Start early. That is what PhD students are always told when it comes to their thesis. But how early is that? And what does ‘start’ actually mean? I’m going to argue that your thesis starts taking shape from the moment you start your project, through the myriad choices and little mistakes you make along the way. This is clearly only one approach – one I espouse based on the path I took.
Start out with a list of questions you would like to address during your PhD. See if you can build a ‘story’ out of them. In my case my three results chapters form parts of a causal chain, which makes it quite simple. You may have to work harder to find your story, but it is worth it.
You should be doing this in your first year. Honestly. This is not to sow panic among the ranks; my point is that your PhD thesis outline naturally grows out of your project plan. By ‘plan’ I certainly do not mean a timeline of future activities. Predicting when things will happen in your project is nearly impossible. But think about where you want to get with your project. Simply, what is the point? What information are you trying to uncover and how will you present that information in a convincing way? The image shows a basic plan I sketched out within 6 months of starting my PhD. The plan needs to cover three points:
- What are you going to do?
- How are you going to do it?
- Why is it awesome?
At the early stage I needed to work on point 3 and explain why my approach is a novel one. Note how even then I had a three-section structure which would fit nicely into my PhD thesis (in future posts in this series we will see how it has gradually and subtly changed).
Your thesis is not the story of your PhD. It is a story based on your PhD. You will not give a detailed chronological account of what you did, but you will tell a story based on what you learned. Like any story, it takes a while to get the plot elements in place. Play around with them. Don’t stress about it if they don’t seem to make sense. Come back to them later. By having a project plan you will accomplish two things: you will make your work more focused because you know what you are working towards, and you will have a ready-made thesis outline.
I have made many adjustments to my plan and will no doubt make many more. But this is no reason not to make a plan. Even if you don’t know your final destination you can at least ensure you head in the right direction.