Tag: doctorate

A 3-step guide to completing your thesis when you’re feeling utterly overwhelmed

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken with quite a few people working on a Masters or Doctoral level thesis. Some of them are planning to continue into a career in academia, but most are not. While their questions to me are all slightly different, the tension feels similar: how can I reconcile all of this stuff?

Drop-out rates, especially at doctoral level, are pretty high. Even those who don’t do so are likely to experience a significant ‘dip’. There are many factors for this, but my hunch is that it’s not primarily because there’s too much work involved. I think that it’s more to do with the overwhelming number of possible areas of research. In other words, it’s all to do with scope.

So, I’d like to offer some help. My only experience is in the Humanities, so take this with a pinch of salt and in the spirit it’s intended. If you’re mid-way in your dissertation or thesis and you’re feeling a bit stuck, here’s what I suggest you do.

1. Stop

Go back to your proposal. What does it say? What did you and your thesis supervisor agree upon?

If it helps, put the different elements of what you’re studying into one of three buckets:

  • Thesis — areas within the scope of your thesis, as outlined in your proposal.
  • Follow-up — things that are slightly outside the scope of your thesis but which you could investigate once you’ve submitted your thesis (e.g. for post-doctoral research)
  • Out of scope — things that, while potentially fascinating, are not helping you earn this Masters degree or doctorate.

In other words, there are things that you have to do to complete the requirements of your postgraduate degree, and there are really interesting other things that get in the way. Make sure you know the difference between them.

2. Look

Whether or not you’ve used them before, mindmaps can be really handy when you’re feeling overwhelmed. They give you a visual overview of the territory you’re exploring, and can help you synthesise disparate ideas and concepts.

Doug's thesis mindmap

Somewhat incredibly, the mindmap I created a decade ago when I was in the midst of my doctoral work is still available online. It’s perhaps one of the most useful things I’ve ever done; not only was the output useful when talking with my thesis supervisor, but the process of creating it was helpful beyond words.

It can take days to create a large mindmap, and to begin with it can feel a bit like a waste of time. However, as you pull together notes from various systems (notebooks, online bookmarks, thoughts in your head, etc.) it starts to become a map of the territory of your thesis.

You could do this on paper, but the value of doing it digitally is that you can move things around and make connections between related ideas much more easily.

3. Listen

Whether learning a language or writing a thesis, difficult things are best approached little and often. Trying to cram them in to a single day per week (or the occasional weekend) doesn’t really work.

I found that getting up early and spending at least an hour on my thesis before work suited me best. Others might find this better late at night. Either way, if you work on your mindmap every day for a few days, I guarantee that it will begin to ‘speak’ back to you.

Things that previously seemed unrelated will become connected in your mind in new and interesting ways. You will start to understand where the boundaries of your work are. It’s at this point that you’re ready to take a chainsaw to the branches of your mindmap!

You have to be ruthless. If you want to complete your thesis, you need to kill your darlings. While it can feel a bit sad to say goodbye to things you’ve researched and found interesting, it’s actually quite liberating. After all, postgraduate study is hard enough without adding to your burden.

In addition, getting used to ruthlessly pruning your work at this stage is really good preparation. In the writing-up phase you will write many more words than you actually submit, and you will have to decide which ones don’t make it. For example, with a 100,000 word thesis you may end up writing at least 20-25% more than that, and then have to cut whole sections with which you were very pleased.

…and finally

Work openly and talk to other people about your experiences and struggles. You are not alone on this journey, and many have trod this path before you. Share what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, and what you’re feeling. Good luck!

How not to write a thesis.

I was chatting to a fellow doctoral candidate this week about various things. We agreed that writing a thesis on something which you’re not actually very interested in is probably easiest way to get a PhD. I’ve been writing in the area of digital/new literac(ies) for around four years now now and, to be honest, sometimes it feels like spitting in the wind.

Still, the great thing about it is that I’m studying for this doctorate and wrestling with this thesis because I’m actually interested in the subject and want to contribute towards the debate. I’m learning lots about all manner of things as I go. This is about personal development more than anything else.

I have to be careful what I say here as I haven’t handed in my thesis, passed my viva and graduated. Those who follow the traditional PhD methods tend to virtually ‘tut’ and shake their head in disbelief when I say I’m writing without a firm structure in mind of how the whole thing is going to come together. But that’s how I’ve worked on (admittedly, smaller) projects and it’s turned out just fine. It might mean more work in the long run, but at least I’m getting my money’s worth… :-p

As of about 30 minutes ago, my thesis will have the following structure:

  1. Introduction (why study ‘digital literacy’?)
  2. What is ‘literacy’? (including: literacy & knowledge, literacy as a social process, unitary & pluralist views of literacy)
  3. Minimal criteria for digital literacy to constitute a ‘literacy’.
  4. Discussion of digital literacy
  5. Introduction of Pragmatism (methodology section)
  6. Literature review (is digital literacy ‘good in the way of belief’?)
  7. New Literacies – introduction & history
  8. Is this literacy? (consideration of ‘Flow’, fluency, etc.)
  9. Future of literac(ies)
  10. Analysis of relevant policy documents (UK, Norway, USA, Singapore)
  11. Conclusion

I’ve written about 30,000 words so far – half the 60,000 words required for an Ed.D. thesis (I’ve previously had to submit lengthy essays in support of modules studied at this level). At this rate, it’s not looking like I’m going to hit my target of the 1st January 2011, which is the earliest I’m allowed to submit. I’d wanted to have it finished before I turn 30 in December – and before my wife gives birth to our second child.

Oh well. Taking more time will enable me to give those policy documents more than just a cursory glance! 😀

Is a degree enough?

There are some very intelligent people in the world without any qualifications. There are also some people who, shall we say, we wouldn’t want on our Trivial Pursuit team or to be assigned with for a team-building exercise. That being said, there has, historically, been a correlation between ‘intelligence’ (whatever that is) and level of education. I fear that may no longer be the case… :s

This is not a post bemoaning degrees in surfing or golf. No, I’m more concerned with the rather 19th-century idea of degrees being ‘of a standard’ and that these can universally be broken down into 1st class, 2:1, 2:2, etc. If this were the case, then the necessity of having met such a standard should be a necessary and sufficient condition for entry onto a postgraduate teacher training course such as the PGCE in the UK. I don’t think anyone would argue against the fact that some degrees are easier, some harder, and some provide skills more and some less relevant to teaching.

In that case, why should a degree plus a short-course, vocational postgraduate qualification be enough? Surely there should be a requirement, more than merely an expectation, that teachers work towards at least a Masters level postgraduate qualification in education? Or, if compulsion is not a feasible option, why not at least explicitly recognise further qualifications with pay rises? I believe this is common practice in most places in the US, and whilst there are many things about their system I don’t think we should import, this is one I would welcome with open arms.

“That’s easy for you to say,” I hear you cry, “you’re doing an Ed.D!” This is true. But how did I come to be doing this qualification? By choosing my PGCE carefully so that it was the first year of an MA; by continuing to a level where I could switch to the Ed.D. course, and then continuing my studies. Apparently, I’m the first person to do this at the University of Durham. I can’t see why it shouldn’t be a heavily-suggested (and rewarded) path for the majority of teachers.

OK, so theory doesn’t always lead to amazing practice – I know that. But surely such a scheme couldn’t be a bad thing? Look at Finland, a place where the top graduates end up in the teaching profession. Where does it come in international rankings? Oh yes, pretty much top every time… :p

What do YOU think? What would you change about the current system?

(Image credit: Out to Lunch with Audio R8 by Gregor Rohrig @ Flickr)

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