Thesis work without your adviser

July 08, 2016
I'm desperately trying to get my (2nd) master's thesis written, and while I'm not taking classes, TAing or working, I'm having trouble making much progress these past couple of weeks. It's not because I've been distracted, or slacking off (for once) but rather I can't get a hold of my adviser. After the last debacle where my former adviser dropped me after I finished writing it (and a committee member said it was fine) I'm determined not to forge ahead blindly so I don't produce something that isn't quite what my adviser wants.

You see, not only does your adviser guide you through the process and help you when you get struck, but you also have to tailor your research to what your adviser accept. It can be easy to get side tracked, or use the wrong data package, misinterpret results or come up with a clever and creative conclusion that's way off mark.

So it's important to stay in touch with and get regular feedback from your adviser, but what do you do when he or she is silent?

Well, I can keep waiting outside offices and emailing them, but despite what certain member of my family will tell you, I don't like to be annoying.  I've sat outside offices for an hour only to find they weren't on campus that day, discussed their schedule with spouses, and heard stories of students camping out in their adviser's driveways to get a hold of them.

Maybe it's a long weekend, or you're not able to make it into campus, or they don't come in when they say they will or aren't answering emails, but it can be hard to know what to do to keep working on your thesis. Sometimes you're waiting to hear back from someone about a specific question, for feedback or you are just plain old stuck and need some direction. So what can you do when you don't have the all the resources you'd like to, but don't want to just hang around until you do?
Still hasn't written back?
+ Write down all the questions you have, print out any figures that may help you quickly explain where you're stuck or error messages you are receiving. The more specific the question, the more likely you are to get a helpful response.

+ Is there anyone else you can ask? a committee member? someone else in the research group? a former grad student who's research relates to yours?

+ Read and reread those chapters/articles/edit suggestions.

+ Get organized: transfer files, back up your data, put your paper notes and journal articles into a binder.

+ Review your thesis outline: What sections can you add? rearrange?

+ If applicable, write some pseudo-code.

+ Rename your files if you tend to give them names like "results1, results2" or "thisHadBetterWork14".

+ Spend some time working on the formatting of your thesis, especially if you are working in LaTex or similar.

+ Look through a previous student's thesis to see what kind of result you should aim for. I nearly had a heart attack when I found a 100 page long master's thesis by my adviser's former student, then realized that most of it was title pages, content, bibliography and figures, and only 17 pages of it was writing.

+ Write about what you're stuck on, chances are the solution will be an important part of your thesis.

+ Update your references, footnotes, in text citations, bibtex file, etc.

+ Reproduce your figures with title, legend, all labels and caption (I always put this off).

+ Come up with a timetable for yourself, what you hope to have accomplished at the end of each week, and carve out some specific time to work on each task.

+ Catch up on other chores while you can.

+ Search and apply to grants and conferences. Bonus if they are somewhere exciting.

+ Update your CV and research website if you have one.

+ Start your defense presentation, even if all you have is an overview, introduction and some background information, you'll have to do it eventually. Depending on if you have research meetings, you may have some slides describing your work already.

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