“Writing” a CS Ph.D. dissertation?
I often tell my students that producing a Ph.D. dissertation manuscript should be the easiest part of the entire Ph.D. process. The truly difficult part of Ph.D. training in a technical field is funding a promising topic, getting interesting results, and publishing them. Putting everything together in the final dissertation manuscript should be straightforward.
When it was my time to prepare my dissertation manuscript, my advisor told me that: “As far as I am concerned, a stapler is a perfectly good device for putting dissertations together. If you want to put some effort to get a nicely written manuscript, it is up to you.” What I ended up doing was putting some effort into smoothing out the transitions between my published papers, which made the major chapters of my dissertation. The only section that I wrote from scratch was future work. The entire process from start to finish took about a month.
In my view, the only part of a Ph.D. dissertation that survives the test of time is the acknowledgements. In 5-10 years, the technical content of any engineering dissertation will become either obsolete or irrelevant. If your dissertation research is truly cutting edge and has produced new knowledge, other researchers will build on it. Furthermore, to learn about your research, they’ll read your research papers, not your dissertation. If your dissertation research does not pique other researchers’ interest, it will become irrelevant as the time goes. C’est la vie.
Your human experience of getting a Ph.D., however, does not have an expiration date. That’s why I suggest that you spend time and effort to write a thoughtful acknowledgments section that authentically reflects your experiences of getting a Ph.D. Consider that modern electronic publishing makes your dissertation instantly accessible until the end of times. Your great great great * children will be able to read your dissertation. For them, the technical content of your dissertation would most likely be completely irrelevant. But they’d surely be genuinely interested in what it was like for you to go through your Ph.D. level training.
Do not write your acknowledgements section that looks like a laundry list (i.e., I’d like to thank A, B, .. and Z). Try to think and find answers to the following questions. Who were the people who influenced your thinking? Who helped you out? What did you learn in the process? Why are you a different person now than when you started your Ph.D. training? By answering questions like that, you should be able to get through the most difficult section of your dissertation manuscript with flying colors.