Our new columnist, Phil Dee, is desperately seeking a Ph.D. somewhere in the South West of England. But he knows that it's about more than research. His dispatches from the lab trace his quest to develop the skills that will take him beyond his doctorate and into the world of work.
If you've got to write a research report during the first year of your Ph.D., you'll probably believe that you haven't got much to say. How wrong you are! You do have plenty to write about, maybe, just ... well ... no results, really. But your first year isn't about amassing results; it's about making all your mistakes in one big batch before you start your research proper. That is unless you made all your mistakes during your M.Res. and pre-Ph.D. industrial experience! So despite your first few months being a bit thin on results, you still have a lot to say. Yes you wasted still more time copying every tenuously related paper and review, just in case it came in handy later. But ignoring this, and your many weeks fouling-up in the lab, what have you got to show for your first year? Still not sure? Well, neither was I until I started writing my first-year report. What resulted was possibly the turning point in my Ph.D. It also made me realise just how much I enjoy writing. Did I say as an alternative career?
You may be asked to produce a brief or extensive report, and written in either thesis-speak or in the style and format of a scientific paper. Whatever the format, this is the moment you'll need to get your act together and think about what you've done and why you've done it.
It's a good idea to start writing your Materials and Methods section first. This is unlikely to amount to much yet, but this stuff is relatively easy to get down on paper and it will serve to remind you just how much you have done. It's also extremely useful if anyone asks you for your protocol! Remember, this section should only say how you did what you did and nothing about why you did it that way. Try to 'lump' the material together under subheadings that could form the chapters in your thesis.
Starting to write your Introduction may be one of the most difficult aspects of your Ph.D. This is where you set the scene by justifying why your problem is worth devoting 3 years of your life (and a whole lot of other peoples' money) to solving. Try to point to your work as a gaping hole in the literature.
Faced with a plethora of relevant papers going back into the depths of time (or the last 10 years, at least), where do you begin? Start by making a short-list of key papers that you must mention due to their sheer importance. Build your introduction around these key papers. Beware of ending up with a list of references so extensive that nobody will believe you have read all of them! You only need to give one or two key references to make a point--stick to the most recent papers from the highest impact journals. Consider ending with a succinct hypothesis and a nice series of tests for it, e.g., does doing X show that Y occurs?
'Results!' I can still hear you screaming, 'But I haven't got any yet!' This early you've got some licence to elaborate on (but not exaggerate) what you have achieved. If necessary 'puff up' what you have got by including a little extra detail. For example, you could include preliminary results from your latest experiments or devise an extra table or figure to make it easier for the reader to interpret what results you do have.
Remember to just describe the result and go on to the next one. There should be no discussion here. The word 'To' is a good linker to enable your writing to flow from one paragraph to another, e.g., 'To show that X happens, Y was done'.
Your Discussion is where you remind the reader what you did and then say what it means. Discussions can be problematic to write early on, as they can become dumping grounds for all your ideas for future work. If you don't have a clue which experimental approach to follow, it will be painfully obvious here if you've simply described them all. Try to think hard about what you can realistically achieve within 18 months. That's when you should be winding down your research and starting to write full-time (if you want to submit within 3 years!). It's better to write most extensively about the obvious approach to take, and mention the other options briefly. Your examiners will be thrilled to suggest that one of your alternatives might be better, but at least you've covered yourself by mentioning it. The knack is to spot the holes in your research--there are probably plenty at this stage--as these are where the examiners are likely to direct their questions at your viva. Don't forget to write a nice punchy concluding paragraph to make the point of your report in a nutshell.
Finish by writing your Abstract. Try selecting key sentences from important paragraphs in your Introduction, Results, and Discussion. Then rewrite them sufficiently to link them together smoothly.
Use your first-year report as a springboard for your thesis or first paper. You'll probably be faced with writing both of these sooner than you think, so get yourself up to base camp before you have to scale the inevitable writing mountain.