The dissertation dive

I have been thinking a lot about how many of the most important elements of graduate education are quite implicit. One of these elements is the psychological aspect of the thesis process.

People often start out seeing it as a series of procedures: how long should the lit review be? what is a good research question? How do you think about what is an appropriate methodology for the question? What is the best theoretical framework? And while all these are important questions, they don’t have specific answers–each depends upon the kind of question you are asking.

I like to think of the dissertation process as one of diving into a deep pool. It is a little scary, but you can’t dive without going deeply and fully into the water. Similarly, the dissertation process is one of immersion–first into your questions, then your theoretic framework and later into your data. You have to trust that you will resurface and not drown! and learn to live with a state of uncertainty as you sort through ideas and data. In the middle of all this anxiety there is the thrill of innovative and creative work–the occasional edges of excitement as you suddenly have insights (which may just as suddenly disappear 🙂 Occasionally, you realize (and this is where blogging is so important) that you keep rediscovering the same idea (which will vary slightly and develop over time). This is good–it means this is important to you and will shape over time as you read and develop it.

You can practice diving–you can learn the elements that make up a good dive and similarly you can learn aspects of the dissertation process that will help you hugely as you go along–reading, methodology, theoretical frameworks etc. You need also to use discourse–write, talk, write and talk some more–with each iteration, you will clarify your thinking.

Yet at the heart of diving and dissertations there is something less tangible–more creative and risk-taking. You dive into the air, trusting that you will enter the water at a good angle and the dissertation is also a creative act–you are developing an original constribution to the literature, and no creative process can be entirely procedural nor be accomplished without risk-taking. In the case of the dissertation the risk-taking is attached to your own personal identity–that is partly what makes it so stressful.

I don’t know if this makes sense to any of you, but I put it out there for you to think about, so that when these things happen to you, you can recognize them and know they are normal–everyone feels these anxieties, and I suspect you can’t do a really good thesis without them!

777 comments for “The dissertation dive

Comments are closed.