Another pang of thesis doubt


in Daily updates, Oxford, Writing

Speaking with Tom Rafferty after the film tonight, I had a bit of a realization. Previously, all my enthusiasm about the thesis project has been tied to the real conviction that these questions are fascinating and important. The problem, of course, is that there are no prizes for picking out interesting questions – especially the obvious ones that everyone sees as interesting. You need to say something new, and I don’t see how I am going to do that.

PS. This has happened enough times now for me to know that Lee will leave a terrifying comment*, and I will start mentally enumerating ‘places other than academia’ where one can spend one’s life.

* This is not to imply that the comments are not helpful and appreciated; indeed, a bit of raw terror is just the thing to motivate thesis progress.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

B October 22, 2006 at 12:09 am

While you probably have the intellect for academia, I don’t think it is closely connected enough to the motor that drives you for it to be your life.

Milan October 22, 2006 at 12:16 am

I agree – at least for the period until I have really tried something else.

Ben October 22, 2006 at 12:38 am

Very little that’s said/written these days is truly and totally original. The interesting questions are interesting, and important, because they haven’t been definitively answered. As such, all attempts to grapple with them are potentially informative.

Victoria Kowalewski October 22, 2006 at 2:01 am

This is something I grapple with constantly when it comes to my own project. All it takes is a superior (like, meeting a professor in the pub) giving you a funny look when you mention your thesis topic and your illusions melt -all of a sudden your thesis is no longer brilliant or interesting, its just weird, or worse yet, amateurish.

Anonymous October 22, 2006 at 2:11 am

The biggest problem with grad school seems to be the unstructured environment. Lots of very clever people can’t handle it, and almost none really excel.

Lee October 22, 2006 at 8:26 pm

Milan, I’m genuinely sorry that my comments are “terrifying”. I only ever comment when I think I have something useful or constructive to add. If that comes across as scary then I obviously need to re-think my whole approach. That is particularly scary considering I have my own students. The last thing I would ever want to inspire in someone is terror :-[

Milan October 22, 2006 at 8:32 pm


I wanted to be very clear that your comments have been correct and useful, even if they have sometimes made me rather more nervous about the whole project. In particular, I was thinking of this one.

There are, in the end, different kinds of terror. One agitates in a purposeless way; the other drives a person to swifter action. As the progressive filling in of my box of thesis notes indicates, comments like the one above fall into the latter group.

Lee October 22, 2006 at 11:21 pm

OK. Still, it troubles me that I would make anyone nervous. It is not the first time someone has said something along those lines. All I was trying to say with that particular comment was that you need to move from the general and abstract to the particular and concrete, and that you had a good opportunity to do so with the thesis seminar coming up.

In addition to you, several of your cohort have chatted with me about their theses and all of them feel unsure, afraid even, and even doubt their ability to actually write a thesis. I tell them all the same thing: this time last year I was waking up at 7am with heart palpitations. It wasn’t until the end of November really that I started to feel comfortable and confident about my research.

For me it was because I had a project that was just too large – for weeks I was terrified that I just couldn’t do the research I needed to do for all 3 cases I had selected in time. This was simply because the degree of detail I wanted to go into in each case was too much for an MPhil thesis. The solution was actually very simple – cut down from 3 to 1. I suggested this to Andy and he said “fine, that would be great”, and suddenly it was like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I then felt I had a manageable, worthwhile project that I could do well.

For you, it’s more that you have done a lot of work already but you seem to struggle in narrowing it down to a specific problem or set of queries. So all I was encouraging you to do was to pin down what you are particularly interested in and to focus your energies more narrowly. Despite what you might think it is still possible to produce an original and interesting contribution and I am sure you can do it. But to do yourself justice you need to narrow your focus and concretise your project.

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