Writing PhD thesis at FIMAP: a practical guide

There are a lot of guides on the Internet about writing a common PhD thesis. But we, EPFL-IMX-FIMAP, have many particularities to be called “common”.  I write this memoire based on my personal experience in our group, and share it with hope of being useful.

  1. First of all, choose your committee member as soon as possible. At EPFL, it is obligatory to submit your thesis 5 weeks before the private defense; and to fix the private defense, you need to ask all member of the committee to agree on a date that they are all available. At the same time, you want several weeks between the the day you send the committee proposal and the deadline to submit your thesis, because in general these are the days that you work the most efficiently, and these are the days that you will recall as “writing thesis days”. I sent my committee proposal in the January 17th, and the deadline was 31th; it was too short, and I needed to ask for 1 week extension. I was lucky to have the extension, but it is usually not the case.
  2. Publish as author and co-author as much as possible during your PhD. This is a general truth, but it is particularly positively true when it come to thesis writing, especially for the lucky PhD that are already supervised and helped by old members of the group. Because in EPFL it is possible to use the writing in your publication in your thesis, without being referred as “self-plagiarism”, although it is better to ask the academic service first. EPFL will apply the software “iThenticate” to all publication from our school, you can start to use it. The software compares a submitted document with all published database that they have, and send a report to the academic service. Based on this report, EPFL will tell if there is plagiarism. Normally, if the publication bears your name, then you can argue.
  3. Find a quite working place, like in the library or at home to work on the thesis. We are having a lab full of stimulating and loud exchanges and helps. We should keep it this way. The side effect of this stimulation is that is very difficult to concentrate on writing a hundreds-of-pages document. At least it was my experience.
  4. Use Microsoft Word. This is the most controversial advice I have ever given. Latex is very elegant and useful. But in our lab, and in our field, Word is the reigning champion. It is the current state of the art, and it will be for another several years. The most important feature that Word brings a difference is the “Track Changes” feature. We use this a lot in our lab.There is no equivalent in Latex. Actually, Word is quite a decent software to create a thesis, the most painful experience was to put figures in the right place, and that if you change anything at the beginning of the document, it affect every other things follow up to the end. Otherwise, you will get used to it.
  5. Ask for help on proof-reading from other members. In our group, there are many excellent individuals (if not all of us Open-mouthed smile, in my very humble opinion). They are the ones that not only can find typos, wrong mathematical expressions, ambiguous conclusions, etc., in your writing, but also actually agree to help you to do so. Particularly, Alexis has a uncommon gift in finding problems with anyone’s writing and then improving it. It is amazing to me how he can do that.  In my case, I wrote my thesis in several chapters, each one is of about ten pages long, and I asked members who involved, even remotely, in the work presented in this chapter to help me proof-read.
  6. Talk with Fabien along the way, and ask for his advice. Fabien is without doubt the person contributed the most during the writing of my thesis. He is extremely careful, provide help and guidance me to see the forest for the trees. I think in general it is a great luck for us all to work and do PhD with him, we benefit a lot from his excellence. And our thesis writing could definitely benefit from him too.

Good luck to you all !

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