How and Where to Write a Thesis

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a PhD student in possession of data must be in want of a thesis.  I myself was in this situation recently, and took to the streets of New York City to find the best writing spot in town. In my pursuit, the only criteria were free wifi—so that I could VPN into university networks for access to scientific papers—and readily available outlets.

While the locations described below are in NYC, the findings can be extrapolated to any city.


Realistic NYC student apartments have exposed brick, right?

Realistic NYC student apartments have exposed brick, right?


I began in my humble apartment, where I am now writing this post.  In fact, most of my articles on the PhDish have been written while sitting at this very desk.  I have total comfort here – can regulate the temperature precisely to my liking, can get snacks or make tea whenever I wish, and can go to the bathroom without worrying about someone stealing my laptop.  However, the comfort comes with a price: easy distraction.  This has never been an issue with smaller pieces of work, such as blog posts, but the thesis was too large and daunting.  It was easier to go on YouTube, talk to my roommates, or even clean my apartment rather than face such a formidable task.

I needed to get out of the house.



Across the street are some coffee shops, where I’ve also been productive in the past.  Le Pain Quotidien and Da Capo offer excellent croissants and espresso, and are super cute places to sit with a laptop and pretend you’re working in a café in France or Italy.  The atmosphere spurred literary loquaciousness, but my focus was short-lived due to the inconsistent noisiness of the cafés.  Just as with working from home, a document as large and complicated as a Ph.D. thesis appeared to require an atmosphere more fitting to the task.


The lab

The most obvious location was at the workplace itself.  All of my data at my fingertips without the need for VPN, programs like Adobe Illustrator for making figures, and a large monitor were all perks of working in lab.  However, I have the happy problem of being friends with my labmates, and ended up spending too much time chatting or fiddling with lab work.  Interrupted writing was not my best writing.  Disappearing into conference rooms was fruitful until I had to once again move to make room for the actual meetings that required the room.


I next ventured to several libraries across the city, and this is where I struck gold.  My best writing was done at some of these libraries, and, importantly, it was ­fun


Rose Reading Room, New York Public Library

Rose Reading Room, New York Public Library

New York Public Library

If you have never been inside the New York Public Library, you must.  The grandeur of the high ceilings and beauty of the Rose Reading Room make you feel like whatever you are working on is of supreme importance.   It awakens a certain thrill, as if you are cracking the secrets of the Da Vinci Code while unaware tourists peek into the otherwise quiet room.  Heightened enthusiasm about my own work aside, I made each NYPL day into a culinary delight.  Breakfast at Grand Central, a lunch break at the food stands in Bryant Park accompanied by a walk to clear the mind, and soup dumplings for dinner a few blocks away left me feeling satisfied rather than tired at the end of a productive day.  It is also always nice to escape from one’s own neighborhood, and shake off any feelings of cabin fever or monotony. 

This is not to say that NYPL didn’t have its own cons.  The main reading room is quite cold, no matter the season (although the first floor reading room is much warmer).  Studying here also necessitates bringing a friend with you, since you can’t leave your stuff unattended even to go to the bathroom or to get a coffee from downstairs.  You also aren’t allowed to bring in your own beverages (although you can sneak in a water bottle buried in your bag).  However, inconveniences aside, I accomplished the majority of my background research for the thesis in this library.


Butler Library, Columbia University

Butler Library, Columbia University

Butler Library, Columbia University

Butler Library at Columbia University had many of the same perks – the atmosphere made me feel very literary and the sentences flowed easily, there are many good eats in the area, and there’s a café in the building.  It’s also delightful and invigorating to be back on a college campus.  However, one does need a Columbia ID to work here, and it can be difficult on weekends to find a spot, with undergrad students showing up in full force.


The Hammer Health Sciences Building, Columbia University Medical Center

The Hammer Health Sciences Building, Columbia University Medical Center

Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library, Columbia University Medical Center

The Columbia University Medical Campus (CUMC) libraries do not have the same undergrad population problem, and it’s easy to find spaces to work.  Hammer Health Sciences Library offers a very studious and even intense environment (thanks, med students), with more modern (if not classically beautiful) rooms than the aforementioned libraries.  It, too, has the perks of an in-house café and the ability to wander around while leaving belongings unattended.

A mock-up of the recently completed Vagelos Education Center at the Columbia University Medical Center.

A mock-up of the recently completed Vagelos Education Center at the Columbia University Medical Center.

Vagelos Education Center

The real winner on the CUMC campus is their new building, the Vagelos Education Center.  The architecture in this place is ­amazing.  Each floor is different, although all are equally modern with white and orange furniture, floor-to-ceiling glass walls for viewing the Manhattan skyline or the Hudson River, shades that automatically move with the time of day so that the sun is never in your eye, and ample study space in conference rooms or interesting nooks.  And, you can bring in food or drinks at will.  It is highly motivating.  However, since it is not a library environment, there is nobody to glare at you if you have conversations with your friend instead of focusing, and you do of course need a CUMC ID to enter. 


The Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, which houses Levy Library

The Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, which houses Levy Library

Levy Library, Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai

Vagelos and Mt. Sinai’s Levy Library share the perk of having a very comfortable temperature, unlike many of the colder places on this list.  Levy also has large tables on which to sprawl out your stuff—very useful for me while going through edits from multiple people.  The library also has different zones for level of quiet, in case you prefer pin-drop silence or a low background hum.  The only downside is that a few of the middle tables are far away from outlets.  Overall, this library is where the majority of my work was accomplished.



-Work spaces that previously were productive for you may not be for a large task like a thesis.

-There are many amazing libraries in NYC, or any city, and the above guide can help you find the perfect one for your needs.

-Moving to different study spaces on occasion will break up monotony and might help you re-focus if you are not too distracted by the new sights.


Once you have your perfect zone, it comes time to actually write the thesis.  Here are a few additional helpful tips:

-Outline the crap out of it.  Staring at a blank page is too daunting, and the only way to make progress is to write a rough outline and to keep adding more and more details until you’re ready to string it together into sentences.  Outlining also vastly helps with organization, since a detail from one paper may belong in a different paragraph from other details from the paper depending on its connections to other work. 

-Endnote as you go!  It’s way harder to go back and add citations later.

-Everything takes longer to do than you think it will.  Be realistic while budgeting your time.

-Have fun!  Writing the thesis (apart from the stress of the actual defense) was one of my favorite parts of the entire PhD.  You get to read other papers, put together all your knowledge about the field, present your own work exactly how you like with no restrictions from journals, and your day is entirely your own to organize as you wish.  Enjoy the literary and scientific freedom!


Best of luck,



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