For “L”: Finishing the Thesis

I recently asked some friends if they had any blog post suggestions, and “L” asked, “how do people find motivation to write [their thesis] when they are off campus?” Here are a few suggestions for her and you… and feel free to add your own comments below. 

Having been there myself, I think one of the most useful things I did was to identify what the actual problem was… what was really preventing me from finishing my thesis. Yes, there was work, family obligations, and so on. But truth be told, the real thing was personal. I was afraid of what I would do when I was no longer a student. I did not have a faculty job lined up and was actually in another position and somewhat tied to where I was due to my partner’s employment. That was basically a fear of success. What would I do if I succeeded? But I was also afraid of failure. What if I couldn’t finish? What if I couldn’t write? What if I couldn’t say anything new or unique? I’m not suggesting that this is everyone’s reality, but many people have more going on with trying to complete their dissertations than not being able to schedule the time to write. When I admitted I was playing a giant head game with myself, things got easier. 

So, beyond this, what works? Here are some strategies I found successful in my writing. 

The Ideal Time to Write: the ideal ideal time to write is as elusive as the unicorn. There is no ideal time to write. What works for you this month may not work for you next month. What is ideal is to adjust as soon as possible once you realize your “ideal time to write” is no longer working. Some people also work better in one place than another. Three things that worked for me were writing at my workplace outside of the work week (I tried mornings, and weekends) and the other was working early at home, before everyone was up. Lastly, I would sometimes read for edits or write a paragraph while doing something else, while my son was playing nearby and I was keeping an eye on him, for example. 

Deprivation and Reward: In order to get myself to write, I sometimes sat myself at my computer with a coffee and got at it first thing. When I wrote a page or so, I “allowed” myself a second coffee. When I did a bit more, I got a shower. A bit more, lunch. You get the idea. 

Knowing When and How to Stop: I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is sitting in front of a computer long after they are done writing. They hit the wall but feel they should sit there for a set amount of time. Ultimately, this makes the whole process needlessly negative. Most people seem only able to write in chunks of a few hours at most. I found the best way to write was to tell myself to write for 3 hours and stop. As I came to an end of the time, I’d leave notes for where I’d be picking up. Going back to the thesis seemed much easier once I started doing that. 

Think of Things in Bursts: There were times when my husband and I were both writing. And I was getting up early and writing for 2 hours. And it wasn’t sustainable. But that was okay. It’s okay to do something in a burst.  

Turning Arbitrary Deadlines into Concrete Ones: One of the biggest things about being away from my university and my adviser when I was writing was to come up with timelines and deadlines. The PhD deadlines can be so arbitrary; stretching out for years but suddenly contracting at the worst possible time. Then I hit upon it. Conference papers and articles! Using the deadlines imposed by conferences and journals gave me the extra pressure I needed to get things done. 

Mentorship/Feedback: Presumably your adviser is still in the mix. At times I did not communicate with mine that regularly because I was in hiding. But when I communicated what I wanted my deadlines to be, my adviser was a powerful ally. I was lucky. But you may have a colleague or friend that will take on the role of mentor. My suggestion here would be to be very clear about expectations, so they know you are not going to exhaust them and spit out a husk of a person. But also be clear about what you need them to do. A good model is to meet for coffee every 3 weeks at which time you’ll report on how you are doing. There may be more to it than that, it depends on their knowledge on your topic and level of engagement, however, just about anyone can do this for you. It can even be done virtually. 

There’s obviously more that could be said on this topic… feel free to post questions and comments!


3 thoughts on “For “L”: Finishing the Thesis

  1. “L” thanks you very, very much! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with fear of failure/fear of success…and also just plain old fear! The tips are great, and setting schedules is always hard, but using other deadlines as part of the writing process is a great trick! Thanks for writing, and I look forward to other comments to see what other folks do to combat this. One question…how to wrangle supervisor/advisor/reader time when you’re in another province/country??

  2. Hi Lynda. Being away from your reader is a tough one. One of the things that can happen even if you are in the same town as them, is that you can be on different wavelengths about expectations. This is magnified, usually, if you are far away from them. There are a few things you could do but obviously they need to be open to it. There’s scheduled phone calls, Skyping, or meeting at annual meetings which can all help. One of the big problems, I think, with PhD students is that we (having recently been there I’ll put myself in the category) try to please our advisors and often subsist on scraps of encouragement. That’s our emotional baggage and our problem. Advisors, especially those that are away from their students, may be juggling promotion applications, chairing their department, and publishing. In short, we are not as important to them as they are to us. They do want to produce intellectuals who will further the profession, they do get a small stipend for overseeing a thesis, and most are very engaged in the success of their students. They’re also overwhelmed by us… we just have them, but they can easily have 10 students at various stages of completion. My suggestion is that you are competing with a number of other “time thieves” (meant in the best possible way). The key here is to deliver a completed chapter, make yourself clear about your expectations, and become the easiest of the responsibilities. And then you’ll get the most attention. Another thing to bear in mind is that most advisors do not have multiple read throughs “in them.” So you’ll have to decide if you want the continual comments or an actual final read through with meaningful comments. Hope this helps!

  3. Completed stuff is key, I think, though so hard as a grad student. I agree with you wholeheartedly that we are much more needy of our “people” then they are of us, and that they want us to succeed, but have classes, other grads, publishing obligations, meetings, etc. that are on their plates as well. Not that life doesn’t make monkeys of us all, but yes, this makes sense. But lord, since we do hang on their scraps of advice, encouragement, etc., it’s hard to not want feedback on every step, and to feel lost and like I’m so “not an academic” and if only someone would look at my stuff and tell me, “yes, you’re doing it, another baby step please” it would be such a perfect world!! LOL. Though, honestly, I think we grads also need to focus on that feeling that comes AFTER writing (as Margaret Atwood says, “I hate writing. I love having written.”), and that when we’re handing in completed chapters to get advice, we’re so much ahead of the game, and look far more competent I’m sure, that’s it’s VERY worth it!! 😀

    And it helps more than I can say. Sometimes I think grads are like people with twingy pains in our chests…we just need to know we’re not having a heart attack, and then suddenly not only do we feel like we can do it, but the twingy pain actually leaves! For a time, at least. Heh heh…

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