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Writing a PhD thesis: getting it done and enjoying the process

July 5, 2013

By Alisa Kim

Dr. Aws Abdul-Wahid likens writing a PhD thesis to creating a work of art: "It almost feels like sculpting. As you go through the corrections and process of writing, you see it being born in front of you." He needed three months to compose his opus, graduating with his PhD from McGill University's Institute of Parasitology in 2008. Abdul-Wahid is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) senior scientist Dr. Jean Gariépy. He is developing a vaccine for blocking metastasizing adenocarcinomas, cancers originating in glandular tissue and affecting various organs including the breast, prostate, lung, pancreas and colon.

Here, the microbiologist turned cancer researcher tells Alisa Kim why writing his thesis was a positive experience and what kept him going in the wee hours of the night. (It wasn't the coffee.)

What was the topic of your dissertation?

My thesis was on making oral vaccines against an enteric parasite called Giardia duodenalis, which in Canada is known as the parasite that causes "beaver fever." The idea was we'd make a vaccine that would protect humans, livestock and companion animals-and not just protect them, but stop the spread of infection in the immediate environment. The secondary project was looking at the biology of the parasite. I was at [McGill's] Institute of Parasitology, the only one of its kind in North America. It shares a lot in common with SRI in that it fosters multidisciplinary research. Although I was knee-deep in vaccine immunology, I was exposed to proteomics and cell biology. That's why I really love that place and the experience.

Were you finished with your experiments when you started writing?

Yes. I was my supervisor's last student. He retired after I said I was done with [my] experiments. We had to close down the lab. I had no access to a bench. It was actually heartening to know that you're the last of a particular lab. It also added pressure in that there was a strict deadline because the lab had to be closed down and sanitized for the incoming scientist. In a way, it was more motivation.

How did you know you were ready to write?

If we refer to a study that one publishes as a "story," then your script goes according to the pieces of information you've gathered as you've performed your experiments. I presented my "story" to my thesis committee. They felt I was ready to submit the thesis, but prior to submitting it, we were taught that the thesis had to have three independent chapters [which were] translated into manuscripts. We were judged on where those manuscripts were published.

What was the biggest challenge?

My PhD supervisor told me a thesis should be a reflection of not just yourself, but your experience and that entire chapter of your life. Going beyond the science and adding that human element was the hardest part. Normally people write a blurb in the acknowledgement section, but to show that you've learned something through the prose and style of writing, that was the biggest challenge. I could not allow myself to write a dry thesis.

What helped you stay motivated?

My niece. She was about three months old. I would visit home frequently. I would come in at some ungodly hour, at a time when she was up at night. [Seeing her] really added a sense of hope, direction and calm. It's easy to get carried away with anxiety-uncertainty about your career and future. That was my biggest motivation-slash-encouragement.

How would you describe the process?

Thesis writing was one of the best experiences I've had. It's difficult, but once you're done and you have that manuscript ready to pass out to your committee, you feel a big sense of accomplishment. It's an interesting experience because when you spend so much time doing the work, it's a little hard to see how you can start putting things together. But once you start writing, chiseling away at an idea or phenomenon, it's a pleasure.

What's the best advice you received in regards to writing?

Have your chapters published as papers. That's what I tell students in our lab. Do whatever it takes to make sure your papers are out first-your manuscripts are written and published. As you go through the process of writing a manuscript, it'll reduce the workload [later on] significantly, because it goes through peer review. Therefore, as my former supervisor would say, the defense is a matter of a rubber stamp.