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I came across a strangely delightful quote from Scott Fitzgerald today:

To write it, it took three months; to conceive it three minutes; to collect the data in it all my life.
Poor, tragic Scott. I wonder if writing novels is as mentally exhausting as writing a thesis?
There are interesting parallels between the literary process and thesis-writing. The most obvious (to me) is that both cause irreversible madness. But more than that, when you think about how long it takes to write, and the lengths you have to go to just to get to a stage where you can write, you see the process is the same.
 
Sure, I will write the (almost) final draft of my thesis in three months, but to get to the stage where I can do that, I spent six months trying to work out what a PhD is all about, three months collecting and analysing data for my first study, nine months writing up my first study and running my second study, and another six months running my third study and coming back to trying to work out what a PhD is all about. I spent the best part of 2 years swimming in a mental sea of data – words, numbers, statistics, software packages, charts, tables and diagrams. I just swam around, trying to interpret it, and trying to make my interpretations actually make sense, and maybe even an original contribution to knowledge. Then there’s the fact that I conceived of the original idea for this whole project in the space of about 20 minutes.
 
If only I’d known what I was getting myself into.
 
No matter what sort of writers we are – artistic, academic, or a bizarre blend of both – there is a lot that goes into our work besides just writing the words. There’s a lot of thinking and a lot of data collection, and a lot of interpretation and reinterpretation and a lot of madness.
 
Struggling thesis writers, novelists, madmen and women – unite! We shall conquer these great seas of chaos and emerge brighter, stronger, more learned, at the helm of this mighty ship.
 

I’ve just spent the morning reading a whole pile of writing. Writing in papers, writing in journals, writing in my drafts and writing in other people’s drafts. There’s so much writing, I don’t know what to do with myself.

I can’t believe I have to produce 80,000 words of writing in my thesis. And that they actually have to make sense. And, preferably, a valuable contribution to scientific knowledge.

In my own limited experience of writing in academia – spanning not more than 5 or 6 years (yes, that’s a relatively short time in the academic bubble…I don’t know whether that makes me feel old or young) – I have always spent shocking amounts of time struggling uncomfortably through less than perfect drafts of papers only to find that I could not tolerate the imperfection any more, leading me to review my writing, figure out what was so imperfect about it, and then scrap the whole thing to start from scratch. It has, most usually, been this completely rewritten draft that I save for editing and submitting rather than any of the pages upon pages of imperfect material I wrote in the first place.

The trouble with this is that when I set out to write something perfectly the first time, it is impossible. The imperfections I suffer from most are waffling on about things that don’t matter, not coming to the point, and being unable to articulate my point in a way that conveys my intended meaning satisfactorily. I also tend to write long-winded sentences to convey what are essentially simple points, such that when I reread them I cannot even grasp my own meaning. This frustrates me enough to toss it all away and start afresh. At this point I realise it has happened again – I have written a whole imperfect draft only to trash it and write a new, more perfect one. Sure, the more perfect one is acceptable and can be moulded into something vaguely worth submitting, but it takes a whole lot of time and effort to get there, even though the time and effort spent on the end product itself is often only a fraction of the total time and effort I spend trying to get to that point.

So, what is my point?

I suppose my point is that I’ve come to a point where there is not much left to do in my PhD other than write my thesis. And that I am utterly terrified of doing this because the sheer magnitude of the task seems to make it impossible to accomplish, especially to the level of perfection I stubbornly insist on. I am petrified that I will fail to be discursive rather than descriptive, and that I will forget to include literature that is essential – or, even worse, that I will fail to even know of the existence of some important citation or other. It makes me shudder to think that 6 whole chapters of writing – paragraph upon paragraph upon paragraph – are waiting for me to draft, read, denounce, redraft, edit, tweak, trash and draft again. I’m scared that I will not be able to finish on time, that May will come and I still won’t have anything to show my supervisors – not even a working draft. I will be disowned by my supervisors and evicted from my office, and left cold and penniless on the streets, never to see the holy light of academia ever again, and will die a recluse under some university cafeteria table, muttering statistical formulae and critical theory gibberish to myself.

If you’re newly starting a PhD, be warned: Yes, the process is rewarding (occasionally, eventually), but there are also many times – long periods, in fact – when the road ahead of you looks never-ending, and it can be difficult to keep going because you will often be unsure how to do so.

It’s fine…I’m going to get out of this ditch – I just don’t know how long it’s going to take.

Data collection for the winter has started.

I keep telling myself this is my last study.

That doesn’t seem to help.

I was reading a critique paper from my field last night and it just dawned on me what a vast area of intellectual space our knowledge already covers, even in a relatively new topic like mine. Research and theory in my area has virtually exploded in the last 15 years, and the more you read about it, the more sure you are that you couldn’t possibly come up with something new, and useful, to add to it.

So it’s daunting to think about my PhD, and everyone’s PhDs, being “an original contribution to knowledge.”

I’m collecting data for my last study and I’m supposed to make an original contribution to knowledge with it. It seems simple on the face of it, but when you sit on it for a while you realise each chapter of your thesis is essentially a paper in itself, and each paper should be of publishable quality. And by the time you work those brain cells to read all the literature to critique it to come up with the idea to design the project to do the research to write it up to edit it to realise it’s completely wrong to go back and start from scratch to do it all over again to write it up again to edit and delete and rewrite it to get it all bound and sent off to your examiners on time- someone else has already done it all! Ping! Sorry! Your contribution is no longer original!

There have already been several close shaves which I have survived, in which I have read some seminal paper or other that I had not come across previously, and have been shocked to find the sheer similarity between some of the authors’ arguments and the arguments I have been trying to substantiate through my own writing. For a moment, I enter a hysterical state of terror that everything in my thesis has already been done, and hence its contribution will be completely unoriginal, and even worse than that, I have no knowledge that all this original work already exists, and I will go into my viva thinking my thesis is great only to be interrogated by my examiners and found to be utterly ignorant about anything to do with my subject matter, whereupon they will eat me alive like savage rabid thesis-gobbling monsters.

Then I calm down.

The work you produce in your thesis is unlikely to have been done before, at least in the precise way you have done it. If you hunt around and dig deep, you will, in all likelihood, find something that is original, and that’s your original contribution to knowledge. Reiterate that thing through the whole thesis, highlight it here and there, blow a trumpet about it and put it in the closing remarks. That’s what your examiners are interested to see.

Somehow – and I’m not quite sure how, yet – I’ll find a way of articulating my thesis. I’ll find a way of explaining just what I mean to say, and of showing the world my examiners that it is new and useful and exciting.

 

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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!