BTSB proudly publishes the second installment in Juha Tupasela’s three-part series about writing your graduate thesis. It includes tips, tricks, and general observations made by a man who has gone into this certain type of hell and come back alive. You can read the first article here. Stayed tuned for the third and final installment coming soon (Honestly, I have it sitting in front of me).
Last October, I promised a Part II and even a Part III to my Tales from the Crypt post. Seeing as that was a year ago, it’s high time for me to deliver. Just to shoot down any suspicions that I’ve spent the time since last October collecting belly button lint, let me say that since the previous installment, I’ve completed my thesis, completed my master’s degree (which turned out not to be exactly the same thing), and started full-time employment (which at least partially explains the delay in part II being posted). If you’re working on your thesis right now or recently completed it, feel free to use the comments field to post your observations or vent your frustrations.
In the previous installment, I touched on the psychological phenomenon of thesis angst. Once the preparatory phase gave way to the actual writing process, a host of other psychological ticks and twitches bubbled to the surface. In hindsight, these can be loosely classified into a few psychological disorders.
1) Chronic life-skill deficiency
Because I was eager to finish my thesis, I took two months off work to finish writing it. I already had about half of a first draft in the form of my seminar paper, and was pretty confident that two months would be more than enough time to finish it off. Based on previous experience, I calculated that I would produce the first draft at a pace of 1,000–1,500 words per full day of writing, leaving plenty of time for my supervisor to give feedback and for me to make changes and finish off other school work that I had left hanging. This, as it turns out, was wishful thinking.
An output of 1,000–1,500 words a day is something I had previously been capable of, and I was so confident that I’d be able to maintain this pace (despite the warnings of friends) that I stuck a timetable on my wall showing where in the writing process I intended to be by when: draft of second chapter ready by the beginning of October, revised first chapter ready by mid-October, that sort of thing. This, of course, was just asking for trouble.
As further self-motivation I also tried to think about most of the other stuff in life (like going to a movie or a pub or the gym) as a reward for meeting my writing goals. What this meant was that, as I failed to meet my writing goals day after day, I increasingly spent my days beating my head on my desk trying to meet my goal of 1,000–1,500 words. The smartest thing I could have done when frustrated with my thesis would have been to turn off the computer and go lift weights or hit a punching bag or get drunk. Instead I just ran around and around in my own little vicious circle: because I hadn’t met my writing goals, I felt I couldn’t do anything else until I got back on track. This led to a condition where I had trouble enjoying myself at all. My thesis work was frustrating, and either I didn’t do fun things because I felt I hadn’t earned the right to, or I did do fun things and felt guilty doing them (which obviously made them less fun). My advice to those of you getting ready to write your thesis is to set a relatively unambitious daily writing goal, and when you get stuck, give yourself permission to do something else for a while. You and the people around you will be much happier, and assuming you do keep writing at some pace, you’ll end up finishing your thesis anyway.
2) Pathological fecal identification syndrome
Closely related to chronic life-skill deficiency, this syndrome manifests itself as the unshakable belief that all the time and effort you have put into your thesis has produced nothing better than a large, slightly runny pile of poop, steaming defiantly on your desk. I was often left with the feeling that the result would have been better had I just beat my head on my keyboard instead of on my desk. Needless to say, writing what seems to be complete crap in addition to not writing as much of it as you had intended can only make a grim mental outlook even worse. The only treatment I know for this disorder is to chant “I can fix it in the second draft” to oneself over and over and over, until the steady drone drowns out all doubts and anxieties.
3) Obsessive textual separation anxiety
This is a fear of losing the text one has written to computer failure, natural disasters, or acts of God. The fear leads to excessive saving, that is, after every few words, and to the making of more backup copies than one could ever reasonably need. Case in point: when I was done banging my head on my desk and/or keyboard for the day, I would first save my work on a backup USB stick, then I would send it to a total of three separate e-mail accounts, my university account, my internet service provider account, and my work account. My logic behind this was that if all of these backup copies were destroyed, Western society would be collapsing all around me, and completing my thesis would probably be the least of my troubles.
The Eureka Moment
No, this is not the title to a bad sci-fi novel. It’s proof that the subconscious exists and can even help you out from time to time. After the frustration of churning out my thesis text and the struggling to try and make it not suck, I reached a point where I had enough text, but wasn’t sure how it all fit together. My eureka moment happened when, in desperation, I started writing an email to my supervisor explaining where I was having trouble. As I was writing the email, the pieces of the thesis started to fall into place: of course that chapter is really about X and the next chapter logically focuses of Y, and that annoying theme I couldn’t seem to fit anywhere actually connects the two. Wow. What had started out as a cry for help ended up as the solution for banging my thesis paper into something recognizable as a thesis and completing my first full draft. For the first time in a long time, I could see myself actually finishing the thing. It was a beautiful moment. Though there was still plenty of writing and editing to do, after this moment I had a clear picture in my head of what I was working towards. Instead of being lost in the crypt, I could see daylight and was making my way towards it with a vengeance.