Friday, July 18, 2014

What Do You Do with an Old Thesis?

I defended my Ph.D. thesis in Plant Biology at the University of Illinois in 1986 and graduated in 1987. This was back in the microfilm days. Can anyone find my thesis online? I can’t. I still have a paper copy (made back in the days of hand-drawn figures).

One thing you can do with an old thesis is post it online yourself. If you have a website, stick it there as a link. Maybe then a search engine can find it directly, without having to go into the tissues and organs of a university website.

But when I looked at my thesis, I realized it was almost unreadable. It seems inconceivable that this thesis was written by the guy who later produced books that general readers loved, especially Encyclopedia of Evolution and Green Planet. The only thing that made this possible was my subsequent career of teaching, and my continual practice at writing. I had a mission to make science understandable and interesting to students and the general public—and eventually, I learned how.

So I took a couple of days this summer (yes, it was only a couple of days) to rewrite my thesis in plain English. Actually, if I had taken longer, I probably would have gotten bogged down in it and produced a summary less useful to readers. And here’s what I was able to do that I could not in the original:

·         I used plain English, rather than scientific jargonese.
·         I explained the background ideas, which would have been obvious to other experts in the field but which can be presupposed in the general reader.
·         I included photos and stories about the work, showing science to not be some dispassionate truth but to be a very human process, both fun and challenging.

Any of you out there with old theses that nobody looks at—perhaps even you—consider doing what I did. You can read my rewritten thesis on my website.

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