What's your (first) line?

RMS Titanic (Wikimedia Commons)

A friend of mine is near the end of his Ph.D. He’s at the stage where he just wants to get the damn thing done. I asked if he’d written the opening line yet and he said no, he doesn’t care how it starts.

How sad, I thought.

My Ph.D. thesis is probably the most important document I’ve ever written. I’d love to write a book some day but for now, my thesis is the top of my list. When I wrote it, I cared that some parts of it were, well, beautiful, at least to me.  The first lines of my thesis are among the best I’ve written:

A planet, a star, or a galaxy drifts through space like an ocean liner on calm seas. A ray of light, however, is tossed like a leaf floating amongst the ripples.

My research and thesis was about gravitational lensing, how rays of light from extremely distant objects are bent and deflected as they pass through galaxy clusters, and how we can use the distorted images we observe, plus some surprisingly simple physics, to reconstruct the mass distributions of those intermediate galaxy clusters. If you’re interested, here’s a link to a previous life.

This got me thinking: do other people sweat these kinds of details, like the first line of their thesis, its title, the placement of the figures, the orphaned words…like I did?

Would you help me out? Would you drop a comment sharing the part of your thesis you’re still recall proudly and fondly. Was it the first lines, the title, the acknowledgement to your supervisor, the caption of Figure 5.3? Who knows, maybe we can show today’s thesis-writers that it’s okay to spend some precious moments making their theses beautiful.

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9 Responses to What's your (first) line?

  1. Joss Ives says:

    I have written multiple blog posts which are more important (to me) than either my MSc or PhD theses. For me, those theses were means to an end.

  2. Lindsay Kelley says:

    My first lines are questions:

    What is food? Where do the boundaries of food lie? Our decisions about what to eat and how to eat it negotiate interdependent living systems, biotechnologies, and human-animal relationships.

    Thanks for this! I did want to just get it done at the end of the Ph.D process, but I also remember enjoying and luxuriating in crafting and writing the dissertation.

    • Interesting technique, Lindsay, hitting the reader with questions. Did you carry through and explicitly answer them? Is the last line of your thesis, “And that’s what food is.” :)

      “Luxuriating in crafting and writing” is a beautiful description.

  3. The purpose of a PhD thesis is to get a PhD. It is not a life work (unless you are planning on a very short life). My favorite part of my PhD thesis is an NP-completeness proof of a particular routing problem by reduction to 3-SAT, almost entirely in pictures.

    This was added in response to criticism at my PhD defense that I had not sufficiently justified the heuristic approach I had taken to the routing problem—it was one of those problems that was either trivial or NP-hard.

    I did the proof over winter break in my first faculty position (in those days a CS faculty member could be hired even before the PhD thesis was signed).

    • I’m just saying that my thesis was probably the most important document I’ve written for me. It got me Ph.D., after all.

      I love the idea of a visual proof. When I was in grad school, some friends used this new thing called Java on their Sun stations to program a visual proof of the Theorem of Pythagoras.

  4. Pauline Barmby says:

    My acknowledgements began with “the road to a PhD is like the mountain road at an observatory: bumpy and sometimes muddy, with a giddy feeling at the end.” I had a whole extended metaphor going, thanking my advisor for helping me navigate, my committee for not being backseat drivers, and my fellow travellers, er grad students.

    Amusingly this same idea showed up in a recent PhD Comics strip!

  5. Julieta Delos Santos says:

    I was recommended by a graduate writing advisor to not edit the first line:

    Biology is the study of life yet, this subject is frequently taught indoors.

    I had attended a seminar and part of the discussion was about prose vs. technical writing in a thesis. The bottom line was to wait and see what your committee thinks of it. Based on commentary from some of the attendees, not everyone has the “approval” to write poetically in their thesis, unfortunately.

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