Writing Your Thesis

The thesis should be the heart of your graduate school career. It will certainly be the most involved and difficult thing you do while in grad school.

Of course, before writing the thesis, one needs to have research to report. To make things easier on yourself, it’s a good idea to record your results as you work. Don’t rely on your memory to save you when you need to write everything down in your thesis! While you needn’t have everything written in final draft, having a detailed account of your research progress is a great idea. When you start your research, you and your advisor should try to establish a goal for your thesis as soon as possible. Performing research without a goal can be very difficult and even more frustrating.

When one does mathematical research, one rarely knows exactly where they are going. Gaining mathematical intuition comes from lots of hard work, not simply being very smart. A tried and true method for doing research is to do lots of examples, and make simplifying assumptions when needed. Before you can prove a theorem, you need a conjecture; these aren’t going to just fall in your lap! The idea is that after seeing enough examples, one can make a general conjecture and then hopefully prove it.

It’s a good idea to find out who else in the community (both in and out of the department) thinks about your field. You may find it useful to contact these people from time to time. This serves multiple purposes: you’ll lessen the chance of duplicating someone else’s research; you’ll find multiple sources of advice. While your advisor will likely be the single biggest source of help in writing your thesis, they needn’t be your only source. Talking to many people about your work will give you several different perspectives on the same thing. Seeing the same thing in different ways can be invaluable in understanding something.

When you have enough results such that you and your advisor are satisfied, you need to organize your work into one coherent document. This can be a highly non-trivial task! Make sure that your problem is stated clearly, along with why it is important, and how you solved it. Your thesis shouldn’t simply be a list of definitions, theorems, and proofs; there should be quite a bit of prose to explain the mathematical ambiance of your work. What is the motivation for even thinking about this problem? The more people that find your research interesting, the better.

Please refer to this manual for guidelines on formatting your thesis: http://grad.ucsd.edu/_files/academics/BlueBook%202017-18%20updated%204.13.18.pdf

Defending Your Thesis

Setting a time to defend your dissertation can be frustrating. Contact your committee members well in advance in order to check availability and schedule a date/time.

You would think that finding a time for 6 people to meet would be an easy task. However, it can be exceedingly difficult. You may need to be very flexible and accommodating in order to make things work. You may also need to be persistent about asking if you have a non-responsive committee member.

Please carefully review these guidelines regarding committee attendance:

The preferred means to conduct these examinations is when all members of the doctoral committee are physically present. The Council recognizes, however, that practical exigencies do not always make this possible. Therefore, the Council approves the following rules for conducting PhD qualifying exams and defenses:

  • A doctoral committee member can participate in one of three ways: physically present (meaning they are in the room), telepresent (meaning they participate by live video teleconference), or in advance (if they must be absent on the exam date, it is permissible to examine the candidate in advance of the exam date).
  • More than half of the doctoral committee must be physically present. No more than two members may be telepresent.
  • The committee chair, or one co-chair, must be physically present.
  • The outside tenured member must be physically present or telepresent.
  • If an emergency situation arises that affects the number of committee members present, the committee chair (or co-chairs) may decide how to proceed. There must be sufficient expertise among present members (either physically or telepresent) to examine the student.
  • Departments and programs may impose more restrictive requirements regarding how to conduct these exams, as they deem appropriate.

Make sure to inform the PhD staff advisor in advance if any of your committee members will not be physically present.

During this scheduling phase, you also want to schedule your “Preliminary Appointment” with Graduate Division: https://gradforms.ucsd.edu/calendar/index.php – this appointment is optional but highly recommended! The purpose of this appointment is for them to check the margins and the formatting of your dissertation. While the above information should get you through this part without any problem, sometimes there are minor issues that arise and must be confronted (for example, published work that shows up in your dissertation has some extra requirements associated to it). The meeting should last about 30 minutes and you’ll receive a couple questionnaires to complete before your final appointment. You will also be required to schedule a Final Appointment with Graduate Division – allow at least a few days between your defense and your final appointment in order to finalize department paperwork.

In addition, the following information is critical to you completing your thesis, defending it, and completing your PhD:

  1. The university requires that your committee members each have a good readable draft of your dissertation at least FOUR WEEKS before your final defense.
  2. It is your responsibility to make arrangements with each committee member for the date and time of your defense.  Room reservations should be made at the Front Desk (in person or email to frdesk@math.ucsd.edu)
  3. The Final Report form must have the original signatures of all members of the doctoral committee; the Final Report must also be signed by the program chair. (The Final Report form is initiated by the graduate coordinator and signatures are obtained from each faculty member through DocuSign.). Proxy signatures are not accepted.
  4. After your examination, committee chair emails PhD staff advisor confirming the passing of the defense. PhD staff advisor prepares Final Report through DocuSign.
  5. The final version of the thesis must conform to procedures outlined in the "Preparation and Submission Manual for Doctoral Dissertations and Master's Theses"
  6. The student submits the final approved dissertation to the Graduate Division at the final document review (the Final Report form is routed electronically from the program’s graduate coordinator via DocuSign). Final approval and acceptance of the dissertation by the Dean of the Graduate Division (on behalf of the University Archivist and Graduate Council) represents the final step in the completion of all requirements for the doctoral degree.

A few other suggestions:

About a week before you defend, you should send an email to your committee to remind them that your defense is coming, and you might even want to send a day-before or day-of reminder.

You should discuss the details of your defense with your advisor, but it’s basically a 50-minute talk where you highlight the main results of your dissertation. The audience is usually your committee plus a few graduate students.

Once Graduate Division has signed off on your thesis, it is time to submit your thesis online to Proquest/UMI. When you do this, they give you an option to purchase bound copies of your thesis from them. This is not particularly appealing for three reasons:

  1. They are rather pricey, about $40-$60 per copy
  2. They will print it exactly as you submitted it, according to Graduate Division standards: double-spaced, 8.5×11, etc, which doesn’t make for an attractive book. (How many of the math books on your shelf are 8.5×11 double-spaced?)

Fortunately, another option is available: self-publishing services. Originally these were intended for authors who had written a book, but couldn’t find a publisher for it, so they’d have it printed at their own expense. Nowadays, there are online sites filling this market, where you submit your manuscript and design the book yourself through their site. They can print on demand, so there is no minimum number of copies to order, and they can be quite inexpensive. A former graduate student, Nate Eldredge, chose to go with Lulu, so this article will describe that service.

You can begin by creating an account on Lulu’s site, which is pretty self-explanatory. They have several different book types available. I decided to go with a 6×9 “casewrap hardcover”, which is a pretty standard size and style for a book. If you have a yellow Springer book on your shelf, that’s a pretty good facsimile of what we’re talking about here.

The main issue, then, is reformatting the thesis into a 6×9 format. Fortunately, LaTeX makes this pretty easy. Pretty much, you just need to swich from the UCSD thesis class to the standard LaTeX book class and make a few other changes. Here is a modified version of the UCSD thesis template, modified to fit this format. Nate put comments in various places indicating the relevant changes and choices he made. In several places he took advantage of the fact that he no longer had to conform to OGS’s awkward requirements to make the thesis more “book-like” and remove some things that wouldn’t appear in a book. It shouldn’t take you more than an hour or two to convert your thesis file, depending how fastidious you are. (If you don’t want to go to this trouble, Lulu will also print 8.5×11 books. You could use your existing PDF without change. It may not look as pretty, but it will still be cheaper than UMI.)

Note that you should check carefully for overfull \hbox’es when you compile the thesis, because changing the paper size may have caused things to run outside the margins or off the page. You may have to manually break up long equations or reword paragraphs. Also, the book class will insert several apparently blank pages; these relate to the fact that the book will be printed double-sided, and guarantee that certain things always appear on the left- or right-hand side of a spread. If you want a book-like effect, you should not try to defeat this.

Once you’ve generated an appropriate 6×9 PDF file and uploaded it to Lulu, you can design a cover for it. They have a couple of different interfaces. For his thesis, Nate created a pretty simple cover with a UCSDish blue color scheme, and the abstract and a graduation photo on the back cover.

When you are all finished, Lulu creates a page where you or anyone else can buy copies of the book. (You have the option of keeping this private, so that only people you share it with can find it.) Then you can buy as many copies as you want to keep or give away, and you can also send the link to your parents if they want to buy lots of copies for all the relatives. (In this case, Lulu’s “revenue” option may be useful, where you select an amount to add to the price of the book, which Lulu passes along to you after each sale. The page remains up indefinitely if you want more copies later.

If you want to see what a finished product looks like, Nate Eldredge’s thesis Lulu page is located at http://www.lulu.com/content/7559872.

The book turned out quite nice looking, with quality and appearance comparable to commercially published math books. And they were only $15.46 per copy (plus tax and shipping). Overall that is a vast improvement over UMI.

Also, Nate uploaded the template as a Lulu project. It can be found at http://www.lulu.com/content/7686303.