Category Archives: thesis

The little black cloud of research ennui

Mondays are my favourite day of the week. Each Monday, I get up at six (read: my alarm goes off at six and I roll out of bed any time between six and twenty past) and make the commute to uni. Once there, I spend a few hours holed up in the office, working in silence until one of my office mates arrives. We enjoy shooting the breeze for a bit and then it’s back to work for another “few hours of power.”

My Mondays might sound like your idea of hell. Perhaps you’re a night owl or work best surrounded by people? I confess I’m more of a morning person, but even I find the 6am(ish) starts a challenge. I also really enjoy being in our shared office and am definitely guilty of gas-bagging or asking questions a bit too much on occasion :). Despite this, my Mondays really work for me. There is something almost magical about them; my to-do lists get completed, my thesis word count starts to look a bit healthier  and the thinking about knotty questions finally happens.  For me, I think my Monday productivity is result of a fresh start to the week, scheduling time to write and tweak my studies and having to make sure I put in quality work so I don’t feel guilty leaving early to attend a dance class! Whatever the reason, these Mondays (and sometimes Wednesdays and Fridays) of power have recently led to some positive outcomes: I designed half my measure, finished the bulk of an assignment, recruited participants and wrote a grant application, three-quarters of two manuscripts and a modification request. All in a month. I was sickeningly productive. Everything was peachy….

Cue the plot twist…

I’ve now hit a period of research ennui.  Every PhD student I know has hit a period of research ennui; the state of being simultaneously excited about where you’ve come but daunted by where you have to go.  It’s as if a little black cloud of research angst rolled in without anyone noticing and regardless of age, stage and research topic we were all caught without an umbrella as the heavens opened. I’ve gotten caught in a light shower of it myself, but it’s still annoying.

English: rain

English: rain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What came down in the shower for me was the need to face some knotty research questions  and fill a black hole sized gap in the literature in order to create a measure. On the one hand things are going well with my research because my studies have clarified what is going on and have this has practical applications. On the other hand however, I now need to run at least two more studies, figure out how to make them methodologically sound despite the meagre supporting literature available and then make an educated guess and leap of faith in designing my measure. It’s all a little scary. To be honest, it’s not the challenges these pose, the uncertainty or the need to really stretch myself that bothers me though. More than anything it’s catching myself second guessing my ability to make it all happen that annoys me.  So you know what little black cloud? Begone, because I’ve decided to make it all happen. Blue skies ahead.

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Filed under A day in the life, Clinical Phd, Reflections, Research, thesis

Hitting the Wall

English: Bricks in a wall.

English: Bricks in a wall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been a weird week. I came back from holidays on Monday and hit “The Wall” by 10 o’clock  Tuesday morning. If you’ve ever been a student, you’ll have experienced The Wall: the state of exceeding one’s ability to focus on and contribute sensibly to the task at hand. This insidious ‘condition’ presents in a number of ways. In severe cases, the afflicted individual may find themselves transfixed by the sheer expanse of a blank Word document or perhaps giggling hysterically with a fellow student at something that, in ordinary circumstances, would not provoke even a glimmer of a smile (typical onset: exam revision).*

Luckily for me, I was able to move past The Wall relatively quickly, following a healthy dose of groaning aloud  (“AAAAAAHHHHH!”), and chuckling at the irony of having hit The Wall with the task at hand. Why was it so absurd ? Well, I was writing a presentation about my thesis, the third in fact in the space of about two months and I actually quite enjoy this sort of thing!!

I still don’t know what was tripping me up. Maybe it was having to recall all the details I had so meticulously culled from my last presentation, a three minute speech about my thesis for a non-specialist audience, so I could use these details in a ten minute presentation for a specialist audience? It might also have been my fear of accidentally lapsing into the wrong version of my thesis presentation if I used similar turns of phrase, given that I’ll be presenting them both within weeks of each other and I have a bit of a habit of memorising things, sometimes without meaning to. Who knows? All I do know is that right now, I’d rather just get up there and wing it! But I know I won’t, I rarely leave things to chance. To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail after all.

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Filed under A day in the life, communication, thesis, writing

Writer’s block: Is it because of procrastination, not feeling ready or something else?

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hands poised at the keyboard or perhaps with pen in hand, you survey the blank screen or paper and IT hits you. The realisation that you need to fill that page or screen with a carefully crafted argument, the knowledge that your thesis will not write itself. But the prospect of writing is daunting. You don’t know where to start, nor do you feel ready. Perhaps you should do something else first? Yes, that seems like a good idea. And is it really procrastinating if it’s productive? You could fill out those research funding forms, print articles or even tidy your desk. These are essential tasks after all…

While I have yet to experience honest-to-goodness-I-could-not-write-if-my-life-depended-upon-it writer’s block (touch wood), like any PhD student there are times when writing my thesis is daunting. While procrastination and waiting to feel ready are often the culprits of writer’s block, procrastination will not get words on the page and as the  ThinkWell team note we have to write before we feel ready, because who ever feels completely ready?! However, sometimes this inability to write cannot be explained by procrastination or ‘lack of readiness’. To paraphrase the late author Ray Bradbury and to apply his observations within a scholarly context, if you find that part of your argument will not eventuate despite honest and active effort on your part, the problem might lie with your subject matter.

I can recall occasions where I have tried to bully my argument onto paper, trying everything from talking it over, to jotting down the main threads, to revisiting the literature from which the argument originated. Having deployed my arsenal of writing tactics with little success, I have wondered whether it might be that this aspect of my argument is tenuous or even unnecessary. These thoughts were not an irrational whim to simply delete everything and start from scratch, we’ve all been there, but the gradual realisation that my argument was not developing because I had taken the wrong path.

As Bradbury implies, at such writing impasses we need to make a U-turn. Yes, the prospect of abandoning part of your argument is daunting and it’s best not to think about all those notes that you will no longer be using,  but writing is the process of clarifying your thinking, so when faced with a genuine problem with our writing, we need to address it. But what should we do? I can only offer you the solutions I have used in the past: stepping away from my thesis to gain some perspective, returning to it with fresh eyes and considering how my argument might progress differently, discussing these ideas with my supervisor and beginning to write again. Will that work for you? I don’t know, but it will work better than ignoring the situation and the realisation that I needed to pursue a different topic did help me write this blog post. In fact, the only reason you have a blog post to read is because after many fits and starts Ray Bradbury and the Think Well team helped me realise that my original post was going nowhere fast and needed to be abandoned!

Hopefully this post will give any struggling writers struggling a sense from this post that they are not alone, and maybe even some ideas to consider. I would also like to acknowledge that some of the ideas in this post were inspired by the ThinkWell workshops I attended and what they taught me about procrastination, ‘readiness to write’ and using writing to clarify your thinking. Last but not least, no ulterior motives here, I am not affiliated with ThinkWell, I just found what they had to say helpful : )

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Filed under Clinical Phd, Research, thesis, writing

Fragments

My personal radiograph

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These past few weeks have been anything but  typical. I’ve given a campus tour to prospective students which took me to the robotics program of the university, some of my classes went on temporary hiatus and life has thrown me a few curve balls, the least of which being  the news that the soreness in my foot is not due to a sprain but a stress fracture.  Things have been a bit fragmented lately in more ways than one.

Given all the events of the last few weeks it  seems likely that my thesis would have stalled a bit. Much to my chagrin however, quite the opposite seems to have happened. I’ve been granted conditional ethics approval for my first study and I’ve written most of my research proposal. I’m still trying to work out how that happened. One minute my proposal was 1000 words long and seemingly in the next minute it had expanded to 4000 words! Of course it’s Murphy’s Law that something will go wrong with my thesis at some point, but that’s okay. Being a bit ahead now will help.

Moving from anticipation of setbacks to past challenges I seem to have made some progress with my writing. When I was working on my last draft I really focused on trying to move from the general to the particular and making sure my point was clear  and it seems to have paid off.  That’s not to say that there isn’t still plenty of room for improvement with my writing or that I didn’t dive straight into the details, because I did, but I can see progress. The coursework side of things also seems to be going well. I passed my latest counselling assignment and got some positive feedback. It’s already funny looking back at how alien counselling techniques and psychological test administration, scoring and interpretation seemed at first. I’m by no means an expert in these areas yet, that will take years of practice, but I am certainly learning a lot and becoming more confident.

Until next time, good luck for your endeavours and I hope your last few weeks have not been as fragmented as mine!

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Filed under A day in the life, ethics, research proposal, test administration, thesis, writing

The Finish Line Part 2: Binding, submission and postgraduate applications

Last minute hiccups are the last thing you want when finalising your thesis. Unfortunately I encountered my fair share. I had reached the stage where all I had left to do was to organise my contents page, appendices and print four copies of my thesis. Simple and stress free, right? Wrong! Microsoft Word 2007, a wireless printer and one particularly troublesome appendix refused to play ball. Thanks to some improvisation and my parents pitching in I managed to get it all sorted out and could have hugged the person who served me at Officeworks when they told me my theses would be bound within half an hour. All that was left to do was go home and tell all my friends the good news!

I walked into uni on the 20th of October grinning like a Cheshire cat. You could spot all the Honours students a mile away by our distinctive grins. I climbed the stairs to the School of Psychology with excitement, knocked on the Honours coordinator’s door and handed in my theses, I had done it! It felt amazing, I simply could not believe it. I found my supervisor to share the good news and the celebrations continued the next day as the Honours students and supervisors met at a local pub to let our hair down. When eleven o’clock came round that night it was clear that the last week had taken its toll on all the students. Most of us had left or were leaving in pursuit of some well earned shut-eye!

A fortnight has now passed but the satisfaction of having handed my thesis still hasn’t worn off. As always though there has been no rest for the wicked. My fellow students and I immediately entered the next stage of feverish preparation, applying for jobs and or postgraduate courses. I fell into the latter category having applied for eight postgraduate PhD, Clinical PhD and Clinical Masters programs. I found three potential supervisors, wrote two research proposals, produced countless synopses of why I wished to apply, detailed my work and voluntary experience and found some kind referees.

I have applied so widely because more than anything I want to continue my studies with psychology. Ideally, I would like to gain a position in a Clinical PhD program (at my current university) so that I can go onto to be involved in both research and practice. The competition is fierce though. On average there are a hundred applicants per course, thirty of these applicants are short-listed for an interview and only seven to ten people will receive an offer. It is a blessing in disguise that I  have an exam to prepare for and that shortly afterwards I will find out my Honours grade and whether I have made it to the interview stage.

My philosophy is to always do my best but expect nothing external to come from it.  This way if anything does, it is a pleasant surprise. By the same token, if nothing arises, I can be satisfied with the knowledge that I have given my best and have no ‘if only’ regrets. I must admit though I am finding it hard to remain so pragmatic about my postgraduate application outcomes, I want that Clinical PhD so badly!! Regardless, if I am not successful I will seek feedback, work on the areas I need to and apply again. All I can do in the interim is throw my energies at the exam, pray and wait…

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Filed under Goals, Honours year, postgraduate applications, thesis

The Finish Line Part 1: Final analyses and drafts

When faced with the looming deadline for your thesis, there are two things you can do: Panic or get on with it. Realistically, you’ll probably end up doing both. I know I did…The weeks leading up to my thesis submission deadline were certainly ‘character building’. First, I realised I had miscalculated one of my variables. You’re probably wondering how anyone could miss something so crucial. I think I had just gotten too caught up in it all. I chose the ‘get on with it’ option in this scenario, it would have been a waste of time to panic or dwell on how I had neglected to notice my mistake, but I do realise now that I need to remember to step away from my thesis/study from time to time so that I can see it with a clear head.

I was far less cool, calm and collected when I faced my second character building exercise. This came in the form of discovering I needed to restructure my hypotheses, condensing three into two. My initial reaction was to PANIC! My stress levels went from 0 to 60 in the space of a few seconds. In fact, it all happened that quickly I didn’t realise how panicked I was until my supervisor pointed it out to me. Why was I so stressed? Well, the hypotheses shape the structure of the results and discussion so I had to tweak these too. In the end, this did not turn out to be the nightmare I had envisaged and it was definitely worth it. What did I learn? Things are rarely as bad as you think they are. Oh and, keep an eye on your stress levels and manage them before they peak [in a perfect world should be the caveat here…I vividly remember my mind going completely blank at one point due to stress, which is not something that has ever happened to me before. And no, this has not deterred me in the slightest from applying for postgrad. The rewards far outweigh everything else in my opinion].

Finally, writing my discussion was the clear winner in terms of the challenges I faced in those last few weeks. Just imagine the pressure (self-imposed as always) to do my study justice, draw all the themes together, interpret my results and come to a conclusion, without being able to show my supervisor a draft.  To say I agonised over my discussion would be fairly accurate.  I looked at past theses for guidance about structure. This was largely fruitless. I soon came to the realisation that there is no right way. I still think my structure is rather unorthodox but it does tell a story. Tell a story, tell a story, tell a story… that was the refrain constantly echoing in my head while writing the discussion, along with every piece of advice my supervisor had ever given me and my high school English teacher’s catchphrase ‘you’ve got to dazzle dazzle’ the markers! Last but not least I gained some much needed perspective from my Mum, who remarked that I had written every other piece of work at university by myself, without drafting, so why was I doubting myself now? Armed with all this, I did simply get on with it. In fact, I continued writing my discussion through an earthquake!

As Arthur Golden said “a mind troubled by doubt cannot focus on the course to victory.” This certainly held true for me in the weeks and days leading up to my thesis submission. Once I dealt with the doubt or stress, I was able to tackle things head on and realise that my doubt was unjustified. And as to victory? I do feel victorious, after eight months of hard work I produced an 11, 967 word Honours’ thesis, but more importantly I have learned so much this year and loved the journey. What more can I ask of myself, having given my all? It’s in the hands of the markers now. Wish me luck.

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Honours thesis presentation

I am one of those unusual (apparently) people who enjoys public speaking. I think it stems from entering competitions in high school, but I’ve never really been terrified of standing up in front of people and performing in some capacity, despite being a self-confessed introvert. Of course I still get nervous, I’m only human, but overall I enjoy it.

As part of a course requirement I had to give a fifteen minute presentation about my thesis to an audience of fellow honours students and faculty members. During the lead up I practiced my speech with a few friends and managed to more or less learn it by heart. I also attended another presentation session to get a feel for how they were run. My preparation was going well until I realised I’d made a stupid error with one of my variables, and that I  also needed to adjust my analyses. This meant that although my introduction, rationale and method section were fine, I had to re-do part of my results section and run a regression the night before! With advice from my supervisor, I had a clear idea of what I needed to do. I must admit though, I ended up working rather late that night trying to get my results in order, coaxing an unruly graph into submission and explaining my findings. It was all very unlike me, I’m definitely the kind of person who likes to start things early and work slowly and steadily.

Despite the last minute mishaps, the next morning I was looking forward to giving my presentation. I was also reassured because my friend and I had a back-up plan. In case no-one asked any questions at the end of each of our presentations we had devised ‘planted’ questions for each other to get the ball rolling.

I was first-up, just like old times. Before I knew it, I had come to the end of my speech, more or less without using my cue cards and I managed to get a laugh from the audience. To my apprehension though, I was greeted by silence. Not a single question… Had I rambled? Spoken too fast? Bored them? Before I could dwell on these speculations, my friend who jumped in with her ‘question.’ Thankfully, that seemed to be the cue for everyone else to contribute. I was so relieved. Mostly, I was asked about how I might explain certain findings and what the literature had to say. These were not too difficult to answer. Someone also gave me a great idea I might pursue in my PhD, if I get that far!

All in all it went very well and I received a few compliments from students and faculty members. I was on a high for the rest of the day. Another welcome development I attribute to the thesis presentations and the looming thesis deadline is the increased camaraderie between the honours students.  In the weeks leading up to the presentations it was not unusual to bump into other students in computer labs running last minute analyses, to chat about trying to make sense of data, findings that went in the opposite direction to predictions, or for some people what to do about their lack of data! It is always reassuring knowing that we are all going through the same challenges.

So, for anyone out there facing their own thesis presentation, enjoy it, it is a good experience and it can give you a fresh perspective about your project. Good luck!

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Filed under communication, Honours year, Research, thesis