This June has been one of the busiest months since I started my PhD. The major stressor was the writing of my second-year report. In the UK, PhD lasts only 4 years, including submission of the thesis. This is a privilege that most students in other countries don’t have as we know exactly when our PhD will come to an end (and this will also spare us from an eternal PhD). Good news here, however, to make sure we stay on track, we go through annual reviews and we have to write down a report with all the work we’ve done during the year.
I submitted my second-year report last week. It was a big commitment considering that I failed the first-year one and I didn’t want it to happen again. Bad things don’t always come to harm. After failing, my assessor gave me a few tips on scientific writing and I will share with you guys today.
A good introduction is key to set your aims and objectives
I can’t stress enough the importance of having a good background. Why? Research means designing and discovering something new. How can we possibly do it if we don’t know what’s known already? Based on the literature, we spot a gap in a field and with our PhD research, we want to bridge that gap. So, the introduction should be a summary of the most important contributions on a field and we aim to enter that field adding a small piece that hasn’t been done yet (aims and objective).
Scientific writing is not a copy and paste of your labbook or a bunch of tables and graphs
Let me tell you a bit more. I learned this from experience. My first report was a summary of my labwork and this is one of the reasons why I failed. Your experiments need to follow a scientific order and when you get more experienced you make experiments that have been already planned on paper. This means that it needs to be clear which criteria you adopted to carry on going with your project. In simple words at the end of every set of experiments, you need to draw conclusions and the next step will be based on this conclusions.
You need to compare your data with those previously reported in the literature.
Unless you are the first one in the world doing your research, which is rarely the case, most of the analysis you do or numbers you get need to be consistent (or not) with those in the literature. This goes back to the point 1 and 2: 1. You need to know what’s going on in your field and acknowledge people who paved the work before you came along; 2. Scientific writing isn’t a copy and paste of your lab book. If your data are consistent with the literature, all good (evviva) but if not you need to reason why this is the case.
The style of your writing needs to be impersonal
Guys, we all know that WE do all the hard work, staying in the lab until late, weekends, Christmas, Easter and all the days marked red in the calendar, however when you report and discuss your date you need to be impersonal and use the passive form. It was found, it was observed, it was measured and so on… Sorry guys but, please acknowledge that your full name on top of the paper is enough. This is the only moment of glory we get out of this PhD (if you ever get it).
Last in every scientific report but not the last in terms of importance. When I had to discuss my master thesis in Italy, the background of some assessors wasn’t organic chemistry at all. The only things they looked at was my bibliography to check that my style of referencing was in line with that of the chemistry world (and for the big names in Chemistry). Also in reference to point 1, you need to acknowledge the people who paved the way before you came along. And it doesn’t look nice as we all know that academics have this thing of seeing their name written on a paper. Please do acknowledge them for their hard work.
I hope this helped. To contribute to the growth of this website, please do take the time to make a comment below. Feel free to add any other tips.
If you are interested in how to make an outstanding presentation check my previous post.