Friday Poll: How much thesis do you read?

Mar 23 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Unfortunately, this is going to be a question mostly directed at the PIs in the readership, but I think it will be of interest to the grad students. The end of the semester and academic year is rapidly approaching (not fast enough, however, IMO) and with it comes a storm of thesis defenses. All of those innocent requests to be a committee member ("you won't be a core member, so you won't have that much to do, I promise!") are coming home to roost and I am staring at three thick envelops on my desk, with more arriving.

So my question today is how much of the thesis do committee members read?

Some qualifiers:

It is common to have published work included in the thesis, so commenting on those chapters is fairly useless. They do, however, provide context for others.

The presentation time for defenses here is short, only 30 min.

If a "non-core" committee member is getting the thesis, it has already been approved by the advisor and two other PIs closely related to the work.

So, do people read these things cover to cover? Rely on the presentation? Or something in between?

28 responses so far

  • sciwo says:

    I try to read it, but don't always make it through the full thing. But my situation is a little different: Mostly masters' students, only advisor has read and approved it, usually not ready for publication (and never already published) in its thesis form.

  • Sxydocma1 says:

    When I handed my thesis to the chair of my committee (also the chair of our department), he said he was only going to look at the figures. I laughed, and he said, "I'm serious. I hope the figures tell a coherent story." Maybe he was kidding. Maybe not.

  • physioprof says:

    I look at the figures to see if the data look decent and support the conclusions drawn from them. I'm sure as fucke not going to read endless pages of "literature review".

  • LD says:

    I read every word. If the chapter has already been published then I am pleased because I don't have to correct anything and can read it quickly. But I feel I owe them the few hours of reading that they are asking of's part of my job.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    You are expected to read every word or you are failing in your job as te defender of Science! Against the undeserving masses.

  • One of my favorite memories of grad school. A poor harried grad student, about to graduate, came to my famously lazy advisor and asked if he had had time to read the thesis. My advisor rooted around on his desk and found it and said it was in his opinion good enough. This student then turned to leave, clearly happy, but still a little curious. He turned back and asked my advisor, "Out of curiosity, did you actually read it?"

    My advisor said, "What, are you kidding??" and then turned back and went to work. The student left.

    I still have no idea which way he meant it.

  • scicurious says:

    I know one of my committee members read every word of my monstrosity, he corrected all of my that/which distinctions!

  • HennaHonu says:

    My graduate advisor is well-known for his thorough and useful comments as a committee member. He reads every page and often comments on figures. Because of this I think, he will only be on committees for students whose work is somewhat related to his own. My program requires you to re-write published chapters to fit the dissertation format, so there is no re-print load reduction.

  • Odyssey says:

    I try to read all of each thesis. It's part of the job.

  • Jen says:

    My PI admitted he did not read my dissertation at all. It was such a downer to hear that, especially after all the time I spent slaving over it. A postdoc in the lab did read it cover-to-cover and provided valuable feedback.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Not reading you own student's thesis is very shitty.

  • Busy says:

    I read every word, with varying degrees of attention of course. Some paragraphs I tease apart others I just read through without stopping.

  • BugDoc says:

    One of my thesis committee members told me that if my PI okayed it, it was fine as far as he was concerned (i.e, not going to even pretend to read it). I usually skim the previously published chapters since the students do have to reformat the manuscripts and sometimes the figure numbering gets screwed up. I put a bit more effort into reading the unpublished sections to give more detailed feedback where needed. Although theoretically the PI has given approval for it to be sent out to committees, I have found a great variation in effort by both the students & their mentors in editing the work. Some theses I get are carefully crafted and well polished, whereas others look like neither the advisor nor the student even gave it a second look.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    If there's only one, then I try to read the whole thing. If there's more than one: Lit Review, unpublished work and Discussion chapters in their entirety, then pay attention to the figures in the published stuff.

    Good luck!

  • anon says:

    I read every word, even the published portions. A committee member on my own thesis committee published part of my thesis in a review article he wrote (of course, I was given authorship).

  • Ink says:

    One of my advisors told me that they read mine "while enjoying sherry." Wasn't sure how to feel about that. <<<< potential overshare

  • physioprof says:

    Reading every word of a PhD thesis is ridiculous. The point of the thesis is that it forces the student to survey the entire range of the literature and place their own scientific work in a much broader context than is possible with a peer-reviewed publication. If the student did good publishable work in the lab, it doesn't matter if there are "that/which" errors in the thesis. Who gives a fucke? This isn't like in the humanities, where a PhD thesis frequently becomes a published book.

    What matters is the underlying science and the breadth and depth of knowledge of the student about her field. The former can be assessed looking at the figures, and the latter during the oral examination. The purpose of the thesis is the process of writing it, not the final product.

    And BTW, the other thing I don't understand is this cockamamie notion that it is important not to allow someone who doesn't "deserve" a PhD to get one. If the poor fucke spent five or more years in the lab, and they at least tried at some level to be successful, then if they write a passable thesis, they should get their fucken PhD. It's not like giving someone an accounting degree who doesn't know shitte-for-dicke about accounting and could fucke their clients' shitte uppe, or a doctor who could kille a motherfucker.

    What harm is some poor fucke who didn't "deserve" a PhD gonna do with it?? Try to get a seat at a hot restaurant by making the reservation under Doctor Undeserving??

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I have to agree with CPP here, I see little value in the thesis as a document. As a supervisor I am interested in a high quality thesis in as much as it can be turned into publications for the student with minimal effort. As a committee member I care that the student has done solid work and thoughtfully analyzed their data, but I don't personally care how the student sees their work in The Grand Scheme.

  • andy says:

    very interesting as I'm currently writing the general intro & general conclusions chapters for my thesis.
    None of my committee wanted those to be long (10 pages max each) just to put my work in context and to discuss future directions & implications.
    I suspect none of them will seriously read the published chapter (we just have to reformat those)

  • DJMH says:

    The most unnerving experience I had re thesis was getting back a copy from one of my committee members who had spotted a "the the" on page, like, 83.

  • MediumPriority4Life says:

    How much effort should be put into reading a masters thesis?

  • Isabel says:

    "but I don't personally care how the student sees their work in The Grand Scheme."

    This is sad. One of my advisors recently used some of my work (with permission) in a lecture. As it turned out it was used out of context as evidence for the *old paradigm* that I am trying to help overturn with my work. And this isn't an egomanical delusion-my work doesn't even make sense and would be pointless in context of the older paradigm. Hearing this (the story was told to me by this advisor as if I should have been thrilled) I mentioned a fairly recent, hour-long presentation of mine, which this advisor attended, that was specifically focused on this new way of looking at the big picture that is very important to my work (featured in every paper and grant proposal he has supposedly read also). I expressed surprise and sincere concern that I had failed at communicating this main point. The advisor just shrugged, said I was giving him a lot of credit if I thought he would remember anything about my talk, and changed the subject.

    A big thank you to the few advisors on the thread who are who are conscientious about doing their jobs, rather than treating your grad students' efforts as a waste of time to read or as a favor to the student to pay attention to. I am envious of your students. I strongly suspect that none of my committee members will be reading my dissertation.

  • HFM says:

    I'm a grad student, so not qualified to vote, but I'm quite tempted to find the answer experimentally - insert a sentence like "If you see this, say the word 'penguin' during my defense, and I will hand you a beer" in the middle somewhere, and see who earns their drink. If nothing else, it will put some hardworking thesis committee members into a better mood. 🙂

    Though as best as I can tell, the molecular bio thesis serves two purposes: tradition (we did it, now it's your turn kid), and forcing the grad student to type up and collate all those random unpublishable fragments they have lying around (early year grad students not being known for their pristine lab notebooks). I won't actually be offended if the professors check the figures and get on with their lives.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Isabel, let's not confuse one's supervisor with members of the exam committee, m'kay? They are very different responsibilities when it comes to evaluation of the thesis. If you read the post, I'm asking about exam committee members.

  • My thesis had a 10-page introduction, three published chapters (a Nature paper, a Cell paper, and a review), and an unpublished chapter (later published in a top tier specialty journal). I passed the defense, but my committee (not my advisor as far as I'm aware) forced encouraged me to extend my introduction to a 30-page review before final submission. And I was/am grateful - I had been so focused on getting experiments done that I truly didn't appreciate the broader context and implications of my own work until I sat down and read through piles of papers and rewrote my intro.

    Now I'm a prof at a SLAC, and I read every word of Master's and Honors theses and give the students whatever feedback I can to help them improve it. It is about the process and not the final product, true, but responding appropriately to constructive criticism is also an important part of the process.

  • Yael says:

    My committee (including the external examiner) read everything. I didn't have revisions, but they returned their copies of my thesis to me with the instructions "correct these typos and maybe change your color scheme for fig. x before you deposit".

  • [...] my times of imposter syndrome, my accomplishments are never enough. I remember that they'll give anyone a PhD as long as they are "passable" and it doesn't count for anything, I'll remember that these days, you need a K or R award and a high brow paper or three to get a [...]

  • Isabel says:

    "Isabel, let's not confuse one's supervisor with members of the exam committee, m'kay? "

    Actually I was referring to one of my committee members, and the talk I gave was in his subfield and he is on my committee because of my work in that subfield. We communicate quite frequently so it was just a startling revelation, but maybe one I needed to have. My main advisor is well known for never reading anyone's thesis and I have known that from the start.

    But I am over it, and I'll just take it as feedback that I am not getting my message across, so it's good information.

    I have very hands off advisor and committee, which I like and normally never complain about, but every now and then I do fantasize about having one of those organized PIs that gives great feedback on grants and papers and all that.

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