More thesis anxiety


in M.Phil thesis, Oxford, Writing

In search of inspiration, or at least a renewed sense of direction, I had a look at the brick-like Notes of Guidance and the IR Booklet to see what I could learn about the thesis on which I am working. Of the two, the booklet is more informative, though the guidance provided is sparse and any hopes of finding inspiration are likely to be rapidly dashed:

The MPhil thesis, of not more than 30,000 words, is submitted at the end of the Easter Vacation of the second year, and forms part of the final examination. The subject of the thesis should be agreed with the supervisor well before the end of the first year. In some cases, MPhil theses require original research on primary sources, but in others, particularly where conceptual or theoretical issues are involved, it is enough to demonstrate mastery of a complex subject.

I have certainly managed to wander into a complex subject. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to pin down exactly what it is my subject comprises (see my thesis seminar presentation).

I cannot help but feel that I was thrown headlong into something that I have never really understood. While being made to write a Research Design Essay and receiving commentary on it was certainly a good step, I still don’t feel as though I know what sort of work is meant to go into this thing. Which literatures do I need to read, and how much do I need to grapple with them? What constitutes an original contribution to scholarly discourse?

More and more, this project seems like a particularly massive hurdle to be jumped, in the dark and without much in the way of practice, rather than a project with inherent usefulness or value. That said, this grim perspective may have a lot to do with darkness, the relative emptiness of Oxford, on-again-off-again illness, Christmas solitude, endless ongoing problems with the student loan people, and related frustrations.

The most pragmatic thing to do seems to be:

  1. Finish writing projects unrelated to the thesis
  2. Read two or three former M.Phil theses on related topics, and with similar methodological issues
  3. Step back from theoretical reading, in which I feel hopelessly bogged down, and do some specific reading of secondary literature on the Stockholm Convention and Kyoto Protocol

With much more specific information on my supposed case studies under the belt, perhaps it will prove easier to decide which theoretical literatures I am meant to read, and what I am meant to take from them.

[Update: 9:30pm] Perhaps the strangest thing about all of this is the fact that I was doing better and more original work back when I was at UBC. Then, I had five courses a term, each with its own material but also offering the scope for directed research. At UBC, I was frequently writing papers that, if they were good enough, could be published. Here, I haven’t written anything that would be publishable, even if it was an amazingly brilliant treatise on the subject at hand: the subjects have been too generic, the scope for inventiveness too narrow. The thesis is meant to be the ultimate counterbalancing to that, but I would rather see the weights on either side of the fulcrum more evenly balanced.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan December 26, 2006 at 7:32 pm

Were it not for a minor technical hurdle, that would be a superb alternative option.

Given the year to which time has progressed, becoming a yeti tracker and tour guide in Mongolia or northern Canada might be a better prospect. Given their notorious smell, I expect yetis would be fairly easy to track.

Ben December 26, 2006 at 10:45 pm

You seem to have got more feedback on your RDE than I did on my actual thesis…

R.K. December 26, 2006 at 7:03 pm

Fallback plan: become an undercover detective on the hotrod circuit, circa 1965.

Sean December 29, 2006 at 4:44 am

It is good that you are haviing anxieties. This is completely normal!

I think you need a narrow question to answer as your thematic area is so very big. I think in the thesis, from my experience, they want to see creative and analytic appoach to a discrete set of issues as they know the time to complete the task is short. I dont think they are looking for anything too earth shattering, just rigourous.

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