A thesis: writing convention vs research

A PhD or an M Phil for that matter requires patience and perseverance. When newbies set off on their journey of undertaking a Higher Degree by Research, we are daunted with the phrase “original contribution.” What is your original contribution to the knowledge base?

I for one, when I started, was anxious. Would I be able to do it? Do I have what it takes to make an original contribution to knowledge? I was often plagued with this negative thought that kept on saying “who do you think you are to be professing to be able to make a contribution to knowledge?”

Yes, some of us are pretty confident of our abilities. But not all. And sometimes having less confidence works for our advantage because we work so much harder to achieve what we want to achieve, is that not right?

Thesis writing can be challenging, as many of us are told and then experience through our own toiling. My earlier attempt at a Master of Philosophy was embarked upon with that fear of the unknown, with the adrenaline of the excitement of doing my own research, and also with the foreboding of a topic that oftentimes became elusive.

As the months slowly progressed through, I started to realize a thesis was not so much research. It required more patience, perseverance, conformity to writing structures, formatting that borders on rigidity and repetitions.

By the time I was done with my thesis, I was fed-up of writing and rewriting. At that point the prestigue of a PhD has gone down in my mind. Earlier I held a person with a doctorate on a very high pedestal. Alas, it changed. And from that point forward PhD sounded less challenging and more of a boredom.

And now, I am reminded of it again. I have passed the first 6 months of the current research journey of attempting a PhD. I have submitted my candidacy proposal just minutes ago and thought I will reflect on the 6 months.

I started with the knowledge that the candidacy document is in effect the introductory chapter of the thesis. Some modifications would be required, alas, not much. I also knew, by the time I was done, I will have more or less sketched the literature review chapter, as well as methodology chapter. I also knew, whatever I wrote I will have to re write many times. I knew that I will write a lot of the literature in the style of the literature review, but later on chop bits and shuffle things here and there and knew through experience that I will be losing a lot of my thoughts in the process of these shifts. More importantly, or detrimentally, I knew it just took some patience (not any genius) to write the candidacy proposal.

Therein was the curse. I felt lethargic to even start on that process. With the earlier M Phil research, I was unaware and hence it was a learning journey and as such a rewarding journey. This time around it is like just a dull pain.

Therefore, progress has been slow. I worked about a day a week and then the rest of the week I brooded, day dreamed, or had wishful thinking of finding inspiration to just get it done in a breeze. It never happened. Every fortnight just before the meeting with the supervisor, I coughed up some words and surprisingly, and sometimes annoyingly, she was happy with my progress. There I was, always cursing myself for my lethargy and there she was being very positive.

I wanted to have a complete rough draft of the document by end of May. It did not happen. A very, very rough version did happen. But it was not even near complete. I managed to complete a rough complete first draft only by July 10th. Still, it was not readable by another. It was a rough compilation of what and where my research was going. I finally had verbalised my thoughts. It took editing and re-writing for four more days before I could muster the will to let my supervisor read it. I know! I do have the perfectionist syndrome. And believe me when I say, I was working on it 24 x 7 those few days. That needs to be taken with some grain of salt as we have to cut down about 4 hours for household chores and about 4 hours of sleep, and couple of hours for the kids.

So yes, my supervisor got to read the document on 15th July. She read it and returned with comments within 2 days. In those 2 days I was fully occupied with freelance proofreading. I was exhausted of words! To my surprise and also disbelief my supervisor said I was going good. Nothing much constructive criticism was recieved.

That complete document I sent for review was 9 pages over the page limit of 10 pages. Which basically means I had to get rid of half of the blabbering I have done. Believe me, it’s harder to cut things off once you have tried to make it flow sentence by sentence. Taking half those sentence and making it flow again is tedious work. So the days that followed, I was reading it over and over again, cutting words, phrases, abd sentences here and there; and by the time I reached the end of the document a half page or a bit more is taken out. I start the process over again, and again get rif off another half page. Keep repeating for 10 days and finally I was down to 11 pages. I shared the document with my supervisor and took a break from reading. And again the next couple of days I am reading and re-reading here and there to find ways of condensing it a bit more to take off that one extra page without compromising on what I wanted to say.

And phew! finally. I have done it. For a month, all I have done is edit my own writing, shuffling things, rephrasing sentences and paragraphs, checking over punctuations and grammar, and trying to make the document flow after all that word crunching. Totally exhausted. And that’s why I say, a thesis is more patience than research. Some might think aren’t I being a bit cocky about this when I have only managed to submit my candidacy proposal, with the bulk of the work yet to be done! Well, you could be right. But I am talking based on my experience from earlier M Phil. The way I see it now, M Phil or PhD does not make much difference. The difference is only in the number of years that you have to extend your patience of pursuing the same topic and being game with the reading and re reading and writing and re writing. Also the difference would be in the expectations on you – a PhD student is expected to publish and also participate in conferences more. And of course there is a distinction on the degree of original contribution a PhD should make over an M Phil. Believe me, that is minimal!

I will end this rant praying for a bit more patience for me to see this thesis through to the end. I do need a lot of prayers to get me going this time. The 6 months has been like an eternity. Another 2 years and 6 months and therefore countless re reading and editing and re-editing yet to be endured.

This is just my humble opinion about what it takes to earn a PhD. Experiences for other people might be different. Also, it might be different in other disciplines. I would like to believe my experience is somewhat common to the humanities overall.

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aminath

I write as I think. I think as I write.

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