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Lady Scientist

Lady Scientist is the pseudonym of Amanda, a (hopefully) soon-to-be finished biochemistry graduate student. Growing up in a smallish, southernish town she struggles to prove that you can be both a lady and scientist. Follow her adventures as she navigates her two-body problem, science, and life.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

From Superbug's Zazzle store. I'm beginning to think I should pick up about a half dozen of them to wear at all times.
Since my entire life right now revolves around dissertating, it takes too much energy to write or think about anything else. Ergo, that is what I’m going to write about.

What I wish I knew before I started writing...

(1) How lonely it would be. I’m the type of person who really doesn’t like writing. That means any excuse I can have to not write, I take. A random signature? Sure. Need help setting up an experiment? I’m so there. Need me to pick up an order that came to another building? Yes, totally. Ergo, I have to spend most of my time alone to avoid distractions.

(2) That I should have started writing during my first year of graduate school. I could have started writing my intro chapter then and just been updating it now. Unfortunately, I didn’t do that. In fact, I have yet to meet anyone who has done that. If you are doing this/did this, please introduce yourself in the comments. :)

(3) The perfect is the enemy of the good-- or even just progress. I tend to get caught up in crafting the perfect sentence. I feel like every word I place on the page should inspire choirs of angels will descend from the heavens to sing its praises. When in reality, I could just put words on the page that approximate what I want to say and then edit them later.

(3b) Corollary: Spending a half hour editing one sentence is not a good use of my time. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be good enough.

(4) How inadequate the whole process makes me feel. I had been feeling pretty good. After many obstacles, I was able to successfully complete Damned Yeast Project, I went on a successful job interview, and Advisor was brain storming with me for ideas for his new grant. I felt that I had this stuff down. Little did I know that the dissertation writing process would be a kick in the teeth. Suddenly, I’m failing-- or at least I feel that way. I worry over writing this entire dissertation. I fret over aims that never got completed. I think I just haven’t done enough. None of these things are true. I know this intellectually. I will finish my dissertation. My aim is complete enough. I’ve worked my butt off and I have things to show for it. Yet I still feel inadequate.

I think if I knew at least some of these things before I started writing, well, I'd still be miserable. But at least I would've been prepared to be miserable.

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biochem belle
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I don't think starting the intro my first year would have been much help just because my knowledge of my project and my writing style and ability changed so much over the course of grad school. However, I did have a legal pad filled with notes on original papers from a historical lit review I had to do, which was immensely helpful writing my intro.

Regarding the inadequacy, I felt the same way to some extent. My "main" project-which was the focus of my NRSA fellowship-only took up one chapter. It just kind of fizzled out from an interest and novelty perspective. A semi-related project (from which the main one originally sprung) suddenly became much more interesting in the end, and I wished I'd had more time to work on it. At some point, you hopefully accept that this is the way science always is, and you move forward.

On the writing perfection: I had to have things to take me away from the writing portion so I wouldn't get so hung up on little things. I would set goals (either time or section completion) then take a break to read Harry Potter :) Or I would go for a run or workout, during which the hypoxia would often reveal the phrase that had been hiding from me for a while.

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Yeah, I didn't start writing, what I DID do was I had a HUGE notebook (cause I'm hardcopy that way) filled with notes from all the papers I read. It did really help.

Don't worry! You can make it!

Prabodh Kandala
Texas Tech University Health Science Center
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I see some of my senior friends spending day and night in the lab to finish their Thesis. I donno if they are thinking about anything else except Thesis. My PI, advised me to start writing mine one year before I graduate.
Stacey Tobin

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I wish I had done some writing early on - or at least started taking my papers and turning them into chapters early on, just so I could have felt like something had been checked off my dissertation to-do list. I also think I could have been better about compiling my references list - although this was before online access to PDFs, so the piles of papers were just overwhelming.

I too felt the inadequacy - but saw the dissertation as a culmination of my work as a grad student in training. The dissertation is supposed to show how far you've come and that you're thinking about the great things that you are going to do in the future.

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aww.. it was hard for me too.. Especially the "search for the perfect sentences" made my writing so slow in the beginning. My advice would be to try and "just write" and then you can always go back and edit once you have the text written.. It's probably going to change anyway (the search for the perfect is never done, almost anyway).

Good luck! And try to see the finish line. soon it's all over and done :)

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Ugh, just get it done and stop bitching :P I'll proofread it if you want!

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My writing improved SO MUCH from writing my thesis. In fact, it's now something I rather enjoy even though it usually still feels hard. I hope you find the same thing. And hang in there!

Washington University School of Medicine
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My PI was a prick, so he told me to start writing in January for a March deadline while handing my a fully loaded teaching assignment for the semester. It was the worst couple months of my life. The only thing that saved me was the fact that I have a background in journalism and can write well.
Dr. Bad Ass

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In terms of the "I must write this sentence perfectly" phenomenon, I feel your pain. My solution is to write "Crappy Draft" at the top of every page. Or just make it your header, so you can see it all the time. For me at least, it freed me up to write whatever crap I needed to to get the ideas out of my head and onto the paper. It's much easier to edit than to draft, at least in my thinking, so that meant that I could edit what I wrote the day before in the morning for about an hour, and then move on to the new drafting after that.

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I feel your pain.  I second the idea that you need to just go with the idea that you're writing a crappy draft and then start worrying about making it sound pretty once you have a complete draft.  And besides, your advisor and anyone else who edits your dissertation may want you to move sections around to make things clearer to them - remember we who write the damned thing know what's going on better than anyone else - so while the meaning and flow might be clear to you as the writer, someone reading it with an outside perspective might disagree.


um, I guess I'm saying try not to obsess about it Smile

UC Davis
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Apparently the best way to write is to get it all out on paper and then edit it.  I have the same problem that you have though, which is consistently going back to it and trying to "improve it".

Not particularly comforting but it is not read by millions of people so it doesn't really have to be a masterpiece!

Washington University School of Medicine
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I'm a big fan of getting it on paper and then letting someone else look at it. That way you aren't a week out from your deadline and figuring out that a section only makes sense in your head.

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Join me in the #NaNoWriMo experience - sure it is for writing a novel but you could use your thesis. I like one of their tips: visualize your inner editor and then send him/her away for a month.

if you want to join me, I'm signed up as genegeek. I can be found here but their site is very slow today.

Good luck with the thesis writing. Once I realized that only 7 people would ever read my thesis, I wrote much faster. Although I think the first 5 or 6 pages are probably a true masterpiece... they took me as long as the following 3 chapters.

Dr. Girlfriend
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I was totally the opposite. I absolutely loved writing my dissertation. For me the struggle was those years of bench-work, troubleshooting, and repetitive experiments. I was sad when my dissertation was completed. It took two more years of experimentations before I got the data I needed to start writing again as a postdoc.

I think it is a shame that students are not encouraged to peer mentor one another in writing process. I learnt a lot as a new student from reading and commenting on my labmate’s dissertation. I learnt a bit of science and I began developing a sense of what was expected of me. He got an insight into what parts he had not explained effectively.  You know what you are trying to get across, but it takes an outsider to point out that they are confused before you realize a particular paragraph is not as clear as you thought.

However, when it came to persuading fellow students to read my draft dissertation they acted like they were doing me a huge favor!  Yet now I suspect those who were not interested are complaining that they are clueless as to what is expected of them or how their own dissertation should be taking shape!

However much you think you are struggling just remember that your mentor is not going to let you fail now. Ask for help and advice if you need it. I put a lot into mine because it was a labor of love, but your dissertation really does not need to be a masterpiece – just readable.  


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Sometimes, we learn things the hard way! Just like writing, if we haven't tried writing dissertations or thesis the hard way we wouldn't know how difficult it is. Good thing, readers who haven't tried it, is now informed the things they should know upon starting.

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