Guest Blog by Sarah McLewin Kincaid, @SarahJoyKincaid
Thesis writing had been quite pleasant up until this point. Sure, 5:30 a.m.
came fast but there was just nothing like those quiet morning hours of solitude and
intense concentration. I was in my last semester of graduate school, sprinting
through my thesis to get to graduation. The first half of the semester was just
focused on getting a draft together. It was full of exploration, discovery, and sweet
But that’s not where I was anymore. With October behind me, I was entering
into the home stretch. Discoveries had to be defended. Beginnings had to link to
coherent endings. And, worst of all, I needed to make some sense of all the trails I
had blazed. Staring at my draft, cluttered with comments and red lines, I asked
myself, in horror, . . . “ What have I done?” It was as if I had created a beast that was
intent on sucking the life out of me. I stared at my conclusion chapter, completely
lost. What does this all mean? The words echoed in my tired mind.
Since I started my thesis, I had committed myself to enjoying the process.
(For more on why that’s essential read this). I refused to talk about my thesis as if it
were a punishment. After all, I had chosen it. It wasn’t something to hate. It was
something to own, to make the most of, and to relish.
But the day came when I hated my thesis. I hated how poor I was, how tired I
was, how infrequently I saw my spouse, and how short my works outs were. I hated
all of the exploratory research that pointed to areas for future research . . . research I
didn’t have time to think about. It felt like I had unknowingly and masochistically
embarked on a jungle trek that I couldn’t end. “How can I land this plane?” I asked
myself. And, really, I just wanted to jump out of the plane. All that I could think is . . .
I’m done with this!
Fortunately, that’s a familiar feeling for me. Running cross-country is good
training for thesis writing. In a 5k race, once you approach the beginning of the last
mile, you just want to walk off of the course and never run again. Mile 3 takes sheer
will power. You cannot listen to your legs or your breath or your shoulders
screaming to slump over. All you can think about is the finish.
Before, I had enjoyed the process of writing so much. Now I wasn’t enjoying
it and I couldn’t convince myself to. I hated it so much. Hate was a new feeling. It
was overwhelming and so were the revisions I needed to make. “How was I going to
get through?” I asked myself, exasperated and so afraid of failing.
The more I hated it the less motivated I was to complete it. And that’s when I
started to panic . . . because graduating was not optional. So I learned to reckon with
my hatred. And that’s why I’m writing this post. Because if you don’t hate your
thesis or dissertation now, that day may come. So here are four tactics for reckoning
with your hatred and finishing your writing project.
1. Accept the Pain
When you’re running a race (or writing a thesis/dissertation), you are testing
your limits. That sounds like it’s thrilling but it’s really not. It’s miserable. It’s
painful. And it’s ugly. To get through it you must choose to accept the pain. Finishing
always hurts. Once you accept that, it does actually get better.
2. Keep a Finishing Mindset
One major hurdle to finishing was that as I made revisions I found more
problems with my draft than I had time to fix. For example, when I tried to respond
to a comment from my committee I would see three other problems that also
needed to be fixed. To help me focus only on my committee’s feedback, I wrote the
words “FINISH IT” on a post it note and kept it in front of my computer. This helped
me to not worry about odds and ends and focus only on my committee’s feedback. It
also helped me to remember to conserve my efforts. Which leads me to my next
point . . .
3. Make it a little better
At this point, I was so fatigued that it was easier than ever to get discouraged.
If I came across a problematic paragraph my ambition just evaporated. I kept myself
motivated by focusing on what was do-able. If something looked challenging then I’d
simply ask myself, “What will make this a little better?”
4. Quit Early and Fast
Some days I just needed to stop. If you feel you’re not being productive quit
early and fast. If I really felt miserable, I’d often challenge myself to what I call the
15 minute productivity test. I challenged myself to work productively for another
15 minutes. Sometimes that 15 minutes would become a productive hour. And
sometimes that 15 minutes would go to waste. If I couldn’t pass the 15 minute
productivity test, I’d quite. Regardless of whatever I had planned to do that day, I’d
just take the day off from writing, go do laundry, go grocery shopping, exercise, call
a friend, whatever… just do something, anything completely different than writing.
This kept me from wasting hours of nonproductive time in the library. When I took
time off, I found that I came back the next day (or later that evening) refreshed and
ready to work.
I am glad that I made a mental commitment early on in my thesis to enjoy the
process. But because of that I was not mentally prepared for how challenging the
end of the semester would be. I hope that you take delight in your writing project.
But if the day comes that you hate it just remember: accept the pain, keep a finishing
mind-set, make it a little bit better, and quite early and fast!
Sarah Federman, PhD