It has been said “Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger”. Also: “Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, especially simian ones, because they’re not that subtle”. Oook. One of the quickest ways to annoy a reviewer/reader of your work is to include lots of irrelevant work, just because you did it whilst you were researching the material for your thesis. One of the quickest ways to irritate a student is to suggest that the work that they’ve included is irrelevant.
You’ve spent the best part of the three years investigating your research question. You’ve read a thousand or so papers and whittled it down to a choice 300. You’ve spent hours analysing data. You’ve considered the problem from sideways to Tuesday. There was that tough six months when you seemed to make not progress at all, and there was that mad week when you everything seemed to happen at once and every result was better than the last, and you want to put it all in.
I’ve been there, done that, got the lab coat. Six months of my life summed up in a couple of pages, one week the best part of a chapter. When you are writing up, there is a feeling that you have to include absolutely everything – you feel like you need to justify your existence and the fact that you went over three years; that you have to make sure that your favourite paper is referenced, even though it only has a passing relevance to your final thesis; and that you have to include every experiment because otherwise you’re suppressing the data.
One of the themes that I’ve tried to embed into this month of posts is keeping your work lean and readable. In my experience there are two reasons why someone might stray from this path. One is that that they lack confidence in their work and so there is a tendency to waffle in the belief that this will somehow makeup for the perceived deficit in the work. The other is a fundamental lack of skill in writing. Both of these things can be overcome: listen to your supervisors, especially when they tell you your work is good, and especially when they tell you to focus on rewriting specific portions – don’t rewrite the whole thing(!) and don’t add more words for the sake of it during the rewrite. Take every opportunity you can to practice your writing, and take every opportunity available to talk about your work so that you know it inside out.
When you come to start planning your thesis, start with your research question and what you have been able to prove. State your aims and objectives, your hypothesis and think about how you have proven this. Include only what you have to in order to prove your point. (This may include some dubious results that must also be explained). If it is not relevant to the research question, don’t include it. In an extreme case, you might find that your entire thesis rests on the successful completion of one discovery, if it is a sufficiently world changing one. This might represent a morning’s work, but is the culmination of months of preparation. You wouldn’t include what you had for breakfast that day, so why would you drown the reader in all of the preparations? You must include everything that impacts on the ability of someone to repeat your work, but you don’t need to talk about the special training in how to introduce cracks into brittle polymers, or how to handle ancient manuscripts or whatever the flavour of your research is. Include the relevant literature, but keep it focussed. Oh, and whatever you do, don’t throw in the kitchen sink.