Five ways to love the PhD thesis MORE

Ok, so reminding yourself why you love your thesis is lovely for the meditating, kumbaya singing crowd, but I am not zen enough for that shit. It was fun; I made a list (lists are good); but on day 2 I got bored. Rather than telling myself why I should love the status quo, I should probably engage in making the status quo lovelier (this is completely unrelated to, say, UK elections). So instead of going on about reasons to love the thesis, I am using that knowledge for improvement. Here are five ways to love the thesis MORE:

1) Go places. 

Rather than celebrating the mere fact that, like many thesis writers, I can write wherever I want, I should bloody well do it more. Beware the crying children and garrulous tourists but if the place is nice enough, I usually find that what I lose in productivity, I gain in overall happiness, which often translates to productivity and creativity. So especially when stressed and anxious – when you feel you don’t deserve to leave the library – make an effort to discover awesome new places to work. Even a few hours of Working While Happy can make you love the shit out of your thesis (I hear a pint also helps).

2) Love your topic.

People spend a lot of time feeling that the topic of their theses is insignificant or boring. Good news is, it probably isn’t. If it were, your uni wouldn’t have accepted you. Your supervisor wouldn’t have taken you on AND most importantly, you wouldn’t have wanted to do it in the first place. Bad news is, a lot of the work you have to do probably is boring. In order to make a fascinating point, one has to spend a lot of time doing monotonous, dull things. I spent a month last year reading 18th century French texts on the efficacy of grace. Believe me, it sounds more exciting than it is… But I needed to read those dull texts for my overall argument. And though I didn’t see it then, the overall argument is pretty fly.

My PhD thesis on theodicy and literature paraphrased in a single image

A picture is not worth a 100,000 word thesis. I miss Kindergarten. Those were the days.

While belly-deep in the valley of boredom, remind yourself of what it was that first attracted you to your topic. Especially when you are bored with your work, don’t avoid it but discuss it with willing victims. Become passionate again. Find the popular science book that relates to your topic and read it FOR FUN. Find tangential connection to your topic in tv shows, or the news (OMG Stephen Fry is totally talking about my topic). Or nerd out and draw your thesis.

3) Get off on your thesis writing.

Stop me if you’ve heard that one before:

PhD student 1: “Hey, how’s your writing going?”

PhD student 2: “I have xxx words but they are awful.”

No, they bloody well aren’t. Obviously the overall structure has to gestate and that ain’t pretty; chances are, the macro structure of the the thesis will be rubbish almost right until you hand in. BUT, at the same time, some of your writing, especially on the paragraph or sentence level is bound to be amazing early on.

My supervisor has a habit of ticking the bits that he loves. This is incredibly helpful, not only because it makes me feel good but because it makes me see where things are going well and where I need to add sparkle. If your supervisor doesn’t do that for you, ask a friend or do it yourself. Highlight the bits you are pleased with to remind yourself that you can write some rockstar prose. It is also really helpful to keep a list of the stunning phrases, subtitles or sentences that didn’t make their way into your writing or that fell to the Grim Editor; you might be able to use them later on.

4) Become a better human.

Ok, I know this seems a stretch – especially if your thesis has turned you into the junk-food-malnourished, anxious and not so great unwashed – but hear me out.

Writing a thesis obviously induces intellectual growth, you’ll know more about your topic, about writing and about your field when you’re done. But it also fosters all kinds of emotional and even (I shudder to admit) spiritual growth. It teaches humility but also the self-worth that comes from doing something you thought impossible. Writing a thesis is like everything people say about having children, only that the crap you clean up is usually your own.

Most importantly, you will probably never have fuller control of your time – which is why PhD students complain about their procrastination so much. But what if instead of procrastinating, you are actually taking time to become the person you want to be. When you ask people how they procrastinate, answers range from running, rowing and mountain climbing to learning languages, singing in choirs, writing fiction, baking, or charity work. Truth be told, I’d rather be a person who climbs, bakes, speaks foreign languages and helps people than a person who finished their thesis really quickly.

5) Come together.

We are always whining about how lonely writing is – after all, it’s just you and your  computer. But the truth is that thesis writers are not actually alone, at all. Libraries and faculties are full of people who aren’t only doing what you are doing but probably feeling what you are feeling. Anxiety, impostor syndrome, writer’s block– all these emotions are caused by writing a PhD thesis, so naturally, the thesis writing crowd understands each other better than “normal people”. This is why I love reading thesis blogs. It reminds me that I am not alone at all; I am a member of an exclusive secret society – half freemasons, all free food.

More importantly, if isolation is what makes people unhappy with thesis writing (and for me it is) then the solution is glaringly obvious: work together. Some universities (like Stanford and ANU) are really good at bringing writers together. They offer “Thesis Boot Camps” where people meet to write for a few days, balancing peer support and peer pressure. Even if your uni does not offer these programs (Oxford doesn’t), many aspects of the group writing experience can be recreated without official support.

I recently read about “Shut up and Write” on the amazing “ThesisWhisperer” blog and have been experimenting with it since. I am still working out the kinks (how do you remind people to shut up without being a dick?) but am sure I can make it work. The great thing about “Shut up” is that anyone can set up a group. All you need is a room to do it (a cafe or community space) and some dedicated people. Even when group work is not the most efficient (which I hope in time it will be), it stops your thesis from being the thing that keeps you away from people and becomes its own social occasion.

So these are my five ways of loving the thesis more. What have I missed?

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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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5 Responses to Five ways to love the PhD thesis MORE

  1. instaphd says:

    I’m loving your blog! I’m writing my dissertation proposal this summer and your blog is so helpful for me to read. Thank you for sharing your process.

    Like

  2. Daedalus Lex says:

    To your “what have I missed” question, I struggled to think of a number 6. The best I could do is “Tie in”: Not only does the process of your thesis seem isolating, but the content can seem isolated from everyday life also. In fact, it almost certainly is not; it’s a set of ideas blending into a larger web of ideas that actually has a lot to do with how our realtime social reality is constructed. If you look at it right, you can smile and see how it’s all connected and how the curiosities and interests of everyday people tie back through the social fabric to your ideas.

    A personal curiosity: When in academia, the library could become an oppressive space for me; now that I’m out of academia, I love the days when I can go to a big table in a well-lit university library, respite from the sturm und drang of life on the outside, to play with my own reading and writing projects. (Remember to email me some theodicy tidbits so I can put you on said reading list 🙂 ).

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is an excellent number 6!

      I know exactly what you mean, too. A couple of months ago Pope Francis was in the press because he had apparently advocated corporal punishment in raising children. Up to that moment, he’d been the liberal media’s darling (as much as the head of the Catholic church can be) and now everybody was outraged. All I could think is that of course he has to construct a father figure that hurts his children in order to teach them and protect them, how else is he going to keep up the mode of theodicy that explains evil by seeing God as a punishing (but ultimately benevolent) father. Once you admit that a father should not hurt his children, even when he thinks its for their benefit, you have a massive Problem of Evil situation.

      I was so pleased by that whole situation and my explanation – though this is the first time I get to tell anyone about it! There is no better feeling than those moments, when you’re convinced the topic you’re working on explains real things.

      As far as the library thing is concerned: No Never! Libraries will always be my least favourite places to work in.

      And I will definitely send you something as soon as the 18th century section has gone through redrafting. Willing victims are few and far between; I will not let you escape 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • Daedalus Lex says:

        Good “tie-in” with the pope! I like how you lift the veil and show him grinding in the mill of the old Protestant Milton – to “justifie the wayes of God to men” (though I still share the general liberal goodwill for this pope). I can think of 3 literary templates for explaining evil – material conditions (Dickens/Marx are both here, although they differ on how to fix it), psychoanalytic forces in the deep structure of the psyche (Freud), and metaphysical/theological/cosmic forces that transcend individual conditions – the evil of Iago, of the magnificent Vice characters of Medieval morality plays, and perhaps Dracula in some of his representations. Now hmm, to tie back to God or the pope … but such explorations can’t be completed in a blog comment … Anything you want to follow up on, theodical or otherwise, that’s too lengthy or off-point for your blog can go to drggautier@gmail.com . (Is “theodical” really a word?) By the way, I love your kindergarten drawing (reminds me of the oddly existentialist children’s book, The Little Prince) — is it your original artwork? Maybe you can illustrate my next children’s book 🙂

        Like

  3. Michael says:

    “– especially if your thesis has turned you into the junk-food-malnourished, anxious and not so great unwashed –”

    I literally fell off my chair laughing, when i read that. I´m at the procrastination stage of my daily phd-routine right now and that sentence just caught the moment perfectly. 😄

    The topic of your thesis is awesome, by the way. I remember reading Dracula for the first time and thinking: “Well, Stoker is a bit dry, when it comes to describing emotions.” But I read him again after I had read Weber on ascetic protestantism and suddenly, in the light of this peculiar brand of theology, the characters made perfect sense. When Mina is burned by a sacred wafer in chapter XXII, she is marked as someone without eternal life. Still, she is part of the group and does her job well, but the others have to question their own hopes for afterlife, if they continue to associate themselves with someone like that. That kind of social dynamics and emotional stress, which none of the protagonists would ever speak of, is just invisible without some knowledge of their religion.

    Honestly, I envy you a bit, because I had played with the thought of doing a similar thesis myself. Keep up the good work! Evil needs fresh blood 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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