May 8, 2014

Completing your Ph.D. Thesis

By Danielle Miranda

Time vanishes so quickly! While you’re busy with experiments, reading journal articles, and preparing for presentations, the home stretch reaches you before you know it. Now it is time to write your thesis and defend your dissertation. We have advice and perspectives from Mayo Graduate School (MGS) graduates and faculty to give insight into preparing for your defense.

Karen Hedin Ph.D.Karen Hedin

Program Director for Immunology

Associate Professor of Immunology, College of Medicine

Instructor in Pharmacology, College of Medicine






As a professor, what recommendations or advice do you have for graduate students writing their thesis?

  • I think the best advice is to “not wait”!
  • When students are approximately one year away from graduation, they should start outlining their entire thesis and discussing the outline with their advisor, and they should write the thesis introduction (Chapter 1).
  • Students should look at other students’ recent theses to get an idea about the appropriate length and style.
  • Students should also check with their track and MGS to make sure they fully understand the requirements and format for the thesis, the submission date, and the forms that need to be signed.
  • Students also need to start early to organize their computer files, make figures and tables, and set up their references in Endnote.
  • Figures need to be reformatted for the thesis, even if they were already published in papers—students should start early to get their figures in the proper format because this is time consuming.

How long should a graduate student allow for writing their thesis?

I think students should take only 4 weeks to write the thesis. Six to eight weeks if they are also working a lot in the lab during this time. For most students, all they really need to write new is the 1st chapter (the introduction) and the last chapter (the conclusion). The other chapters are typically his or her published papers word for word, just reformatted, so that is relatively quick. Additional chapters can be added to describe unpublished results. If there are a lot of unpublished results included in the thesis, the student may need more time to write these up.

What are common mistakes or areas a graduate student should prepare for on the day of or during their defense?

Be sure your talk is only approximately 40-45 minutes long, since there will be a long introduction by your advisor, and you will probably have a longer than usual thank you section at the end.

  • If you have family members attending your talk, you should “assign” a friend or lab member to take the family to an empty conference room or on a tour of the campus after your talk and while you are defending your thesis behind closed doors with your committee.
  • For your talk, you are expected to cover your *entire* thesis work, not just what you have done during the past year.  You should try to summarize everything you have done and show how it fits together as a whole.  Thus, it is different than a typical WIP talk.  Your thesis talk can work very well with small modifications as a talk you can give when you interview for a postdoc job position.
  • The faculty on your committee usually request some corrections and changes to the written thesis, so do not be surprised at this.  However, numerous grammar and spelling errors at this point make you look unprofessional. It is a good idea to have a friend or family member read your thesis through carefully for grammar and spelling—spell check is not sufficient.  Give them one chapter at a time as you finish it to read.
  • During the “closed door” session after your talk, you should not be afraid!  At this point, virtually “everyone” graduates!  However, you can expect faculty to ask you broad ranging questions about the meaning of your work, and about what you would do next on the project if you were the PI of the lab. Typically, the questions during this session do not focus on the tiny details of your experiments—it is more about the big picture and exploring how you have developed as a scientist. You are seen more as a peer with the faculty during this meeting—it should be rather fun!

When should Ph.D. candidates begin to look for post-doc or other post-grad opportunities?

At least 1 year before you graduate you should be looking for a post doc or other post grad position.

Also, at every scientific meeting you attend as a student, even in your 2nd or 3rd year, you should be chatting up other scientists and writing down their names if you find their work interesting and following up via email.  You can then contact these scientists about 1 year before you finish, to ask if they might have interest in hiring you as a postdoc.



SilvaJessica Silva-Fisher Ph.D.

 BMB graduate 2011

3 years staff scientist 

The Genome Institute at Washington University

Chris Maher's Laboratory

Do you have any recommendations or advice you wished you would have had prior to writing your thesis?

Begin as early as you can. Do not wait till the last minute. You will have lots of edits and re-edits. Utilize your publications for your thesis as it makes writing faster. Utilize a good cite program such as Endnote.

How long did it take you to complete your thesis?

 About 3 months. I had 1 book chapter, 1 publication, and 1 publication in progress, so this made writing faster and easier. I was able to simply use each one of these as chapters.  I would recommend to start writing this at least 6 months....background and conclusions take the longest.

 Are your committee members instrumental in helping you go through the process?

 YES! My thesis advisor made edits and I sent it to my committee members for edits as well. They sent back their comments and marked it red. This then made it easy to submit the final thesis for defense. They give support and encouragement to finish and wrap up everything in a good time length.

 Were there any Mayo resources you were able to use to help write your thesis?

 Ask your thesis advisor to let you see their previous students’ bound final thesis. Many or all of advisors have a copy of their students’ theses. This helped me with my format (as you can create your own) to see what you like and what you don't like. Each student’s thesis varies in length and style. Get a copy of Endnote, write in the library for extra focus.

 What would have made you feel more prepared during the defense of your dissertation?

 Practice, practice, practice in front of different people. Send your advisor your presentation for edits. Use your friends for practice, the more diverse they are (in different departments or programs) the better. They will give you perspective you didn't think about previously. The more you practice it (can do it without even looking at the slides) the more confidence you will have. The more confidence you have the fewer questions they will ask you (they will assume you know everything)!

 When did you begin to look for a post-doc or other post-grad opportunities?

 About 1 year in advance. You want to be going to interviews the last several months before your defense so you can begin your post-grad position right away.  Talk with your advisor about your plans and goals. Do a PubMed search of the topic you are interested in and look who is the PI of the lab and see if your advisor knows them. If He/She does, they can give a nice call or intro email for you.  Then you can email them introducing yourself and ask for an interview. It's always easier to network for a position than to do it on your own.

Also, make sure you have a well written CV and attach it to the email. Do mock interviews and prepare answers in advance of doing interviews.

Don't forget to look for non-traditional jobs as well.....government, scientific writing, industry, etc. You never know what you may find.

Following my advisor's advice "Kick As@ and Take Names!" Miss ya Dave Smith 🙂




Do you have any recommendations or advice you wished you would have had prior to writing your thesis?

I had access to a previous dissertation to see the formatting.  I also discussed with my mentor well before starting content and organization

How long did it take you to complete your thesis?

Four to five months (included writing one final manuscript to start which became one chapter)

Were there any Mayo resources you were able to use to help write your thesis?

 I did use the Mayo image archive to design one image as my overarching hypothesis.

When did you begin to look for a post-doc or other post-grad opportunities?

 Not yet. I finished the final two years of medical school (graduating both programs in a couple of weeks) and heading to residency.

Justin Juskewitch M.D., Ph.D.

Tags: Jessica Silva, Karen Hedin, Mayo Graduate School, research, Uncategorized

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