24 March 2009

Advise to a finishing student

This is a message I recently wrote to a student who completed her MSc thesis, which I edited a bit.

It contains some general advise and I thought that this might be useful to others in a similar situation, in addition to the two articles linked below.


We got there, eventually. Quite good this time, but still lots of edits. Style editing is a never-ending process and you are expected to read and read and read, dozens of times, and improve your text every time - something that most people do not do, or do not want to do. Writing well takes tremendous effort, but few realise how important it is. Your written English needs to be improved (as does mine) but what is most important is structure. This is still below perfection, as you note, but quite good considering where we started, your nationality, and the fact that you are still a beginner after all. Personally, I am satisfied with your work and I think that you should be proud of it. What is mandatory now is turning this into something useful (a thesis is not). Whatever you want to do in the future, try to get this published in the best possible journal. The dataset can be improved and more years can be used. Your Summary is certainly the basis of a potentially good publication, and you should go for it. Publications matter, not theses or other unpublished work. So do not stop after the thesis, thinking that you have accomplished something. In science, accomplishing means publishing in refereed journals. Keep hammering the iron until it's hot, as they say in Italy, and start writing your first publication right away. The thesis Summary can be easily edited into an abstract (which you may want to present at the next marine mammal conference). Think about a Title. Write the first sentence of the Methods. Fill in the empty spaces in the Acknowledgements and Literature cited. You will end up with a draft manuscript that can grow and improve every day. And please, never 'like' what you did, at least as long as it isn't truly perfect. The worst offence you can do to your work is falling in love with it, therefore seeing it as something that can't be further improved. Try to see your work as something that can be improved forever, don't get attached to it, and you will become a good writer.


Clapham P. 2005. Publish or perish. BioScience 55(5):390-391.

Surviving Professional Puberty in Marine Mammalogy: Things Mom and Dad Didn’t Tell You - by John E. Reynolds, III

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