Master of Science

Mastering a science is an
Adventure and a challenge.
Research requires strong qualities:
Intelligence, passion, and dedication.
New horizons await those seeking an
Education in the biological sciences!

Environmental marine studies are a
Challenging field to explore, as the
Oceans are teeming with all forms of
Life and complex ecosystems. Still,
Overwhelming hours of research led to the
Greatest achievement of my life!
Years of studying reef fish have truly paid off!

5 Lessons I Learned from Writing a Master’s Thesis

Yes, I know I’ve been writing a lot about my recent graduate school achievement lately and it might be getting tiresome to my regular readers. Don’t worry; I promise it’ll only go on for like, two more months (just kidding!). In all seriousness, though, my Master’s thesis did teach me a lot about writing, as much in science as in general, and since it’s been such an insightful experience, I thought it would be fun to share what I learned on my creative writing blog.

So on that note, here are five lessons I learned from writing my Master’s thesis. Enjoy!

1) A thesis will never, ever be perfect. Ever.

phd_comics_blood_sweat_and_tears

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
www.phdcomics.com

This point is worth mentioning first as it applies to all types of writing. Seasoned writers all know that a huge part of writing is rewriting, and that arguably holds true for nonfiction more than any other genre. One of the most important lessons I learned through my years in college and grad school is that scientists can’t hope to turn out quality papers and articles without rigorous research and engaging discussions of their results, but the challenge of writing about science is that science is constantly changing. New research is being published every day and new ideas are emerging every hour, making it nearly impossible to keep drafts of a paper or thesis updated to the minute.

But an endless stream of new research isn’t the only challenge of academic writing. Perfectionism has long been a barrier to productivity, as any writer with a strong inner critic can attest. You can strive to cite every relevant reference, cover every possible discussion point, and smooth out every error to the tiniest misplaced comma, but at some point you just have to accept that your paper/article/thesis will never be flawless by the time you submit it for publication. Don’t sweat it; that’s what editors are paid for!

Writing my thesis definitely pushed my limits in academic literacy and technical perfectionism. Tackling both these obstacles every day, it’s a wonder I ever even finished the first draft!

2) Scientific writing is not the same as literary writing.

Most of my writing takes the form of stories and poetry, which presented a challenge for me when it came to writing the main chapter of my thesis. Despite constant reminders to myself of the differences between scientific and literary composition, more than once I found myself falling into old creative writing habits, including, but not limited to:

  • omitting important explanations in the introduction,
  • using layman’s terms in place of scientific terms,
  • lampshading flaws and shortcomings in the study (yes, really), and
  • building suspense to the “grand reveal” of my results (which I still think was justified given that I discovered we were dealing with a different species than we initially thought).
phd_comics_demonstration

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
www.phdcomics.com

Honestly, my artistic side wants to turn everything I learned throughout my Master’s program into a novel, but my scientific side insists on being reasonable (i.e. following my professor and colleagues’ directions) and sticking to hard facts and logical discussions without embellishing the text with my storytelling voice. If this whole endeavor wasn’t challenging enough to begin with, these dueling voices in my head made the final stretch one heck of a ride!

3) Between the time you start your thesis and the time you defend it, your project will change at least a dozen times.

And if you’re lucky, that’s the most it will change. I was accepted into my Master’s program with a proposal for a phylogeographic study of four reef fish species spanning the Atlantic Ocean. By the time I defended my thesis, the project had been narrowed down to one species in Brazil, which later turned into a study of the entire genus across the Atlantic and part of the Pacific, and had been expanded from a purely genetic analysis to include an ecological component about the fish’s feeding activity. Now try reading back this paragraph a few times fast and you may get a sense of the headaches I went through over the last few years.

phd_comics_murphys_research_law

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
www.phdcomics.com

Still, exploring different projects is part of the grad school experience (or so I hear), and it was certainly an educational endeavor. Though more than a little frustrating at times, it did offer an insight into the life of a scientist: methods will fail, new ideas will emerge, projects will change, and in the end, you’ll find yourself arduously studying a subject you’d never even considered when you started. New grad students, be warned: until you finally defend your thesis/dissertation, you’re in for an academic rollercoaster ride!

4) Coauthoring is both easier and harder than writing alone.

Speaking as a writer who prefers to work solo, I’ve found there are advantages and disadvantages to collaborating with other authors on an article. On the one hand, different perspectives mean different ideas and contributions, which more often than not result in a well-rounded study and, consequently, a high-quality paper. On the other hand, opinions between authors can (and will) conflict during the writing process, which will make turning out the final draft all the more challenging.

As the lead author of a paper with five names to its title (and counting), I’m in charge of writing the text and integrating the other authors’ notes and revisions into each draft. The main advantage of this is that each researcher has their own area of expertise, so I’ve gotten plenty of help as much for the genetic part of the study as for the ecological part. However, some points in the discussion tend to have opposite approaches, and sure enough, I’ve rewritten some paragraphs a few times over after disagreements arose between my coauthors about how best to discuss the results.

phd_comics_author_list

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
www.phdcomics.com

Finding a balance hasn’t always been easy, but since all my solo writing experience has been related to fiction, I’m glad to have so much extra input on this project. All that matters is that the final paper is worthy of publication!

5) Successfully completing and defending a thesis brings an incredible sense of accomplishment.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, words cannot describe the elation I felt while standing before the audience at my defense and thanking them for watching the presentation I had just concluded. In that moment, all my hard work, perseverance, and bouts of stress, anxiety, and tears had finally been validated. I was so proud of myself for having made it to that point that I smiled through the whole evaluation and Q&A segment that followed. It was one of the greatest successes of my life, and though it isn’t a bestselling novel, the thesis I toiled over for a year and a half will always hold a special place among my most treasured pieces of writing.

The only question now is whether this sense of achievement is enough motivation to take on double the hard work in pursuit of a doctorate…

phd_comics_plans

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
www.phdcomics.com

What about you? Do you have any college or grad school experiences to share? How have they influenced your writing?

All images in this post are from the comic series “Piled Higher and Deeper” (a.k.a. PHD Comics) by Jorge Cham; I own nothing! For a hilarious insight into life (or lack thereof) in academia, I highly recommend you check out his work!

The Next Chapter

“Thank you!”

It’s all still a blur, but I know I ended my Master’s thesis presentation with the biggest smile on my face. The applause rang in my head for hours afterward. I barely even remember the evaluators’ comments during the defense.

All I remember is their last question: “What next?”

I’d already thought about the question long and hard. Would I attain a Ph.D right away, or take a break to pursue creative writing?

I smiled and said I’d follow my passion. They thought I meant science. I knew better.

“On to the next chapter of my life!”


This is a little 100-word challenge I set for myself just for fun, loosely based on a true story. Hope you enjoyed the piece! Thanks for reading!

Ode to the Redlip Blenny

Oh strange fish, whose
Phylogeography baffles me so.
How did you traverse the Atlantic?
I thought you were Brazilian –
O. trinitatis, I called you –
But when I tested your DNA, I
Learned that you came from the East!
Everyone was amazed when I told them;
Nobody had anticipated such a result!
Never again will I make the mistake of
Inferring conclusions before obtaining results and
Underestimating the surprises of academia.
Science truly is incredible!


I think an explanation is due here. Apparently, in the final weeks leading up to my Master’s thesis defense, the only thing that was on my mind anymore was the reef fish I had been studying for almost two years. Its common name is the redlip blenny, but I mostly referred to it by its genus name, Ophioblennius. Well, now that my project is done and my thesis has been defended, I thought it fitting to see my fish off with a poem! Enjoy, and thanks for reading!

Decontamination

Never leave the incubator unattended.

That’s the first lesson they teach you when you start at the lab. I wish I had listened.

Thankfully, the explosion was contained to the one room. The building has been evacuated as per safety protocol, and the cleanup crew is busy decontaminating the area while the head of the department has me fill out a statement for the report. I’ve never felt so guilty in my life. That’s saying something.

I have a bad history of putting living beings in danger. I squashed my sister’s hamster as a kid, ran over my neighbor’s cat as a teenager, and lost my friend’s dog on the street in my first year of college. And now I’ve endangered at least a dozen human beings by accidentally unleashing bacteria all over the laboratory. Unknown, unpredictable bacteria. There’s no telling what damage I could have caused if I hadn’t been alone when the incubator burst.

The cleanup crew has finished their work and is filing out of the lab. I’ve been told it’s safe to go back inside. While everyone else leaves, I throw on my cleanroom suit and head in to grab my notes. As I pass by the busted incubator, I feel a horrible sinking sensation in my stomach. Years’ worth of research has been lost tonight, and it’s all my fault.

I open my notebook and flip to the last filled pages. I want to figure out what went wrong. Could I have set the incubator temperature too high by mistake? Was there a malfunctioning piece in the machine? Or is this all just happening now because bad luck follows me wherever I go?

A tear splashes on the corner of the page. I wipe my eyes as I take a pen from the table and scribble a quick note about the explosion. After replacing the pen and skimming through my notes one last time, I close the notebook and glance up at the clock on the wall. It tells me I’ve been here over half an hour, much longer than I’d anticipated. Better start heading out.

Replacing the notebook on the table, I hurry back to the adjoining chamber to remove my suit before I head out, but I stop just inside the doorway when I hear voices in the hall. They must think everyone has already left. Standing still, just out of sight, I listen to them talk about the incident. I recognize two voices: the head of the department and the director of the lab. The director is saying it was lucky no one was injured by the explosion, otherwise the consequences could be catastrophic. The results from the last lab mice test came back this morning; they’ve just discovered that the bacteria we’ve been studying induce a lethal reaction in the subject.

My heart starts to race and I break into a sweat, but I dare not make a sound. The department head asks if we should quarantine everyone in the building, but the director reassures him that the bacteria are not airborne; infection only occurs from direct contact with the subject’s blood. Even if anyone had been contaminated, they wouldn’t last long enough to spread the disease beyond this isolated research facility, as the infection is fatal within hours. The head of the department mutters a curse against “that damn clumsy student”. He wishes I had never set foot in the lab in the first place.

I’ve heard enough. Moving away from the door, I turn and hurry back into the lab. This time I don’t bother with the suit, heading straight through the door toward the notebook and pen on the table before making a beeline for the room on the other side of the floor. Tears return to my eyes as I rush past the broken incubator.

All your faultAll your fault

I’m no stranger to being cursed. Most people who know me end up wishing they’d never met me, usually after my bad luck causes them some sort of injury. Nobody likes me. Nobody ever wants me around. I don’t blame them. I’m a jinx, a curse, a disease.

You’re the real infection

I rush into the freezer and slam the door behind me. I lean back against the wall, open the notebook, and start scribbling words on the blank pages in the back, important notes to all the people I’ve loved and wronged. By now the tears have blurred my vision so much that I can barely see the letters anymore. Tremblingly, I rip the last page from the notebook and clutch it close to my chest. Now all that’s left to do is wait.

A strange calm overtakes me as I flip through my notebook for the last time. This is best for everyone, I tell myself. Everything happens for a reason, right? Yes, they’ll all be better off this way. Shivering, I get to the last of my notes, the secret of how some loose shards of shattered glass and metal struck me in the explosion.

My strength begins to leave me and I stifle a cough. I close the notebook as well as my eyes and pull my sleeve down, covering the gash in my hand where the glass tore right through my glove. This is how they’ll find me in the morning, tears frozen on my cheeks and a piece of paper clutched tightly in my hand, containing a single word that says everything…

Contaminated.

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