Yes, it has finally come to this. After a month and a half of solid typing and retyping, my pallid complexion and hunched shoulders leave little room for speculation, I’m locked in the crypt with my master’s thesis, and the only way out is through.
Despite the title, the last thing anyone needs is a horror story. The thesis is a big enough bogey man for most students already. The point of these posts is to share some of my experiences of writing my thesis, and (hopefully) coming out the other end, sanity intact, diploma in hand. Maybe these posts will give people whose thesis is ahead of them some idea of what they’re in for and help them avoid some of my mistakes. Maybe people in the midst of the process themselves will be able to draw some consolation from the fact that they’re not alone. Maybe this just seems like a more productive form of procrastination than spending my time on Facebook. You be the judge.
It all started about two years ago. Back then, my master’s thesis seemed distant and almost mythical, something mentioned in hushed tones if at all, something not entirely of this world. Now that I’m approaching the end of the process, my picture of it is somewhat more down-to-earth. I now know that the actual work involved is a relatively minor challenge compared to the psychological dimension of the project. All of the time I spent trying to convince myself that the thesis isn’t really all that (one of my favorite mantras having been “it’s really only two proseminar papers stuck together”) only served to convince my subconscious that the thesis really must be all that after all.
As I see it now, the whole thing boils down to three major psychological hurdles: (1) coming to terms with the fact that, no, pretending the thesis doesn’t exist won’t make it go away, and I might as well pick a topic; (2) accepting the grim truth that I’m going to have to do a lot of reading, so much, in fact, that I’m going to have to take proper notes to keep track of everything; and (3) sitting down in front of that horrid blinking cursor to actually write the damn thing. This installment of Tales from the Crypt (or TFTC, since this publication is into acronyms) focuses on the first two.
The first hurdle was the easiest. When I realized I would be taking a seminar the next year, I started to formulate a plan of attack. I had no intention of trying to revolutionize anything with my thesis, but I didn’t want to do something completely off-the-shelf either. Maybe foolishly, I felt that my thesis should on some level reflect who I am. After all, it would supposedly be the crowning achievement of the six-plus years of intellectual growth and/or alcoholism of my university experience.
The criteria for my topic were that I wanted to combine my studies in postcolonial literature with my hobby of reading science fiction. I didn’t, however, want to write on any of my favorite books, because I was afraid that the dissection I would have to subject them to for my thesis would end up killing the pleasure of just reading them. With some much appreciated help from my advisor-to-be, I settled on an author I hadn’t heard of, whose work lent itself well to my project, thus both expanding my horizons and sparing myself from reducing my favorite books into a figurative pile of dismembered limbs and goo.
There are many books available on the process of writing a thesis. Many of them are filled with metaphors and pictures meant to please the eye and break the thesis-writing process down into edible chunks for hapless students (one of the most memorable of these describes reasoning as the shish kebab that pierces through all the chunks of meat that make up the thesis). The one that best describes my experience, though, is the amoeba. When I got started, I had a lot of trouble getting my thoughts straight. My ideas were all over the place, and I had no idea how they fit together. My project was like a huge amoeba: interesting to look at from a distance, but ultimately just a shapeless blob.
The background reading I was doing didn’t really help the situation, as everything I was reading just seemed to open up new possibilities—adding pseudopodia to my amoeba, as it were, rather than cutting it down to size. Of course, another problem was that I didn’t always dig into the background material I gathered from the libraries, Nelli, or Amazon (.co.uk, to save on shipping) when I got my hands on it. Too often, when I came across a useful article, book, or other source, I placed it on my shelf, happy to see my pile of reference material growing. Of course, the really useful stuff was the material I got around to reading last.
Once I started really doing the reading, I realized the importance of something that I’ve never actually been taught to do properly: note taking. Maybe I’m just the only idiot in town who doesn’t instinctively know how to take good notes, but when I was getting started I was pretty hopeless at it, and ended up redoing a bunch of my early notes, listening to my inner voice call me nasty names for not doing things right the first time.
By far the worst part of the early stages of the project (and the late stages, for that matter) was that my thesis was always on my mind on some level. No matter what I was doing—work, other courses, whatever—the thesis was always there, haunting me in its incompletion. I always felt I should have been using more time for my thesis. Nothing seemed to get done as quickly as I wanted it to get done, and what I had left to do always seemed so much bigger than what I had actually done. Naturally, the more I worried about it, the more I procrastinated, leading to a neat little vicious circle.
I don’t want to leave you with the idea that doing research was all bad, though. Background reading, while sometimes leading to frustration and pulled-out hair, has taught me a great deal of interesting stuff that I would have never thought to read up on otherwise. I’ve read about the history of utopian writing in science fiction, the history of slavery in the Caribbean, the characteristics of Haitian Vodou, and the sexual dimensions of the zombie myth. Not everything I’ve read is going in the final product, but it’s definitely opened up a new part of the world to me.
In Part II, I’ll talk about the writing process itself. Until then, why don’t you share some of your experiences, fears, or observations of picking a thesis topic and doing research in the comments section? If group therapy works for severe psychological disorders, it might just work for thesis-angst as well.