Thursday, 17 January 2013

Thesis looming

Guest post by Sadie Boniface

I knew it was coming. I am envisaging months of isolation. I remember the long hours I spent at the Robinson Library when I wrote my Masters dissertation (supervised by Martin and Jean). But that was only for two months, and I have budgeted nine for this. A word limit of 15,000 cannot be compared with one of 100,000.

Yes, I am on the cusp of starting what every PhD student dreads: the writing-up phase.

I will survive
In preparation, I did a swift ‘audit’ of all the work I’ve done so far towards my PhD, which is on under-reporting of alcohol consumption in England. This includes my upgrade report and presentation, conference papers, journal articles (at various stages of completion), along with personal notes and musings. This has boosted my confidence. I didn’t quite realise it before, but I have done lots of work already. My thesis is going to write itself! As my opposite desk neighbour and I keep saying to each other: ‘it’s going to be fine’.

Doing this allowed me to put together a chapter outline. ‘Excellent!’ I thought once I had finished, pleased to see a structure I can dissect into manageable chunks. Eight chapters, each with all their relevant little sub-sections. And my supervisor said the outline was good. This is going to be easy.

Despite my deliberate optimism, truthfully, I know it won’t be easy (and perhaps that’s why I’m procrastinating by writing my first blog post). Writing up has a reputation for being difficult. Google “PhD write up” and the three of the top ten hits are about how to survive the writing-up process. Books have whole chapters dedicated to it. The focus is on coping and perseverance. When I speak to fellow students in my Department who are in the writing up phase they seem numb. The thesis takes over. It is almost as if pulling together the threads of the previous two-to-five years - to weave the tapestry that is the thesis – is best done robotically, not by hand.

Due to make this transition to automaton myself, I am anxious about how I am going to manage. I experience a definite slump in productivity when I am working on the same thing day after day. Without a doubt the part of my PhD I have enjoyed the most so far has been the process of collecting data for two of my four studies. I really like getting out and speaking to members of the public. Without this interaction, I expect time to pass more slowly. It’s looking like a long nine months.

This is partly why* I have taken on additional commitments. I am tutoring schoolchildren with the aim of widening access to top universities, and I will also soon be helping to collect data for a large new study. I hope that the extra experience I’m getting will make me more employable. I’m also hopeful that this time away from working on my thesis will give me space to reflect, allowing me to come back to it with ‘new eyes’. Ultimately, I expect these breaks to improve my writing.

Juggling writing up with other (unrelated) work is going to be a challenge. I’m not sure when or how I’ll know if I’ve got the balance right. My PhD is undoubtedly my priority, but perhaps it will be a mistake not to focus my attention fully on my thesis. I am determined to hand in by the time my funding runs out. Whether I will or not, only time will tell. With luck, I might be able to spare an afternoon to share my experience of the writing up process on this blog in a few months’ time.

If you are doing a PhD, do you have similar fears about writing up? If you have a PhD, how did you ‘survive’ the write up? What tips would you give to PhD students to help them write their theses?

*another contributor is the unfortunate fact that my MRC doctoral training grant studentship stipend has been frozen since 2010!

No comments:

Post a Comment