My thesis: The master document

As thesis season continues, my thesis is finally starting to fall into place. Yes, everything is starting to come together and I am quite excited about that. This post is about how I plan to pull the full document together with the use of a master document, or a thesis template.

As a planner, I began thinking about the end of my PhD from the very beginning. That is also when I started thinking about the master document for my thesis. I knew that I would spend an inordinate amount of time faffing about with the aesthetic layout of my final document, so I decided it would be best to get most of my formatting determined long before I started working on my final document.

It was that decision that led me to use my university’s thesis guidelines for all of my PhD-based work (see pages 41-42), allowing me to “test” my chosen formats. That means that all of my drafts and reports were written using the approved font sizes, spacing, and margins. At the same time, I experimented with different section heading and table styles, as well as document header and footer text. (Thankfully, the guidelines ditched the rule for Arial fonts, so I was able to pick a selection of serif and sans serif fonts that fit with my views of aesthetics.)

Once I had a style that I liked (and that rendered nicely when printed in grayscale) I developed my master document. This document has all of the top-level chapter headings (along with appropriate section breaks) and document headers that match. Within each chapter, I have placeholders for the sections that belong there. The master document includes all of the “fluff” pages, too: The title page, abstract, acknowledgements, various tables of content, and appendices.

Early versions of this document included several “notes to self” with reminders and explanations about the purpose of each section. For example, under the “methods” heading was a reminder that the section needed to justify everything I did (or didn’t do) in the process of determining my methods and collecting my data. These early versions also included content and links related to the process of writing up a thesis so that I could reflect on the best practices developed by others.

In the most recent versions (before the final) the document was stripped of these “helpful” reminders and links. In their place, I began entering notes about the estimated word count for each chapter as well as details related to the timeline for completion. The final (?) version of the document received the rank of master a few weeks ago.

One of the useful things about this process is that the master document has become an outline for the final thesis. I can look at that document to see how the whole thesis flows, including the structure for each individual chapter.

Of course, the most useful things about this document is the time it will save when I pull the entire thesis together over the next few weeks. Because I know how fiddly document numbering can get when you muck about with the styles, I thought it was best to get everything into a shell this way (including section headings) so that I can do a simple copy-and-paste from my draft chapters into (a copy of) the master document. The document has placeholders for my “perfect” table layouts and notes about some of the little glitches that sometimes happen when text is copied over.

The plan now is to start populating a document based on this template. To do that, I will save a copy of the master file that I can title “full-thesis-draft.v1”. Then, once each chapter is fully drafted with no (obvious) major edits required, I will copy it into this document. At that time, I will ensure that all of the in-document cross-references are where they’re meant to be.

Once the full “v1” document is populated, I will be able to give it a full review before sending a full, complete draft of my thesis to my supervisors. (My versioning system means that it might be v2 or v3 before they see it though.)

If all goes well, there will be very little (or, hopefully, no) additional formatting required. However, I am sure that I will find something to change once I see the full document. But that’s where styles come in. A wee tweak to a style will cascade across the document.

I am really excited to start filling in this document. And that excitement is growing as my deadline looms nearer. The best thing about that excitement is that it is making me feel very motivated to write, write, write! And so, I had best get back to writing, writing, writing!

And for those who are counting, I have 54 days until my submission deadline – and 32 days until I need to have a full draft to my supervisors for their feedbacks. It’s not long now!! (I am so excited!!!)