Before you write your thesis, read the instructions

I have a little tip today for those of you preparing to write a thesis: Before you start, read your university’s or department’s thesis guidelines. There are some things that are easy to do as you’re writing your thesis, but a pain to do after, like compiling a table of abbreviations, which is usually required. If you read the thesis guidelines before you start writing, you can make notes of the things that you will need to do, and probably save a lot of time later on. It’s quite likely that you will discover things you’re supposed to do that you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of on your own.

I would also suggest that you frequently go back to those guidelines during the writing process. If you’re wondering how you’re supposed to format figure captions, the thesis guidelines probably answer this question. If you’re not sure what is expected in a thesis abstract (it varies from school to school), or whether you need to write a longer summary in addition to the abstract (required in some places), look no further than your university’s thesis guidelines.

Every School of Graduate Studies has a person whose job is to make sure that theses meet the local requirements. This person generally doesn’t look at your thesis until you have defended it and have completed your revisions. It’s a lousy time to find out that you need to add something, or rewrite the abstract, or reformat the whole thing. A few minutes of reasonably careful reading ahead of time will save you all these headaches. It’s a smart investment of your time.

Incidentally, the same principle applies to lots of other things: Reading instructions for scholarship or grant applications, or instructions in job ads about what you are supposed to submit in your application, will generally repay handsomely the small amount of time you devote to this activity. In the case of a thesis, the worst that will happen if you mess something up is that you will be told to fix it. For a grant or job application, not following the instructions may mean that your application isn’t even considered.

So just “read the instructions, that’s how you get it right”, as the Doodlebops so eloquently put it.