[This is the first part of a two part post. It’s a list of 10 things that go wrong when you write a thesis, so it’s a bit depressing. But I promise: It gets better. The second part looks at ways of dealing, so it will be upbeat and shiny with a faint aroma of vanilla and hand-plucked mountain jasmine]
About a year ago an acquaintance of mine claimed that it was possible to write a doctoral thesis within six months. I was slightly miffed by his claim, not only because my friend was working on his Master’s and had no experience of writing a doctoral thesis but also because, at the time, I had been working on my thesis for six months and didn’t even have a complete chapter, let alone thesis.
One and a half years into the DPhil, I now agree that it is entirely possible to write a doctoral thesis in six months. Provided you have no physical body, no friends, no family, no romantic life, no interest in networking, conferences, publications or developing relevant skills for a future career, no psyche, Anna Wintour’s personal assistant and an unlimited supply of perfectly backed-up computers and docile printers.
As my friend and fellow thesis writer, Erin, puts it, we spend more than 50% of our thesis writing time establishing the conditions to write the thesis. Part of this is procrastination but part of this is just how it is. When you are writing a shorter dissertation for your Bachelor or Master, you push away everything. It is easy to research and bang out 10,000 words in six weeks if you know you can see your friends, go to the doctors, apply for jobs and money, take care of your personal stuff and buy a new computer, after those six weeks are over. But you simply cannot postpone life four 3-5 years.
During the years of thesis writing you will inevitably:
1) Become annoyingly ill on multiple, inconvenient occasions.
2) Have your computer die on you, at least once, potentially much more frequently, usually while it is not properly backed up though you promised yourself you’d back it up all of the time.
3) Have a family member die on you or become ill or have massive personal problems that you feel obliged to get involved with. Even when there isn’t a family emergency, you will have friends or family or loved ones that feel entitled to divert your attention from your thesis because they like you and want to spend time with you (how dare they?).
4) Have romantic stuff that diverts your time (either because it is awesome and you want to spend all of your time with your SO(s) or because it’s crap and you have to work stuff through; either way massive time commitment – unless you want to Sheldon it for a while, and we all know how that turns out).
5) Need a vacation. Multiple vacations. Proper real vacations, with no work and sunshine and happiness and stuff (bonus points if you manage to not think about your thesis for 24 hours or more).
6) Have paperwork. Tons and tons of paperwork. You will kill entire rainforests with your funding applications, progress reports, visa extensions, insurance annoyances, job applications, tax reports, and reimbursement requests.
7) Spend insane amounts of time on teaching either because you find it really hard and need to prepare a lot, or because you love it so much that you cannot stop preparing (I fall in the latter category; if I don’t watch it, I will spend all my time preparing classes and then suddenly nothing happens with the thesis).
8) Spend much too much time and energy on developing career relevant skills and grooming your CV and list of publications. Simultaneously you will feel like you should really work on your CV and skills and list of publications and that all the other kids have longer CVs than you. In fact, you will spend a lot of time being utterly mortified by the fact that you should be a) writing your thesis b) learning to code/ speak French/ edit a journal/ teach/ organise a conference c)write and publish papers. There will be times when you can do absolutely nothing because as soon as you start working on your thesis, your brain will tell you that you should be writing a conference paper, and as soon as you start writing your conference paper, your brain will interrogate why you stopped writing your thesis. Seriously, what’s wrong with you?
9) Realise that something you have been working on for weeks has already been done, is really dumb, or has nothing to do with your thesis. You will find books or articles that say everything you wanted to say, only better. Later you will realise that actually what you are doing is different and the stuff you thought kills your thesis only makes it stronger. But in the mean time, you will feel like you wasted the last year of your life. You will think that you should have known this book/article exists months ago; that you suck as an academic – really, that you suck as a human being (mark the difference for me). Everything will be terrible and you will spend days/weeks/months regaining your trust in your abilities and the fact that if you did not know this book exists, probably other people and examiners don’t know that book/article exists either so you’re fine just burying it in a footnote and moving on with your life.
10) Become really, really anxious (for possible reasons, see all of the above) or have similar mental stuff that requires you to chill a bit. Seriously, I know nobody who does not suffer from thesis anxiety at least some of the time. A friend of mine and mother of four who just finished her thesis claims that writing a thesis is the most humbling and character building experience in life. Sometimes, work will be great for a week and your mind will calculate that you can finish in four months at this rate; then, without warning, you will be stuck and no good words will let themselves be written for weeks and your mind will calculate that it will take you 462 months to finish at this rate. The duration and length of the thesis is so large that you inevitably end up making projections for the future from insufficient data. This week or these 2000 words were terrible, ergo the thesis is terrible. Everything is awful. When that happens, the best thing you can do is chill out and focus on the work, not the progress. But the inevitable anxiety is hard and time consuming.
A lot of the time, writing your thesis is actually dealing with one of these ten issues. It’s often about doing other necessary things and feeling bad about it or writing your thesis and feeling bad about not dealing with the other stuff. Thesis writing is the Jewish mother of intellectual pursuits. It sucks up all of your time and then asks why you never call. When you do call it asks why you aren’t producing grand children or finding a proper job right now. It might be an exercise and expression of your intellectual and academic prowess but, from time to time, it will make you feel lazy, irresponsible and intellectually insignificant. Not necessarily because you are but because the process is almost designed to make you feel like this – if writing a thesis (or watching copious films about Karate, Vulcans or Jedi Masters) has taught me anything, it is that you really should not expect to spend three years alone with your mind without going insane a little bit or having the outside world interfere in the most annoying fashion.