Writing a very long thesis
80 to 100 THOUSAND words is many, many words. It's about a third of a Ken Follett novel, and twice as many as a Mills & Boon. Neither of these are useful measures of value being of entirely different genres to the academic doctoral dissertation, also known as a thesis. But, if you had to toss it gently to someone, they might be able to catch it in one hand and think, 'Hmm, this is not as heavy as the recent Ken Follett' and be less impressed with you than you had hoped. But, they'd be wrong. Writing a thesis is very tough, and Ken Follett has done far more research on his topic than I have on mine. I don't mind admitting this because Pillars of the Earth was published five years before I was born. He's had a head start. Also, no one is judging the merit of his engagement with and analysis of critical texts.
To contextualise my thesis experience, I need to lay out some of the circumstances of my education. Prior to beginning this thesis, I had not written more than about 21k words of anything. Not even the terrible novel I began and aborted over a rainy Easter weekend in second year. I have two Honours degrees (the South African equivalent of a Taught Masters). For my second Hons at the University of Cape Town in 2017 I wrote a dissertation of 21k words on burlesque performance, which was probably the most fun research anyone has ever done. During my MA at the University of York, I wrote 20k words on refugee poetry. For context, a Masters in SA is around 50k words, because it's always 'by research'. My best friend did her Masters in SA and wrote a very good, very long dissertation, so long that it could have been a PhD. In contrast, I went to York and learnt that streets are called gates and gates are called bars. She knows a lot more about how to write a long piece of theoretical work than I do, and I frequently appeal to her wisdom.
Here is the most intelligent woman I know, on the left, and myself on the right, dressed like Violet Beauregard, in the Scottish Highlands, August 2020.
MA students in the UK, particularly us international students, are cash-cows for the unis. While I adored my course and my MA and am convinced that York is the most wonderful place in England, I have learnt SO much about the pros and cons of different HE systems, and I can say with much confidence that the corporatisation and commercialisation of HE around the world is a contributing factor to the culture wars.
So after writing a few short-ish dissertations and getting on a funding train that I was loathe to disembark from, I began my doctorate at the University of Oxford, back in 2018. I had little experience of writing anything more substantial than a brief description of how I spent six months drinking Prosecco while my friends explored their feminism in the nude. The first DPhil hurdle was the production of 10k words and a thesis outline required to get through 'Transfer', in which a doctoral candidate goes from being a Probationary Research Student (PRS) to an actual DPhil student. Good thing I wasn't suffering debilitating imposter syndrome and thus felt not even slightly compelled to prove myself worthy. My experience was, however, lovely. The interview part of Transfer involved two extremely impressive and kind profs reading my work (meep) and then asking me what exactly I meant by -most of it-.
Eighteen months after Transfer, I'm still working it out. As far as I understand, I am not actually doing it wrong, but no one has confirmed this for me. I fear that I am a pathetic muppet requiring a pat on the head and confirmation that I am a good dog. On the other hand, I know I'm quite good at, if nothing else, applying for things, and so far the head pats have been generally consistent. (Apart from two failed Rhodes Scholarship interviews, during one of which I offered an interviewer the use of my couch if ever he came to visit).
Early comments on my work included: 'half-baked' and 'this is just intelligent Masters level work'. I had only three weeks prior stopped being an intelligent Masters student (to become a sub-par PRS?), so I was only mortified and not completely and utterly destroyed by this latter comment. Conducting analysis is, admittedly, the best of all of my skills, apart from keeping a tidy email inbox. I am unfortunately, contradictorily and problematically, a theory nerd. One of my chapters got to about page 30 before I let the reader in on which novels I would be analysing. This is why a) I have and need a supervisor who keeps me in line, and b) editing is my superpower. It's all trash to begin with. However, six months before hand-in (next April) I will take out my leaky green pen and make it shine. Or at the very least, coherent.
[Also, to be clear, Masters students are very clever. Especially the ones that leave academia when they're done with their Masters and get well-paid jobs doing anything other than a PhD.]
I have re-written my thesis outline three times in the course of THIS YEAR. Nay, in the course of THIS LOCKDOWN. My ideas, now, finally, in this third year, are concretising. I feel HUGE relief. A disappointing friend told me once that a doctorate involves the process of learning and unlearning. Despite his other failings as a person, he was so right. I have learnt and I have unlearnt, and can confirm the truism that I now know how much I don't know. But, I also have the most ridiculous resumé of transferrable skills. And this has been one of the more important lessons from the last two years of my doctoral life: the thesis is important, yes, but the skills developed in the process are invaluable. My self-esteem is shot to hell, but I am extremely capable at project management, budgeting, campaign planning and execution, public engagement with research, and generally staying on top of amorphous 'stuff'. I've also discovered a few quite important things:
I am not my thesis. I am not my qualifications, or my education, or the red and blue robes that await at the end of this road. I might add Dr to the front of my Twitter handle for six months, and I CANNOT WAIT to renew my passport after I graduate, but actually, my value is not tied to those things, because they are not me. I hope for the sake of my mental health that never again shall my value and my work become entangled.
I am very good at teaching. I like it so much. Young people (caveat: people ages 16-21), respond so well to my methods. They greet me enthusiastically in the pub months after I've taught them. They message me on social media years later to thank me for being 'that' supportive and lovely tutor/lecturer/teacher. It is very gratifying to be good at something, even if you're not properly paid for it. (More on this in future blog posts).
I am a firefighter. I can troubleshoot and problem solve like you wouldn't believe.
Most people only write a doctoral thesis once (unless you are one of those people). It's not something you get good at. And eventually, it will get finished. (Passive voice used here to elide all responsibility or action required on my part.) When it is done, I will, hopefully, be alive for another 60 or so years, and I will never have to write a doctoral thesis again. A very comforting thought.