Friday, May 5, 2017

Staying in Love with Your Thesis or Dissertation


Exams passed, proposal approved, and you happily move forward with your writing project.  The growing relationship between you and your significant document draws on several forces, not least passion and devotion.  For some writers, these forces never waver and may even increase over time.  Yet other writers can face weary stretches due to a fading of that initial spark.  How does it happen?  How can writers stay enthralled with their thesis or dissertation?  This post mainly goes out to those of you who ponder such questions.  But it also offers helpful bits even to those convinced from the outset that they will blissfully go the distance—and those thrilled to be nearing their project’s final stages.    

Prime Factors Behind Burnout

Waning enthusiasm over the course of such a long undertaking can result from many things.  You deal with certain matters beyond your control, such as outside commitments to work or family, schedules of your committee, or availability of resources for research, experiments, or data analysis.  But most important are your own contributing thoughts and emotions, internal matters that can press acutely but that you can likely address more readily.  Such as:

Doubts about your progress.  Uncertainties about the development of your lengthy document can crop up during writing slumps and delays.  You may also harbor doubts while waiting for feedback on chapters from your readers—or, after receiving feedback, while acting on requests for changes or revisions, major and minor. 

Concerns that what you’re doing is trivial.  Such concerns partner with the so-called imposter syndrome.  They may cause you to reconsider the theory or methodology you’re applying to your endeavor.  You may ponder tweaking your approach, revisiting your proposal, or even stripping away at the foundations of the entire affair.

Temptations to pull the plug.  These can accompany outbursts like “I’m sick and tired of this whole thing.”  Probably not the exact words of any contemporary American grad student, and most likely not always true about all parts of the undertaking.  For example, in the case of my dissertation, the literary texts I’m writing about are, to me, endlessly fascinating and enjoyable.  But let’s face it: even re-examining stuff you like can eventually become draining.  Outside the context of language and literary research, important supporting tasks like tabulating results, running statistical tests, or transcribing interviews can each get tedious.  Any project requiring long stretches of deep thought, creativity, intense focus, and adherence to standards and guidelines inevitably leads to exhaustion.

Some Solutions

OK, so what to do about all this?  Among the many possible courses of action, the following three seem eminently achievable:

Revisit work that brought you to your project.  Look back at previous studies or research relevant to your current doings—or at things not directly related to them.  This experience may help remind you of what drew you to your project in the first place or point out approaches to it you may not have considered yet.

Talk about your project.  Although your ultimate aim is to arrange your ideas in writing, talking them over with others can help you maintain momentum and flow, rediscover what excites you about your project, and see what others find interesting in it.  The first person to turn to is your director, who knows your project well but is still one step removed from the composition process and, therefore, able to rekindle your sense of its strengths and significance.  Certainly you can also approach your committee readers for similar feedback.  Friends and family members can be good sounding boards, even if they’ve already heard a lot from you about your various compositional ups and downs.  Also consider the benefits of sharing your project’s aims with new acquaintances in your department, across campus, and at academic conferences.  I recently traveled to a large national conference, where I presented a portion of my dissertation research, attended several panels on topics relevant to it, and took in few that were distantly related.  The trip was a brief but helpful break from the writing.  It gave me welcome chances to meet and talk about what I’m doing with grad students and faculty from other institutions.  I came back refreshed and reenergized.    

Take regular breaks.  Needed diversions from your largely indoor endeavor should be regular and clearly distinguished from your main tasks at hand.  Getting outside, especially now that the weather is turning sunnier and warmer, can do wonders for your writing, thinking, and overall enthusiasm for your project.  Such sessions of “meditation on the move,” a term writer and runner Joe Henderson has applied to recreational long-distance running, will be explored in a future post on taking your writing outside.  Look for it in the coming weeks.  Until then, happy writing!     

Meditation on the Move, Southwest of the NIU Campus

2 comments:

  1. I love biking for meditation. It takes a few miles to get into it, but the cadence of the pedaling really helps me ruminate. I even get a little silly after riding a long, long way, which helps me think outside the box!

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  2. This blog post is the pat on the back that I really need! Glad to know I am not alone in my ups and downs throughout this process. I'm getting back into my running routine, so I look forward to the next blog post!

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