Three years, two months and four days after starting, I submitted my thesis on 16 December 2015! This is not the end, of course. My viva is scheduled early next month, and I will probably make minor or major corrections. And even when the thesis is finished for good and deposited in the Bodleian it will only be a cross-section of my research from a particular moment. But submitting still felt very good!
As in my previous post about writing, I’m going to note down here a few more bits of advice, very much in the spirit of recording things I wish I’d known, and not all expecting to say anything particularly new.
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I wrote before about managing the competing energies of idealism and pragmatism. Finishing entailed summoning up as much pragmatism as possible while preserving just enough idealism to remind myself why I was bothering to work in the first place. Annoying chapter sections which I didn’t like had to be made at least functional in order to deliver the bits I did like, and often grinding through the process of making these bits work did help me appreciate them a little more.
I deliberately told myself in the spring of 2015 that I would stop doing primary research speculatively and only consult manuscripts when I knew I needed to see them for particular reasons. I suspect that a surprising amount of the useful skills I learned while writing the thesis are connected to this kind of thinking about thinking: I now feel much more comfortable tackling a big, complex project, academic or not, and thinking about when to hold and when to fold on each of the problems that make up that project.
For a long time I thought that when I struggled with productivity this was because I was lazy, and so I should somehow ‘stop being lazy’. But now I’m quite productive despite feeling just as lazy as I ever have been. I think the trick is managing laziness, not somehow fixing it. Comfortingly, managing laziness breaks down much more easily into small concrete tasks than fixing it would. And I’ve learned to feel better about the times when work doesn’t go so well: progress made during a struggle is still progress, and some of the spells of fun, rapid, successful work on the thesis came out of work that was hard going.
Not Researching (II)
I had a couple of weekly non-academic, social things which I kept going throughout the doctorate. Neither took much time but I refused to compromise on them. Looking back, I think these were really important. They helped me remember that I am a human being as well as a DPhil student and they helped me befriend people who weren’t writing doctorates. They also offered some structure for my weeks, which would otherwise have been troublingly shapeless when term-time teaching wasn’t happening. This would probably be the single thing which I recommend the most to others.
Looking after yourself during a doctorate is important. Lots of people have already said this, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing for more of us to say it! Writing a thesis can take a lot out of a person, and there were times when I had to remember that there was no point in making short-term progress if in doing so I made myself so mentally or physically ill that I had to suspend or withdraw from the DPhil. I was lucky and didn’t suffer any mental illness during my doctorate, but I did develop a physical impairment in my hands, which is why most of my thesis was written using dictation software. Nowadays I can and do type, but I still used dictation for most long-form writing. This works surprisingly well—indeed, for first drafts I think it is better than any other method of writing I’ve ever tried. It has made me think much more carefully about how we read and write, too. Still, the experience has left me much more aware of my health in general, and I think that’s a good thing.
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And that, more or less, is what I observed while writing my thesis!