In the previous blogs I focused on the fieldwork experiences of my classmates and me. This blog’s topic is about writing the thesis itself. The thesis is (or at least, should be) the ultimate proof that you are capable of doing (independent) research. Moreover, it demonstrates one’s ability to use their fieldwork data to write a well founded, interesting thesis. The writing up is, however, not an easy task.
Getting started with writing after returning from fieldwork was a tad difficult for most, if not everyone, in my year. This was partly caused by the shock of returning to an environment which we left months before. However, it was also caused by the prospect of months of free time before the hand-in deadline. To overcome these ‘start-up’ problems there were ‘Thesis Writing Seminars’. These seminars provided (mental) support to get going with writing up. Some used this to start with the general outline for their thesis or to present an introductory chapter. The real ‘dirty’ work was left mostly for later. After all, mid-August (the deadline for most of us) seemed far, far away. Eventually though, everyone got started. Those who started later a bit envious of those who started (more) timely. When the value of these seminars decreased they came to an end. Replacing them were weekly sessions in a bar where we could vent our frustrations with the writing process – or the program in general.
Some preferred the tranquil atmosphere of a library while other wrote from home (or did not write at all as they took an internship or procrastinated in general). Your thoughts wander off while writing and it is at times difficult to keep focused. Adding to the complexity is the impossibility of predicting how your thoughts, and data will evolve. This means you often ask yourself questions such as: “does what I do make sense? Is this important or am I now spending insane amounts of time on something that contributes little to my core argument? Is this section too brief, too bloated, too specialized, too general, to ….
This leads me to one of the most important aspects of the writing process: your core argument. Of course, we all have ideas about our (future) subject and we have at least preliminary hypothesis about what we will argue. Now, the data do not always support these hypothesis (which is perfectly acceptable as that can also be a research finding). More importantly is however that often the data will lead you into directions you hadn’t envisioned before. Such changes in direction require flexibility. They might not only alter the arguments you want(ed) to make but they might also change the course of your thesis. If that’s the case, you might need to rework some previous chapters as well to keep all chapters, and the arguments they make, harmonized.
That being said, having a sound idea about the direction of your thesis is invaluable. As such, the theoretical framework (oh the horror!) is of paramount importance. This should help you by providing guidance for your writing while (hopefully) not forcing you to ‘discover’ certain conclusions for the sake of agreeing with those authors we hold in high regard. Frustration with these authors will inevitably grow during the writing process but ok, I guess that’s part of the thesis experience. Their value however seems to increase as you lay your chapters aside for a while.
Writing is an iterative process. The first time you write a chapter it seems to make sense. The second time you read it you wonder what the hell you wrote. I would be surprised if you wouldn’t at least think a couple of times “What was I thinking when I wrote this? I even make more sense after a long night in town!”. This can be demotivating, especially when the feedback you receive from your supervisors is more critical than “Amazing, let’s publish this right away!”. It is however something everyone goes through and seems to be an integral part of the writing process.
The benefit of reading things back after a while is that you can reflect so much better. During the writing process you are so immersed in your topic that many things which seem logical – or irrelevant – to you appear to be extremely important after you’ve taken a bit of distance for a while. Rewriting sections however takes a lot more time than one might imagine. Incorporating feedback from a draft version (if taken seriously, by both your supervisor and yourself) is a strenuous task and should not be underestimated. When underestimated you’ll run short of time in the weeks before the deadline.
The deadline, as far away as it looks when returning from fieldwork, draws near extremely fast. If you, unlike some people in our class – myself included –, do not want to stress out during the last month(s), working 12+ hours a day: start in time! However ‘preliminary’ a chapter might be, it gets you writing. Now, of course this all sounds logical and it is what your supervisor(s) will tell you as well. Still, I felt this was too much of a ‘thesis issue’ not to mention here.
Now, does that mean you’re up for a semester of hell after spending months in your dream destination in Africa? Not at all! I experienced the writing period as an invaluable experience. Feeling that you make good progress and write sensible things gives a thrill. I learned so much during these months. Not only in regard to my subject but also about (academic) writing and reasoning in general. The learning curve, for me at least, has been very steep. So, to conclude with a statement by a classmate: “Overall – thesis writing is a lot of highs and low[s], which makes it tiring, consuming, but ultimately rewarding.“