Stuck with the thesis? Here is a spiritual guide


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In “How To Tame Your PhD” Ingrid Mewburn identifies common mistakes and frustrations of PhD candidates, those who cause the thesis to become an endless process.

In this book you will not find explicit guidance on how to organize a thesis (for this there are other interesting books). However, it will be helpful if you get easily “installed” on your computer without purpose and clear objectives, if you changed the subject several times or if your pending readings are already unfathomable.

Are particularly interesting the most common #phdemotions, a conversation promoted by Mewburn in 2011. The impostor syndrome deserves a special mention, linked to the more popular “I know that I know nothing”, Mewburn explains this fear of being a fraud to the academic community and remarks: “a person with an intelligence problem may never think their work is good enough to hand in to the examiner.” (l. 83*). In this regard I also found a a long debate in Spanish..

Social science researches are particularly exposed to these procrastination routines, due to the usually individual nature of their research activity and the need to maintain a strict discipline and motivation for a long period even without intermediate results. This is the ideal scenario for the development of our procrastinator self, who “rather than risk failure, prefers to create conditions that make success impossible” (Surowicky, New Yorker).

A major consequence of reading this book is to become aware of the key role of the supervisor. Mewburn argues it in a couple of posts in her blog, highlighting: “a great researcher is not always a great supervisor. If someone is at the top of their field they are probably going to be too busy to spend heaps of time reading your work – or soothing your fears”. (l. 164).

One aspect that is cause for resignation in the departments is the infrequent participation of doctoral students in academic events. Go to thesis presentations, conferences or seminars is an opportunity to build networks with other specialists, at least if we envision the thesis as the beginning of a long academic career. This participation in the social life of the university should not be limited to a single circle of specialists, but extended to other areas that are not ours. Creativity is an “import/export business”, if we keep participating “within a [single] discussion cluster, information, beliefs and Behaviours tend to become more homogenous over time” (l. 354).

Mewburn also mentions a key strategy in the literature review: “more than a list of things you read – it has to have an argument and a point of view.” (l. 374) and remembers a sadly common element in many publications in social sciences: “Indeed you may discover that ‘facts’ presented by subsequent authors are merely ‘ideas’ which have grown pretensions by being repeated by subsequent authors, who haven’t done due diligence like you have.”

The most practical recommendation I found from Mewburn about the writing process is not in this book but in this blog post: The zombie thesis. Here you will find a guide to create reverse outlines, a methodology to identify inconsistencies in the plot of the thesis.

I’ve shared some key points of the book but its reading contains many more. The ebook format costs just over 3 euros and allows Mewburn to continue working on her superb blog, so I can only encourage you to buy it (I have no affiliation with the author).

* These numbers do not refer to the page but to its location at the Kindle ebook.

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