Jokes about thesis stress have a basis in fact

Bike in a puddle on Merton Street

I am increasingly feeling trepidation about my thesis. There are essentially two reasons for this.

1. Uncertain focus

‘Science in global environmental policymaking’ is the work of many lifetimes. ‘The role of science in Kyoto and Stockholm, specifically’ isn’t an enormously interesting topic. It is the theoretical extensions that arise from the examples that are of interest.

My hope has been that the thesis area would be like an archeological site. I would stand there, amidst squared off sections, and spot something brilliant and surprising and unexamined. Right now, it feels more like being inside a tram car that is passing through a huge terrarium, full of interesting looking animals. The only problem is, I only have until the tram reaches the other side (April) to look at anything, and the tram itself is full of interesting things aside from the view out the windows. To call them ‘distractions’ is to insult the broader Oxford experience, but they do threaten my ability to say something cogent and important about the terrarium to the stern individuals with clipboards waiting in the room beyond it.

2. Ignorance of related disciplines

At least once a day, I speak to someone who agrees that my topic is a good one, and has something that I simply must read about it. In all probability, this is an indication that the topic is too broad (it obviously is, right now). It is also an indication that it touches upon an unusual number of disciplines: from psychology to sociology, politics, political theory, ecology, philosophy, ethics, economics, and history.

I am afraid that, even if I do grapple properly with a few of the big chunks of work on this that exist out there, there will be other big chunks that are entirely excluded from my consideration and understanding.

The solution

As is so often the case, the solution is trepidation-powered reading. I need to be somewhat ruthless in pushing myself to read enough that I will be able to say something new, while not embarrassing myself.

The possibility that this will be my only major piece of academic research is not one to be entirely discounted. A doctorate is no certainty. Of course, the thought that this may be the only attempt, as well as an important attempt, adds considerably to my anxiety.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

8 thoughts on “Jokes about thesis stress have a basis in fact”

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  3. I know what ya mean Milan. I have not only to take 2 terms of classes which will include 6 essays and 4 or so exams but also somehow write a thesis before the end of August. I also think I have good topic(global taxation) but narrowing it down to a workable focus….let the games begin

  4. In a serious way, I’d recomend stopping reading for the time being and just start writing. Write more than you think you’ll need, meet your supervisor, and let them a) cut bits out and b) suggest other things to read. You’ll get a better sense of what your topic is once you start writing, because you’ll have to think about what the question is and how the various bits of what you think are answers relate to each other.

  5. If you haven’t formulated a relatively robust and clear research question by now then that is a problem. As Rob says, there comes a time when you need to stop reading around the topic and commit something to paper. You have your thesis design seminar coming up, for which you have to write a presentation. This could be a good opportunity to clarify what you are trying to explore. Ultimately you must cut your coat according to your cloth. Timescales are beginning to become urgent. There is only so much research you can do between now and spring, and ideally you want an introductory chapter in place by Christmas. There is also only so much you can write in an MPhil thesis. 30,000 words sounds like a lot, but most people have over-expansive projects that cannot possibly be accommodated within this limit. I found this myself and slashed down my cases from 3 to 1 – quite a dramatic (and wholly necessary) change. As the ad hoc resident consultant to the 2nd yr MPhil I am always happy to read drafts and offer suggestions if you think it’d be helpful ;-)

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