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I have a lot of postgraduate students among my friends, and among this august group one reaction has been fairly prominent since I handed in and subsequently passed my doctoral thesis. Students, who are still embedded in the higher degree process, often think that there’s something special about me and/or my work, and that some aspect of this exceptionalism is what has carried me over the line at both submission and passing stages, whereas for them everything will naturally be much more difficult. This is rot. As Research Degree Voodoo recently reminded us:

A doctoral thesis is about 80,000 words (or your discipline’s equivalent) of academic writing that describes a research project that should take about 3 years and can be carried out by someone just starting out as a researcher.

Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s (probably) not a nobel prize. It’s (probably) not the best work you’ll ever do.

If there is one thing about me in particular that helped me achieve completing this PhD, it is the fact that I have done it before. I already held a PhD in neuroscience, and although the content and the quotidian processes of producing it were utterly different, the intellectual and emotional processes were very closely related. If you just plod through your candidature, keeping fairly abreast of what is required and doing ‘stuff’ regularly, completing actually boils down to a fairly simple matter. It’s about knowing when enough is enough; about keeping in perspective the fact that this is ‘just a PhD’ and not your Life’s Work; keeping the panicked voice of your inner perfectionist at bay while being able to say: ‘yes, of course I could go on and do about 100 more experiments, or rush off to a new archive and translate a bunch more charters, or whatever, but what I’ve got here is a respectable, original contribution, albeit not particularly earth-shattering in its importance. It is enough.’

The other piece of wisdom that two rounds of doctoral study have taught me is that by the time you get to the end, nothing you’ve worked on feels new any more. It’s very easy to give way to a sense of despair and, throwing up your hands, cry out ‘it’s all a waste, because nothing I’ve done is actually new or interesting! Surely everybody already knows all of this by now, and I’ll fail for not having contributed anything to knowledge. Therefore, I must now… [return to point 1, above].’ Resist this impulse. Your work feels old to you because you’ve been thinking about it fairly constantly for three or more years; but nobody else has. That’s the point. That’s why your work is yours, and original.

None of these things is easy to realise or tell yourself when you’re within the process (even if you have done it before!), but they’re all true. So if you’re nearing the end of your candidature, next time you get in a panic don’t try and reinvent the wheel, or assume you need three extra chapters, or another six months. Just stop and ask yourself – is it enough? and is it mine? Or if you can’t figure it out for yourself, ask a trusted friend. The answers are probably yes and yes. You’re probably nearly finished.

So! (or rather Hwæt!)[1] My dissertation has just been passed, and it’s winging its electronic way to the printer and binder as I type (hat tip: I always use White’s, whenever I do a PhD!). One day, perhaps soon, it will be a book which all of you can read (if you can be bothered… if not, I’ll forgive you. Probably.). But the book won’t be quite the same, and it certainly won’t have quite the same acknowledgements in the front. In reflecting on the journey from thesis to book, it occurred to me that since this version will ultimately be read by few people, very few people will ever see the list of thank-yous that were important enough for me to put in the acknowledgements section. So I’m sharing them with you here, just so that my thanks are on record publicly, and because lots of people out there are awesome, friendly, helpful, wonderful colleagues, and that should be celebrated!

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It just doesn’t seem right. I’ve sent my dissertation to the printer, only eleven minutes after I had planned to do so. Perhaps it could have done with another hour or two of proof reading, but by the bitter end, I just wanted to get the thing off my desk. And I did! Hoorah! Except… it didn’t really feel like ‘hoorah!’.

Something people don’t warn higher degree students about is that achieving the ‘ultimate goal’ of completion and submission can be not so much relieving as overwhelming. In the moments after pressing ‘send’, I actually felt physically ill and head-achy. I was cold, shaking, and fidgety. ‘What if the examiners think its bollocks? What if I forgot to include that final reference on page 51? What if I accidentally submitted the version from yesterday, before I double checked the page numbers and margins?’ And worst of all, ‘what if someone asks me how I feel?’ The delicate house of cards that is the intensely-focused self control a completing doctoral student must draw around him or herself could have collapsed in an instant. When you’ve been living in your office for weeks on end with about five hours sleep a night and taking your calories mainly in liquid caffeinated form, let’s just say it all gets rather fragile. Pass the tissues!

For me, the only way to cope with this extremely unsettling sensation turned out to be a long walk, an enormous cooked breakfast, paracetamol and half a day of aimless window shopping. Whatever it takes, right? Maybe in a few days’ time I will feel elated, but the enormity of completing something so large and significant in one’s life will take some processing. For now, I’m just glad to be over the initial panic. And I suspect I got off lightly.

In the last few weeks of frantic work, keeping the lid on emotional disturbance was a priority. In order to work effectively, I did an awful lot of deep breathing, quite a lot of running up the stairs to the eleventh floor and back, and a lot of talking sternly to myself aloud. I drank probably toxic amounts of peppermint tea and consumed way more cheap chocolate than was good for my waistline. I somehow learned to function at a mental level while my senses were dancing a tarantello. At one point I even suffered from the very unpleasant sensation that my right hand belonged to someone else, and that insects were crawling all over my body, (Delerium tremens, but without the whisky. Where’s the fun in that?)

Clearly, there were some pretty serious stress metabolites to be processed after living through all of this while remaining single-mindedly focused on a goal, so it’s not really a wonder if I needed to ‘crash and burn’. But these are the things about academic life that don’t often get aired in public. They can take you by surprise, even though they’re probably common.

Managing the emotional side of doing academic work doesn’t get the attention it deserves. There are lots of workshops students can attend about time management, using Endnote, university policies and procedures, performing statistics, using library search functions, writing CVs, and so on. It’s easy to focus on managing the information because it’s clear that this has to be done. It’s not possible to produce a thesis that coherently expresses complex thoughts without that underlying structure that wrangles the jostling ideas into shape; furthermore, universities themselves are complex beasts that require special knowledge and experience to navigate effectively. Research students have to learn to manage both these kinds of information to succeed.

It’s much easier to neglect emotional management than information management, because it doesn’t seem like the main issue. Students fall into this thinking trap too, which is why even when mental health and fitness programs are provided, students often fail to make use of them. In addition, students who make it to graduate school are usually fairly high achievers who have often internalized social assumptions that associate failure and succumbing to emotional ‘distractions’. Guilty as charged. Furthermore, there are times – like the last few weeks of a thesis – when you do really just need to put a lid on it and ‘push on through’. But academics are people too, and emotions are a real part of academic life. It seems to me good that we talk about this. So I thought I would make a small start by posting this little exposé. If you feel/felt like this when you submitted, you’re not alone. And if you’re preparing a thesis for submission, lay in some tissues and the bacon and eggs, and book in a good friend to hold your hand, because relief doesn’t always feel terribly comforting to begin with. Perhaps that’s the measure of what you’ve actually achieved.

Cathectic (adj.): of or relating to cathexis (a concentration or accumulation of mental energy in a particular channel).[1]

I came upon this amazing word in Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper, ‘Beyond “Identity”‘, Theory and Society, 29.1 (2000), 1–47,[2] a dense but interesting and genuinely useful reflection on the imperfections of ‘identity’ as an analytical category and the possible replacements for it. I particularly liked the fact that this article, rather than simply complaining that lots of people use ‘identity’ in problematic and contradictory ways, actually proposed some useful solutions. Solutions that I, for one, am quite likely to adopt in future writing.

The word, cathectic, also rang some serious bells, because I am currently immersed, one might say in a cathectic manner, in the final revisions to my dissertation in time for submission next week. Wish me luck/leg breaks/etc. No time for proper reflective blogging… See you on the other side!


[1] “cathectic, adj.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 2 October 2013 <http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/view/Entry/28935?redirectedFrom=cathectic&gt;; “cathexis, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 2 October 2013 <http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/view/Entry/28959?redirectedFrom=cathexis&gt;.
[2] Available on JSTOR if you have access; I recommend checking it out!

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

You can also find my academic profile on Academia.edu

Twitter: @KB_Neal

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