Not Dead – Just Writing!

ImageYou may have noticed my absence – Sorry! For the past month I have been writing up my first chapter. Which, like a new teenage crush, has been all I can think about.

I am coming up for confirmation next month, for which I need an introduction/ literature review, a draft chapter for the dissertation and a draft section for the creative (for those who don’t know – I am doing a creative/theoretical thesis – which means it is half/half, and I need to be working on both sections all the way through). All together, this adds up to about 13,000 words.

So, I thought it a good time to reflect on what have I learnt about thesis writing, so far, keeping in mind I still have the hurdle of confirmation to go.

Well, sometimes, writing is not as much fun as I thought it would be, and at other times it is more fun. Not so helpful? Let me put it another way. Let me explain my process.

The first things I did this year was take obsessive notes. Everything I read, I would reread until I completely understood it, making copious handwritten notes as I went, and then going over these note,s putting a slightly more concise version into a word document. I felt good, I was writing heaps, but then in May I had to write my first lit rv and these notes were useless.

I cried a lot. I can be a big girl sometimes. Looking back, I think it was at this point that I realised what I had got myself into. My initial excitement didn’t wear off, it was torn off like a giant sticky bandaid, as I realised that the next three years was not going to be about me, roaming the academic halls, absorbing knowledge like a sponge, followed by an outflowing of creative, ingenious thought, which would fit nicely into one neat thesis sized parcel, with a pretty pink bow on it. I wasn’t that naive, but I was possibly that romantic.  And that first lit rv killed every romantic notion I had. I was not going to run off with Han Solo and make Jedi babies.

Thankfully, there were other new PhD students also crying about things, like their supervisors being nuts, or having their work rejected, or just wondering what they were actually doing. I felt lucky that my supervisor was not nuts, he was and is always supportive and helpful, and that helped me push on. And with each subsequent essay, methodology, or what ever, that was due, what I was doing, did start to make more sense. My focus has shifted a few times, I always feel like there is more to read than I will ever have the time or brain capacity for. But here are a few first year secrets:

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1) You don’t have to read everything. Ironically, this only became clearer as I read more. I have learnt enough now to challenge what I am reading, instead of always trying to come to grips with every argument. Which means I have actually learnt stuff, and I am starting to be able to think about things on my own terms, deciding what is relevant and what is not faster. I can pull out what I need, rather than wade slowly through it all.

2) Reading isn’t the only way to learn. I have found online lectures invaluable. They give you access to some of the world’s best academics. They quickly point you in the right direction for what and who you need to know about. They are entertaining. And best of all they are free.

3) You won’t really have a firm idea of what your thesis is about until you start to write it. This one is sad, but true. I spent months reading and planning, but as soon as I started writing, only last month, my thesis took a new direction. I am used to this happening with my creative work, so it wasn’t too alarming, and it was happening at the beginning of the writing process, so I could afford to be flexible.

It happened because I was trying to explain ‘cognitive science’ and, despite all my reading, I didn’t know exactly how to say ‘it’, so I started fiddled around on the internet, as you do, and came across a lecture. I watched it, and then watched another, and then 8 others, until I realised that my thesis wasn’t about cognitive science, but behavioural science. A small shift, but a very significant one, and I had no idea until I started to write.

A good writer also knows when to stop. So, that’s all for today.  If anyone has any more first year tips, let us know.

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