When to Read Someone Else’s Thesis

There’s a cynical truism we use to reassure grad students. A thesis is a big, daunting project, but it shouldn’t be too stressful: in the end, nobody else is going to read it.

This is mostly true. In many fields your thesis is a mix of papers you’ve already published, stitched together into your overall story. Anyone who’s interested will have read the papers the thesis is based on, they don’t need to read the thesis too.

Like every good truism, though, there is an exception. Some rare times, you will actually want to read someone else’s thesis. This isn’t usually because the material is new: rather it’s because it’s well explained.

When we academics publish, we’re often in a hurry, and there isn’t time to write well. When we publish more slowly, often we have more collaborators, so the paper is a set of compromises written by committee. Either way, we rarely make a concept totally crystal-clear.

A thesis isn’t always crystal-clear either, but it can be. It’s written by just one person, and that person is learning. A grad student who just learned a topic can be in the best position to teach it: they know exactly what confused them when they start out. Thesis-writing is also a slower process, one that gives more time to hammer at a text until it’s right. Finally, a thesis is written for a committee, and that committee usually contains people from different fields. A thesis needs to be an accessible introduction, in a way that a published paper doesn’t.

There are topics that I never really understood until I looked up the thesis of the grad student who helped discover it. There are tricks that never made it to published papers, that I’ve learned because they were tucked in to the thesis of someone who went on to do great things.

So if you’re finding a subject confusing, if you’ve read all the papers and none of them make any sense, look for the grad students. Sometimes the best explanation of a tricky topic isn’t in the published literature, it’s hidden away in someone’s thesis.

3 thoughts on “When to Read Someone Else’s Thesis

  1. QG

    Do you have specific examples of topics that you were able to digest through someone else’s thesis? I’d be interested in checking those out, too.

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    1. 4gravitons Post author

      There’s a lot of good stuff in Erik Panzer’s thesis about direct integration that’s hard to find elsewhere. I’ve got a master’s student who’s recently got a lot of mileage out of reading Johannes Henn’s thesis to learn about dual conformal symmetry. And while I haven’t used it much, back in the early days of hexagon functions Jeff Pennington’s thesis explained some aspects of it quite a bit better than our papers did.

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  2. Andrew Oh-Willeke

    Among other things, a thesis is usually better about clearly defining symbols and terminology, and about not skipping important steps in the reasoning supporting a point.

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