Leaving the Mousetrap – Loving the Thesis

In an experiment done by psychologists at the University of Maryland and published in 2001, a group of students were asked to play a simple game where they had to solve a maze puzzle. […] Two groups of students were asked to solve the puzzles in which the goal was to help a cartoon mouse get safely to its mouse hole. But there was a twist. One group of students was working on a version of the maze that had a piece of delicious-looking cheese in front of the mouse hole near the exit of the maze. In technical parlance, this is known as a positive, or approach-orientated, puzzle. On the other group’s version there was no cheese, but instead a picture of an owl that was poised to swoop and capture the mouse in its claws at any moment. This is known as a negative, or avoidance-orientated, puzzle. The mazes were simple to do and all of the students completed them in around two minutes. But the after-effects of the puzzles on the students were poles apart. For after completing the maze, all the students were asked to do a different, apparently unrelated test that measured creativity. When they did these, those who’d avoided the owl did 50 per cent worse than those who’d helped the mouse find the cheese. It turned out that avoidance ‘closed down’ options in the students’ minds. It triggered their minds’ ‘aversion’ pathways, leaving them with a lingering sense of fear and an enhanced sense of vigilance and caution. This state of mind both weakened their creativity and reduced their flexibility. (Mark Williams and Danny Penman Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

For the last 10 months or so, I have grown more and more anxious about my thesis, for no good reason other than that it isn’t finished yet. I still have 17 months till I want to hand in so my thesis has every right not to be finished. And yet I am often filled with vague but intense fears. The metaphors in my head have become more and more negative. My thesis is a stable I have to muck out. A dragon I have to slay. A slippery boulder I have to roll up an impossibly steep hill. I’ve spent a lot of time feeling like I am running away from something, or trying to prevent something awful, rather than feeling like I am building something awesome. Somewhere during the last year I have slipped into the habit of thinking of writing my thesis as something I do to avoid catastrophe (missing deadlines, loosing funding, or, worst of all, disappointing my supervisor) rather than as something I do because I want to – as something that gives me pleasure, makes me better, or allows me to reach a career goal. Little by little my thesis has stopped being a positive, or approach-orientated, puzzle and has instead metamorphosed into a negative, or avoidance-orientated, puzzle.

I don’t actually need science to tell me that thinking of my thesis as this dangerous monster isn’t helpful. Forgetting that I love my thesis makes it seem like a chore or a pain and because it puts me into fight or flight mode, where creativity is replaced with a struggle for survival. This is emotionally painful as well as making it so much harder to work. It is really difficult to write creatively or concisely when you can’t even move because you’re so petrified with fear. It is really difficult to read when you can hardly see the page in front of you because your panic clouds your eyes as if you were about to black out. It is really difficult to hear your supervisor’s encouraging advice when your ears are full of the rush of your blood and the quick thump thump thump of your heart.

Judging by the results of the Mindfulness maze experiment, the solution is deceptively simple: I have to change the way I see my thesis. I have to go back to working towards the cheese and not away from the owl. I have to remind myself that there really isn’t an owl – that I am not really going to die if I don’t finish the chapter today. But perhaps more importantly, I have to remind myself not only of the cheese at the end of the tunnel but of the fact that I really enjoy the maze.

I am writing a thesis in English literature not for the money, or the fame, nor all the highly attractive and lightly-clad people that throw themselves at you once you have a PhD in English literature. I am writing this thesis because I want to. I love my thesis. I also hate it, sometimes. And that’s ok, too, as long as the bits I hate don’t make me forget that at bottom, this is a good thing and that I am not merely working towards the cheese but actually eating my way through it (This is a great metaphor for people who are really into cheese. Luckily, I am really, really into cheese).

Unfortunately, when I had the realisation that I need to rekindle and remind myself of my thesis love during the last weeks, this was soon followed by the realisation that telling myself “I really love my thesis, I really love my thesis” is a bit like telling myself “Don’t Panic!” – a surefire way to induce thesis hate or a panic attack. After some more reading, I decided to take another page from the Mindfulness book:

The ten-finger gratitude exercise

To come to a positive appreciation for the small things in your life, you can try the gratitude exercise. It simply means that once a day you bring to mind ten things which you are grateful for, counting them on your fingers. It is important to get to ten things, even when it becomes increasingly harder after three or four! This is exactly what the exercise is for – intentionally bringing into awareness the tiny, previously unnoticed elements of the day.

As it is, this exercise is pointless for me. I love my life and can easily list ten things that give me pleasure without even leaving the cheese shop (Raclette, Mozzarella di Bufala, Morbier, Gorgonzola, Pecorino, Manchego, Gruyer, Feta, Appenzeller silver label, Appenzeller gold label, and oh dear God, Appenzeller black label). I am constantly and intensely aware of the total amazitude of life – a flower smelling, food tasting, nature appreciating pleasure seeker, that’s who I am. So what I need to do is to refocus my ability to enjoy and appreciate life towards my thesis. To smell the flowers of my work and savour the cheesy writing. So I took pen and paper and made a quick list of the ten reasons I love writing my thesis.

I did this yesterday and I must say that it helped. I did have a really productive and relaxed morning. But then, a couple of hours ago, I could feel the anxiety rising ever so slightly. My brain started telling me that I promised I’d send the document off on May 1 (tomorrow). I started conjuring up vague images of all the things that will happen if I don’t finish this….

That’s when I decided to take a break, look at my list, and write a blog post instead (hi there!). I think the list works; I just have to turn this positivity into a habit. So, for the next ten days, I will take one of the short points on my list and write about it here. This has three reasons:

1) Public blogging means accountability – I can’t just give up when panic hits – and is therefore a great way of habit formation. By the end of the ten days, I hope to be on the way of regaining an enjoyment-based and goal-oriented approach to my thesis.

2) I know that I am not alone in this. Most of the thesis writers I know share at least some of my fears and avoidance-oriented mindset. To be honest, I think part of the reason I see my thesis in this way is because I am surrounded by people who describe their thesis through avoidance metaphors. I think it would be really cool if instead of teaching each other to fear the thesis, we could support each other in finding better metaphors and a more positive frame for engaging with our work. So if you are so inclined, I would welcome reading some of the reasons you love your thesis.

3) Attaching cheese to my laptop has so far not shown the desired effect.

Having tried all the usual productivity tools, I became creative. #cheesywriting

A post shared by Nele Pollatschek (@nele_pollatschek) on


About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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7 Responses to Leaving the Mousetrap – Loving the Thesis

  1. Whenever I’m scared (not like a graveyard-at-midnight-scared, but a big-presentation-the-next-day or hitting-send-on-a-really-important-application scared), I try to imagine what it is I’m really afraid of. Generally, on the other end of the fear is someone just like me who is far less interested in what I’m offering and considerably more interested in their own fears.

    I just turned in my thesis, a creative thesis for my MA, for which the stakes were probably a lot lower than your doctorate thesis. I actually handed in a hard copy, and it was like removing a 100-pound chain from around my neck. Those moments are my favorite moments.

    Good luck!


    • Congratulations on handing in!!! If you ask me, a creative thesis sounds way more scary than what I am doing. And thanks for the advice. I should probably step back from time to time and remind myself that my examiners are merely humans, too. (Or so they want us to believe… )


  2. Daedalus Lex says:

    I think your slip to avoidance orientation is very common for someone in your position. But that too will change as circumstances change. But your thesis may have to get past the owl first. Wait, I mean the cheese.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel like it’s changing at the moment. I’ve been getting more and more anxious over the last few months and then a couple of days ago I felt like I had hit rock bottom. I can’t really explain what happened yet but I really feel like some gordian knot that has been tightening and tightening for months has finally ruptured.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Ten reasons I love my thesis: 1) I can work where I want.  | Oxford Dphile

  4. Pingback: Five ways to love the PhD thesis MORE | Oxford Dphile

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