One of the mysterious things about writing a thesis is the ability to be both making progess and yet simultaneously be completely discouraged by a lack of progress. Some days it seems that for every word I write, I actually fall further behind. The thesis grows into a larger, darker, more evil creature the more I feed it. How on earth can this be? I think it is mostly the increasing awareness of how much could be done on my subject. Each word makes me realise how many words I’m leaving out, how many words others have said, and how many words it can take to express an idea.
When I first started, I suppose I envisioned the thesis as a series of essays on the same general topic, and tied together into a cohesive document. Which is sort of true. But, and I’m not even quite sure how to explain this, it isn’t like that. A thesis is not simply a really long essay, or even several of them put together. I’ve written more papers in my academic career than I can remember and this isn’t like anything I’ve done so far. And it’s not just the length. Not only is it longer, but it all together ‘feels’ different. Presenting your research and ideas in this format is quite different than an assigned essay in a class–even one you get to choose. Heck, I even wrote a thesis in undegrad, and this isn’t really much like that either. For one thing, this thesis has consumed my life for the better part of a month–and I do mean from the time I get up to the time I go to bed–and off and on for well over a year leading up to it. And yet despite this significant investment of my time, words seem to inexplicably fail me. I seem unable to actually write words that accurately convey what I want to.
Another frustration is the sheer number of tangents that can arise within any given section. Take my latest beast: the role of the media. (read here if you don’t know what my thesis project is) Great idea for a chapter, but working on this section has left me wondering just what I was thinking when I thought it would be a great idea to add to my thesis. Sure, on paper it makes sense. But to cover the role of the media in either Northern Ireland or the United States could probably justify an entire thesis of its own. My ability to condense that possibility into a chapter that is the length of one essay is quite questionable. Can’t I just condense, summarise, and leave things out? Easily said, but you try staring at two dozen books, a handful of articles–and don’t forget the archive material you’ve uncovered–and try to streamline that. It isn’t easy.
I’m trying to remind myself that the purpose of this thesis project is simply to demonstrate that I can, in fact, research and write in a way that the professional historical world has deemed appropriate. Breath in, breath out. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It won’t be perfect. I don’t need to shatter the foundations of historical scholarship (though it does need to contribute to ‘scholarly understandings’). I just need to do a good job and turn it in. For every area I didn’t touch, for every concept that got shortchanged, I can return and improve in some sort of later publication if I so choose. Or I can walk away from it forever. Here and now, submission of a completed document is what is important.
And yet, this is all oddly quite addicting. I do love it. For all the frustrations, hindrances, and problems, I do love it. Yes, there are moments I contemplate burning the entire thing and taking up a career in forestry, but there are moments of research, writing, and editing where everything just comes together and it works. And those moments make it all worth it.