Finishing with perspective (and without finding Oz)

This guest post is written by Elizabeth Humphrys, who has recently completed her Masters Thesis. Her day job is investigating student complaints and misconduct at a public university. Here Elizabeth shares her thoughts on the feelings she experienced just before submitting.

I submitted my Masters thesis in October 2010. I recently received the examiners’ reports and was passed without any changes. It took just shy of four years part time, with a year of leave for good behaviour in the middle, to submit. All the hallmarks of graduate research were there: elation, tears, exhaustion, procrastination, productive work, annoyance and deep, deep enjoyment.

In retrospect, none of these emotions or experiences was a surprise.  What was unexpected was the distinct lack of perspective about the ‘quality’ of my work I felt just before I submitted. I knew it would not fail outright, but beyond that I had little sense of what the examiners would think. No matter how many times I read “It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize” I just couldn’t calm those thoughts that the thesis could be better, or more insightful and fretted about the result. I was concerned there was some glaring problem; some catastrophic oversight or drawback that would result in ‘disaster’, or some comment or view that the examiners would think was idiotic. Finally I worried that my insights into the topic would be seen as overreaching or, conversely, just plain ‘obvious’.

I kept looking to others for confirmation these ‘disastrous’ things were not going to happen, but no one provided the reassurance I craved. My supervisor gave me comments of course, and we discussed the chapters. We argued about key points, and, on those occasions where we remained in disagreement, I was confident that my position was defensible. Yet when my supervisor said, about a week before I submitted, that he thought I would be ‘surprised by the feedback of the examiners’ I went into a small panic. What does that mean!?

My partner, who read the thesis, told me he thought it was fantastic and I had nothing to worry about. But partners are meant to say this, aren’t they?! My partner promised he would hold my hand through any possible narcissistic injury that might occur as I read the examiner’s comments. Given my partner is a psychiatrist, I knew this was part truth and part joke. But I also knew he was saying something true: things do not need to be perfect, no one is, and examiners understand this. The reports would give critical feedback which is an essential part of the process of writing in public.

But to return to the motivation for this post…why did I have so little perspective on my own work? While I can’t say I was shocked to get a good result, I believe that had the result come back as minor or major revisions I would also have accepted these as reasonable views. How could I be so uncertain about my own work?

At a personal level it the lack of perspective was connected to my being a natural ‘worrier’.  No matter how much work I did during the thesis I constantly felt guilty if I sat at a café drinking coffee and not reading a journal article. Every weekend activity (as I have a ‘real job’ during the week) was laden with guilt about not working or not working efficiently enough.

The second reason was the difficulty of getting critical distance from the thesis as a whole, no matter how hard I tried. I set chapters aside for periods and went back to them. I had six months leave on two separate occasions where I did little work on the thesis. Each time I did this I managed to gain some distance and map out a new path. But, unlike other large writing projects I have done, these breaks, although they helped me find critical distance on each ‘section’ did not help me see how the sections were creating an overall narrative. I found it difficult to assess whether the question tested in the thesis was, at points, even being answered.

The last reason only became clear to me in the last few days. I think I subconsciously believed that there was some sort of sleight-of-hand, or magic, involved in producing a thesis. I didn’t really believe my key insights were the result of the process of research, analysing data or thinking; they felt more like  luck or chance (although if someone had articulated this to me while writing I would have fervently disagreed). As a result I felt there was something missing. Why did I believe this? Perhaps because insights came slowly and were given due consideration, there was no ‘light bulb moment’ where I ran from my desk to the street to exclaim ‘eureka’ (!).

The perspective I seem to have gained, only in finishing, is that completing the thesis is not magic although it is equally as wonderful. While we would all love to think that glowing examiners’ reports mean we are geniuses, but they are more likely to reflect that a thesis is the product of diligent, hard work; the result of exercising all your practical and intellectual abilities. The achievement is breathtaking, but very much the result of the ordinary process of research. I do wish I had realised this earlier. So my message is: you don’t need to have magic red shoes or follow the yellow brick road; diligent work will win the day.

Related Posts:

Are you getting in the way of your PhD?

The finish line

5 ways to fail your PhD

5 thoughts on “Finishing with perspective (and without finding Oz)

  1. I had exactly this feeling that something was missing both times I submitted a thesis for examination (masters and PhD). All I remember of the time waiting for results was a strange feeling of utterly calm panic.

      • Oh dear yes! And quite hilariously I imagine the same people who have nightmares of failing, were high achievers as an undergraduate and quite likely have never failed an academic course in their life.
        How is it that we know as undergraduates the amount of work put in to an essay is pretty much reflected in the result, but research programs can have us feeling that failure is possible when the same diligence has been applied?

  2. hi,
    Thanks for the post…

    it is easier said than done. I know exactly what you mean about feeling insecure throughout the process, the only validation one usually believe is getting a pass on the thesis. We can’t help it .:)

  3. Pingback: It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize | Brady Robards

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