7 Observations on what it’s like writing a thesis proposal

Since I joined the Runstadler lab in late April, Jon has been particularly focused on ensuring that I get a thesis proposal hammered out early, with well-thought ideas written into it. Prior to actually sitting down and writing it out, I didn’t know what to expect while writing it. Having now ton 7 months into it, I finally have crystallized some thoughts on what the process is like, and what I think I could have done to make it more efficient (read: junior grad students – you might find some of this useful!). One thing nice about the process I’ve had is that I’ve had to come up with a research idea on my own, just like my fellow graduate student lab mates Kim and Chris, and so amongst us, there’s a strong sense of ownership and direction over the projects we’re undertaking.

So here we go.

1. It’s a term paper, a really long term paper.

Remember in 1st year undergrad when you had term papers to write, which were 3-4 pages long (1500-2000 words), and where you had to go to the library to do some research? That was part of the training for writing a thesis proposal. Except, instead of a 2-week deadline, it’s n-months long, whatever “n” might be. For me, it’s 7 months and counting, hopefully going into 9 months.

2. It demands both knowledge of the big picture and the little details.

In the proposal, we’re drilling down from big ideas down to the next little thing that we can conceivably push forward on. That’s where breadth and depth get linked together. We have to identify a problem that hasn’t been solved, put it in a bigger context of knowledge (zoom out) to establish its importance, and then identify the very next set of experiments (zoom in) that we will do in order to solve this problem.

3. Rewriting really helps.

I applied for two fellowships in between writing the thesis proposal, and the process of writing and rewriting the 1-page research summaries for both applications was really helpful for crystallizing my thoughts. I found myself going back into debater mode, in that I was finding ways to phrase my three specific aims to tie them together in a coherent way, to make the case that flu packaging and reassortment were very intricately linked and merited the study together. I also found myself being extra-critical of what I wrote, which translated into being extra-critical about what I read in articles.

4. Consistency in writing helps.

It’s an “n-month long” term paper. Getting into the habit of writing every day, regardless of how much is actually written, really helps keep the momentum going. During the summer months, I would spend a good hour or two each day doing some writing; when my statistics class at Harvard School of Public Health started in September, I cut it to once every two days on account of being rusty with mathematics, but soon the fellowship application process kicked in, and I ended up taking a hit on the thesis proposal writing progress during the month of October, when the applications were due.

5. Juggling exciting research questions is hard.

And it gets even harder when you’ve got this long paper to write. Discipline really is key. There are days where I spent my entire time coding up a solution to a problem I’m trying to solve, only to find that at 6:30 pm, I’ve forgotten to touch my thesis proposal.

6. Don’t beat up yourself for forgetting.

As a graduate student who’s never gone through graduate school before, it’s easy to beat myself up for forgetting to do something. But in the long run, life’s exactly the same – we’re someone who’s never been age x before, so we’re bound to have missteps at age x. So there’s no point bashing oneself for mistakes. Pick up and move on, and smile along the way.

7. Mental breaks really help.

I used to do walking on the treadmill for 1 hr to give myself mental breaks. Soon enough, that evolved into jogging slowly for 1 hr. Soon enough, that became jogging faster for 1 hr. I now have found a sweet spot of doing a half-hour jog in the afternoons, where I give my mind enough space to rest from the grind of writing and thinking. After jogging, I’ll go to Sloan Cafe to get a coffee, sit there for another half an hour, before coming back to the office.

I also sometimes intentionally stand up, walk to get some water, and then come back and sit down. This happens at least once an hour; if my mind is on a roll, I can find myself standing up more often to get water or go to the washroom, as for some reason, I think better while walking.


In my next post, I will detail some of the strategies I have found to work well for me. Hopefully, somebody might find it useful too.