I hadn’t realised until I sat down to write a posting today, just how much writing a blog is like writing a thesis. The beginning of either is not unlike the early stages of a love affair; a stage that marital therapists sometimes refer to as “limerance”. Just as in a relationship, you begin your dissertation (or blog) with an enormous sense of enthusiasm and desire, and want to spend as much time as possible with it. Getting on with your research, planning it, and thinking about when you’ll next be able to spend time with it, are constant preoccupations. You have thoughts about how important a PhD is to you, what sorts of goals and dreams and plans the PhD will help you achieve, and you allow it to overflow into other areas of your life, maybe even pushing other important commitments into the background. In the same way, I discovered that planning the layout of the blog, the content, designing the style sheets, and trying to work on an appropriate writing style occupied a great deal of my own thinking. And despite the amount of time that it occupies (or occupied), the process seemed quite effortless at first since the intensity of one’s enthusiasm makes all the associated demands seem minor.
Later on, just as with a relationship, a thesis (or blog) enters a so-called “mature phase”, although, in the case of this particular blog is, I think it still a long way off! But in between the early phase of limerance and the mature stage, there is a long intermediate period which lacks some of the early shine of the beginning. The change away from a phase of limerance is obvious. Working on your thesis becomes harder. The demands of daily life, like doing the grocery shopping, going out, seeing friends, and earning money, all compete to take your attention away from work on your thesis. Consequently, the research and writing process become ever harder.
You might also begin to have doubts that never crossed your mind in the early stages. When you started, it was “obvious” that a dissertation, PhD, blog, or whatever, was the right thing to do. You might not even have thought much about why it was so important. In the middle period, you begin seriously to doubt your sanity about having taken on the project, and might deliberately avoid thinking about it, in just the same way that you initially thought so much.
So, what to do?
Some of the feelings that I have described might be mitigated by early planning. Before you even enrol, let alone decide on a specific research topic, talk to others whom you know about their experience of the research and dissertation process. Ask them how they dealt with changing feelings over the course of their enrolment. Think about the kind of research you want to do, and particularly about the topic of your research. What made you choose that particular topic? Were you hoping to change the world, just get a degree, or something in between? If you are wanting to change the world, then you should ask yourself what the effect on your motivation will be if you discover during the course of enrolment that your research is not as earth-shattering, or mould-breaking as you had hoped. What do you imagine the course of your research to be? Will you be completing as little as possible in order to satisfy the requirements of the degree, or are you hoping for a broader education. By way of example, I asked my own thesis supervisor, about two and a half years into my enrolment, what he thought about when I might finish. His reply was “Well, you could clearly write up your thesis and hand it in now,” but then he added, “but you don’t know enough about vision yet.” Whether he would agree with my assessment or not, it appeared (and still appears) to me that his view about PhD research was that it was a period of apprenticeship as much as it was about writing and completing a thesis. He seemed to me to be saying that whilst it would be possible to complete and submit my thesis if I wanted to, in his view there was a great deal more that I could learn during the period of my enrolment if I were willing to learn.
If you are reading this blog two years into your dissertation research, you might think that you have missed the boat as far as the early planning stage is concerned … but I don’t think that’s entirely true. Even if you did not consider the questions that I have posed when you began your thesis, you can still ask and answer them now.
Be willing to adjust your expectations as your research proceeds. Most research projects at PhD level, as opposed to Honours or Masters, do not go according to plan. Most of the reason for this is that a plan for a PhD is almost an oxymoron. If you knew how your research was going to go, it would imply that you already knew the outcome of the initial stages of the research, in which case they would be unnecessary. What usually happens is that after your initial framing of a topic, and early explorations or experiments in the area, new and unforseen experiments or avenues of exploration present themselves, and your research tacks in a direction that is different from the one you initially anticipated. So you need to be open to new ideas, and be prepared to be flexible.
And on that note, I shall end. If you have read this far in one sitting, thank you. But I am about to take my own, next piece of advice. Namely, be prepared to take breaks. I shall write more next time.
Contributors: Mark R. Diamond