Writing a thesis

I have yet to write about the process of finishing my thesis. But as my PhD journey came to a close a couple of days ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole process and I figure the beginning is probably the best place to start. In many ways, this post is for me to remember what it was like, so sorry about the length—don’t feel obligated to read if you’re not interested. Much like my thesis, there are no pictures :(.

There’s a method to the madness of the British PhD. Four years ago I asked a friend/professor of mine for advice. I asked him if he thought I should go to Cambridge. He replied, “If you’re ready to be thrown into the deep end and then try to learn how to swim, then yes.” And that’s what it was. When I arrived I was given one task. There were no requirements in the way of reading, taking courses, or attending lectures. There was only one thing: write a thesis that demonstrates the highest possible level of research and makes an original contribution to knowledge in the field. The unspoken obligation of the University is to provide every possible resource for me to complete this task. Nothing is required, but every department, library, lecture or class was at my disposal, and, more importantly, I was given almost uninhibited access to one of the more brilliant scholars in my field as a guide.

There is another resource which the University provides, however, and that is time. In their view, independent research is best undertaken when there is complete freedom to wander around and along the paths of scholarship until you discover your thesis. There’s something strange about turning a student loose on a trail of independent thinking, questioning, and research. I had a guide in the form of my supervisor, to be sure, but very rarely will a supervisor tell you NOT to investigate something—as this might hinder new or creative thinking.

The result of this process, for me at least, was that the first year of the PhD was a year of idealism. It’s a year that’s full of possibilities: I could study anything! I had all the time in the world, and the end seemed so far off. Surely with this much time I could write the greatest thesis ever! I read with abandon, dropping books to chase footnotes and rabbit trails to answer whatever questions popped into my head. I wasn’t ready to write a thesis yet, but I could just wait, give it time. It would come to me. I found my topic, narrowed the purview of my research, and wrote a few things in that first year.

Several of my friends refer to the second year of a PhD as the year of “depression and non-work.” What this refers to is a cycle that often takes hold in the second year. You’re not working, so you’re depressed about how little work you’re getting done, so you work less, so you’re depressed that you’re working less… and so on. In retrospect, I think the reason this is so common is because by the time you get to the second year—you really feel like you should have gotten more done by now! I spent my first year exploring and reading… and when I looked back at the year, it seemed like I hadn’t done anything! What you have to understand is that most students entering PhD programs have been fairly successful in higher education and will have been able to look back every semester at course work they’ve achieved in multiple areas: papers they’ve written and general knowledge they’ve gained. But the first year of my PhD didn’t yield these kinds of tangible results. The idealism had begun to fade. I’d done research and reading, but had little to show for it. Had I wasted away a year—an entire year(!)—doing nothing? I thought I had, but I hadn’t. The process was working, unbeknownst to me… and I was being shaped through reading, conversation, and exposure to people smarter than me, into a scholar who would eventually be ready to write a thesis, but not yet.

In the first two years I had written very little—maybe nothing now that I think about it—that would actually become what was written in my thesis. This simple fact is what launches the cycle of depression and non-work. But the ideas were there, marinating, and I was writing things, terrible things with terrible arguments… but that was all part of the process. Now enter the third year. In the third year, reality sets in and the idealism that once characterized the beginning has faded. No longer did I intend to write a “great” thesis… that possibility was gone. With the first two years wasted (so I thought), now it was just time to write “any” thesis… any thesis at all! Thus, the third year is the year of pragmatism.

That’s right, pure pragmatism began to take over and I began to look at every book on the shelf with the same suspicion… I began to ask the same question of everything I read: “Will this help me write my thesis?” If the answer was no, then I had to let it go. During the end of the second year and the beginning of the third year is when Asher arrived, and, in the end, this meant that I worked very little on my thesis for about six months… so by the time January of my third year rolled around, I was feeling the crunch big time. I thought maybe if I can just write for the next ten months straight, then I can hand in the thesis to my supervisor in November or December. So that’s what I tried to do, and in large part succeeded. What I didn’t know, however, is that I still wasn’t actually writing my thesis.

Now for the fourth year. You can tell very easily which students are in the fourth year. They have a hollow look in their eyes and every time you ask them about their thesis they begin to sweat. The fourth year is the year of continual panic. That’s right, from idealism, to non-work and depression, to pragmatism, and then to continual panic. I would have physical responses whenever someone would ask about my work… physical anxiety, red face, sweating, cold palms. I would come to places in my writing where everything seemed to be falling apart and would just feel a rush of stress and anxiety and worry—I’d look around to see if anyone else in the library noticed that I had spent four years looking at something and still did not know what I was doing with it!

So at the beginning of the fourth year I handed in about 55,000 words to my supervisor. It was a cold January morning when I went to his office to hear what he thought of my “thesis.” I knew it wasn’t going to be good… I knew what I had written wasn’t good. On Chapter 3 he wrote, “Not up to your usual standard.” This is British speak for “this is the worst thing I’ve ever read.” On the next chapter he wrote, “Feels a bit like you’re wandering, can’t tell what your argument is.” Ha! No kidding, neither could I! Oh the depths of despair… those were dark days. Had I really completely failed to produce anything good in 3 1/2 years?

I would tell this story to people and they’d ask about my supervisor, “What did he tell you to do?” Now that I think about it, I should have noticed in our meeting that my supervisor didn’t seem to be the least bit concerned. He acted like this was all very routine and normal… part of the process. I, of course, was blind to this because I was convinced I’d botched the whole thing. He told me to go away and write my thesis. He said to write a conclusion and figure out what I was arguing. Crazy! I had just handed him 55,000 words that I thought were my thesis and now he’s telling me to go write my actual thesis.

As I said before, those were dark days. I went away and tried to figure it out. As I did this, the darkness only got worse before it got better. The depression was pretty bad. I couldn’t enjoy things I’d once loved. I couldn’t get excited about things. I couldn’t really laugh without reserve. That was February. Then in March Candice and I decided that it would probably be good if I just had some time to devote myself completely and totally to writing my thesis. How else could I get it done by the summer, when we had to move back to the States?! We hate being apart, and it was a real sacrifice on Candice’s part to take Asher and live out of a suitcase for a month. That’s right, a month! By far the longest we’d ever been apart, and I don’t think we could have faced it if we had known up front that we were in for that long, but we had bought a one way ticket and were just taking it a day at a time until it was time for her to come back.

I worked non-stop for that month. 8am to 11pm, sometimes later. My goal each day was to work 14 hours, leaving 2 hours for meals and 8 hours for sleep. Routine was essential. Same thing every day. No extras. I had a key to the library, so I opened it and worked on Sundays with the library completely empty. It was a pretty dark time, but there was one thing that had disappeared—stress. As long as I was working, I wasn’t as stressed. There was still anxiety, but focus and determination began to overtake that too. I would break into a cold, nervous sweat at my desk at times, realizing that something I had written was rubbish and that my argument wouldn’t work. There was no time to dwell, however. I had to stay focused. Keep writing. I had a fan at my desk to dry my hands off from the cold sweat. I’d put my hands up to the fan, and then return to typing. There’s nothing else. Only the thesis. All of life had been reduced to a single task. Purity of heart was a singleness of mind. It was the only way.

In retrospect, I’m aware of what a blessing and privilege it is to be able to devote oneself wholly to the pursuit of study and learning. It is a luxury that is afforded to only a few, and this luxury did not come cheap for those around me who sacrificed and gave generously for it. The acknowledgements page of a thesis is meant to express in some small way the debt of gratitude owed to those people, and it was one of the most enjoyable things to write in the thesis.

As for the the actual finishing of the thesis, I worked solid for a month until Candice got home, then I started a routine of getting up around 5:30am and going into the library early so that I could try to get a 6-7 hour day in before lunch. Then I would try for a 4 hour afternoon in order to get 10 hours per day. It was my job. Sit in the library for 10 hours and make the best argument I could for my thesis. It was mentally exhausting, but not out of the ordinary for someone trying to finish a thesis. The crazy thing about this whole journey is that my story is not that unique… in fact, it’s pretty standard. That’s why my supervisor didn’t bat an eyelash when I handed him my “thesis” and it was crap. He knew it was just part of the process, and that it was time for me to go write my actual thesis. That’s what people do. It’s how it works. He watches it happen year after year, and, somehow, people finish.

As did I eventually. By the time June rolled around I realized that I had written nearly my entire thesis in March, April, and May. Three months! Something like 60,000 words of my 80,000 word total was written during that time… it’s unbelievable to me even now. But that’s part of what I’m saying… all along I was being shaped, growing, learning. I had to write all the bad stuff before I got to the good stuff. And, man, what a relief… the stuff that I was finally producing at the end of it all… it was good stuff. I was happy with it for the first time. I was writing my thesis, like, the real one!

And when I finally sent it all back to my supervisor and we met to go through it, it was a joy. He was pleased with it, I was pleased with it. It was done. I made some edits, got it under the word limit of 80,000 words, went to buy nice paper at Staples and then hit print. Three copies—one for myself, and two for my examiners. That’s right, examiners. I’d finished the thesis, but it wasn’t over yet.

The time after I had finished my thesis and before we moved back to the States was a blessed time. It was time that I got to be in Cambridge and really enjoy every moment… soaking it up without a thesis hanging over me. Without feeling like I needed to be in the library all the time. There were other things that I had to get done, but I did them joyfully because I was just happy to be working on something other than my thesis. I’ll skip over some of the other things that have gone on in between then and now, and perhaps fill in the details of our move and other things later.

In the next post, I’ll write about the viva (thesis defense).


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