Thursday, February 10, 2005

On Ph.D Theses

When I was in grad school, it was the conventional "wisdom" that the people who read your Ph.D thesis consist of
  • your advisor
  • your committee
  • your friends (to see if they've been acknowledged)
  • your parents (who don't necessarily read it so much as keep it as a trophy/proof that you can now get a "real job".
But the truth is that Ph.D theses can serve a valuable purpose. Over the years, I have come to appreciate a well written thesis in an area that I am new to. Not necessarily because of the results; those I can often dig up from journal papers. What I found most useful is the introduction, because in a well written thesis, the introduction lays out the terrain of the problem: what is known, and what is not. What is folklore and what results follow trivially. What papers are key to understanding the evolution of the area, and what their contributions are. Basically a lot of what a good survey has to offer, but more expansive, more leisurely, and often more useful.

So if there are any graduate students reading this, my recommendation to them is: take the time to expound on your area in an introduction. You are (or should be) an expert on this topic by now, and your voice is authoritative enough, even if you may not feel that way. The reward, of having someone read your work and appreciate it, is something that can be surprisingly elusive.
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