanwhile, in the UK you can pass your viva and become a doctor of philosophy without even a single publication, as long as you’ve done the works on your thesis. Writing the thesis, almost as much as doing the necessary research, becomes a rite of passage.

I’m sure there are many more varieties out there of the written account of completing a doctoral degree. A whole world of theses. So what do they look like? Do they look like the playful Dutch paperbacks, or are more them in the serious looking UK corner? And what do they contain? Published papers? Extensive accounts of every single piece of research? Every single graph and table ever produced? And maybe the most important question: what should be in them? I hope to hear from you in the comments!