April 24th 2012
As much as I whinged last term that postgrads have it so tough without structure and deadlines, there is something of a timeline to a thesis. I've noticed though that postgrads are often not doing the right work at the right time.
Step one is writing a proposal. Along with deciding on a thesis topic and working out how you're going to gather data on that topic, you're also sweet-talking academics into supervising you, applying for scholarships and research funding, and generally panicking about what you've gotten yourself into. For a PhD you have six months to get your research proposal into the PG Office, which is far more time than you need. Too many people throw themselves into their proposal like it's an actual thesis, when they should actually just get it off their desk and get onto doing the actual work.
The next step is to start researching, whether it be running experiments or reading obscure texts. But postgrads are actually usually teaching undergraduates, still applying for research funding, daydreaming about that fantastic conference you're going to attend in Brazil, applying for funding to attend said conference, and so on. By all means this stuff is important too, but without data collected you haven't got a thesis – end of story. Usually this means catching up on work during the holidays while undergrads are away, and making the most of the short queues for coffee.
Then it's time to analyse, but what postgrads are actually doing is heading off to the conferences they daydreamed about. The sweet spot is to make them do double-time for you. You're most likely pulling data together in order to present at the conference, and should use that as a jumping point for getting more analysis done. Best keep all your conference presentations handy too – around now you could be publishing papers.
Then finally you need to write up your thesis. What you're actually doing? Well, you can write columns for Canta (errr...), but actually I reckon by this stage people are pretty good at knuckling down and focusing. The end is nigh and all that. I've heard it said that a thesis doesn't have to be perfect, and not to agonise over every detail. "Write it, finish it, and move on with your life", they say, but if anyone works out how to do this, please teach me!
"Confessions Of An Almost Dropout"
It was about 6,000 earthquakes in, right after June 13th 2011 when we had been yet again unceremoniously kicked off campus and I was left wandering without any work to do. I was nursing a pint with a bunch of postgrads when I said the one thing I'd been holding back: "I might just drop out".
It’s not something you talk about; once a postgrad, you’re meant to be a postgrad to the end. There’s a great cost in dropping out midway through a thesis. Unlike undergrad, you don’t have a bunch of credits under your belt that go with you when you leave. You can’t easily pick up and head to another uni. You’ve spent years and money on studies that only bear fruit in completion.
It seems perfectly normal for someone to start an undergraduate degree and realise a year or two in that they’re in the wrong major. It’s your first experience getting deep into that subject, so there’s a chance you’ll realise “Er, this isn’t for me.” But getting a few years into a PhD and wanting to bail?
It’s a constant surprise how much vehemence my life decisions can elicit from people, so I found myself having awkward pub conversations with people telling me off just for considering my options. But it was a process I needed to go through. To toy with the idea of throwing it all away, understand the repercussions, and come back round to it on my own accord. At this point, I was coming up on four years in my PhD, that’s not something you throw away lightly; but being ready to do just that was incredibly liberating. Here’s what I learnt:
Your thesis is not you (undergrads, feel free to substitute “thesis” with “degree”). If it’s not right, if it’s not working, that says nothing about you. You know that you’ve worked hard and done your best. Knowing your options and knowing what’s right for you is not giving up, that’s being smart and brave. People will tell you otherwise, but it’s your life and if they are so sure you’re doing the wrong thing, perhaps they are just projecting their own issues.
For me, there was something about letting the possibility of quitting sit and percolate that let me see things clearer. I had felt such pressure to finish, and feared being a failure if I didn’t, that it was hard to see the forest for the trees. It was hard to see that I actually did want to graduate.
Perhaps being prepared to let it all go is the only way to find out what you actually want, rather than being trapped through lack of options. Knowing your options is liberating, making a choice is powerful. Then you just gotta stick with it.
Marshmallows and Future You
Back in the swinging 60's, when it was kosher to experiment on children, a group at Stanford studied marshmallow self-discipline.
Kids were given a marshmallow and told if they didn't eat it immediately the researcher would give them a second marshmallow. The researcher then walked out of the room, leaving the kid with their single marshmallow and a video camera running. Cue hilarity.
Hit up Google if you want to see video of a recent reincarnation, it's damned cute. Some of the younger kids stuff the marshmallow in their mouth before the adult has even left the room. Others nibble at it, hoping they won't get caught. A few manage to hold themselves back until the grown-up returns and they get the second marshmallow.
Wondering why I care about it? Some might say the ability to suppress current desires for the benefit of long-term interests is a marker of lifetime success. So a kid who can resist the first marshmallow might be better at saving money, resisting procrastination and other such skills that require you to think of your "future self".
I hate washing dishes. I will do anything to avoid washing them. But what am I doing when I procrastinate? I don't have a maid or a sucker for a boyfriend, so no one else is going to wash the dishes except me. Basically I'm saying to my future self "you deal with it, I can't be assed". Logic fail.
Procrastination is kind of screwing over the future version of you. And it's a massive fail because the future you is still you, and tomorrow I'm still not going to want to wash dishes. Plus the job will be that much harder once all the two minute noodles have dried and caked to the bowl (yes Mum, I am looking after myself).
I've had occasions in my thesis where I've found myself cursing "past self". This job would've been easier if I had kept better notes at the time, I could have had more papers and chapters finished if I'd analysed data when it was collected (not two years later).
If you're a procrastinator in undergrad, you can still slip through. Ultimately, you can only put stuff off so long before an assignment is due tomorrow or exams start next week. With a thesis you can leave stuff for months (or years) before getting round to doing it. So my humble advice for this week is to be kind to your future self; take too many notes, get started on jobs early, and make (and meet) deadlines.
But don't think I'm being high and mighty, as I write this I have nine windows open on my laptop and I'm catching up on a TV show. Oh, and I still haven't washed the dishes. Sorry future self.
I've got a secret
Shhh, don't tell anyone I'm here. I've got a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone: I'm not supposed to be here. Yep, it's true. Somehow I managed to get through two degrees, snatch up a scholarship and research funding, convince a top academic to work with me, and be accepted into a Ph.D. programme all despite being pretty damn useless. But don't tell on me, I don't want to get kicked out when they realise I'm an imposter.
Sound familiar? Imposter syndrome is common amongst graduate students, the feeling that you're not actually up to scratch, everyone else is smarter and more successful than you, and it's just a matter of time until people work out you're not such hot shit.
Why we have such fragile self-esteem is worth a thesis in itself, but I think one issue relates back to last week's column on deadlines. It's hard to judge your own progress when there are so few goalposts, and it's easy to look at someone else and think they're doing better than you are. Oh for the days when you were graded throughout the semester and knew where you stood!
But here's the real secret: every postgrad has spent time wondering if they're good enough. Everyone will show or hide it differently, but it's always rough. Want to get over your imposter syndrome? First, stop comparing yourself to everyone else; your thesis is yours and yours alone. It will take a different path to your office mate's thesis, or that prat at the pub who thinks everyone should have three papers published in their first year (you know who you are). You'll have things you find especially hard, but ask around and you may find that something you breeze through induces panic attacks in someone else. Skill trading is totally okay so go ahead and ask for help from other postgrads; you need the help and they definitely need the ego boost.
Second, be accurate in your self- assessment. It's not "luck" when you get funding, publish articles or get accepted into conferences. It's luck when you drive to work in the morning and catch all green (or all red) traffic lights. But not when you've put the work in, proven your skills and seen the results. Even though they're more subtle than end of semester grades, the proof of your progress and success are still there. Don't brush over them; those rare goalposts are worth recognising and feeling proud of.
And finally, find strength in numbers. Seek out peers that you can talk to about your respective triumphs, goals and stumbles but stay away from that prat at the pub; no one needs help feeling bad about themselves, we're all already experts!
It's an odd sensation transitioning from undergrad to thesis work. Being an undergrad is built around structure: lectures, tutorials, labs, essay deadlines, test and exams. Come semester end you even get a damn holiday! Thesis work on the other hand could almost be defined by the lack of deadlines and structure, and students who struggle with time management and self-imposed deadlines can find it hard to make progress and get shit done.
A thesis involves a wide range of various tasks, some of which are easier to prioritise because they have clearer deadlines – grant and scholarship applications, conferences abstracts and progress reports all have absolute deadlines. Field work or other data collection may have timeframes for completion – for example before the weather turns autumnal or when lab rats are big enough for brain extraction (you kooky psychologists). Entering data, analysis, catching up on reading and writing chapters can all fall by the wayside while you focus on those tasks with clearer timeframes.
I've wound up at the end of my thesis with loads of progress reports, grant applications, conference presentations and data collection under my belt. But I also have only partially analysed data, just one published article and several unwritten chapters. What do I wish I'd done differently? I reckon if I'd put a bigger focus on publication I'd be in a happier position. There are a plethora of reasons to publish articles during your thesis, which I'll be visiting later, but for me it would have forced me to finish some of those jobs that are still sitting half cocked. With the beauty of hindsight, it's hard to justify why data I collected over two years ago is still only half analysed and half written.
What's more, the deadline headache comes on top of an unstructured work life. No lectures to be at, no boss checking you're at your desk, Facebook... Some people are really good at maintaining routine; up at 7, at work by 8, home by 6. Others of us struggle without boundaries and accountability. Where's the harm in sleeping for an extra hour or watching one more episode of Big Bang Theory? Oh right, I think the harm is when you're two years overdue on your Ph.D.!
Time management, goals, self-imposed deadlines and task lists should all help. As is treating the thesis like a job that you're expected to be at during "work" hours. But what do I think would really fix it? Having an editor for your thesis. There's nothing as motivating as the threat of knee-capping if you miss a deadline (right, Hannah?).
Ed note: This article was turned in way past its deadline.