Thesis prison

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Family Thesiswhisperer has spent the last month in our hometown of Melbourne. We caught up with many friends and relatives while we were there, some of whom are doing or have just completed doctorates. One friend got pregnant twice during her doctorate and had a longer journey than most. While we raised a glass to her recent gradaution I asked her how it felt to be done. “Liberating!” she said “But the last three months was hell. No one avoids that bit right?”.

I nodded emphatically. No matter how well you plan it, there is bound to be a certain period of time where your thesis will dominate your life once you decide it’s time to get it Out the Door.

Part of the problem is that a thesis is such a long project. Many of us have to go back to a full time job before it’s entirely finished. Still more of us study part time from the very beginning and have to juggle multiple commitments the whole time. When your thesis time demands increase they can temporarily squeeze out all the other things that normally keep you sane.

Exercise, socialising, The Good Wife TV marathons are the kinds of things that get cut in order to make way for the thesis. It’s a bit like shrink wrapping your life so that only the boring working bits are left. After about a month or so you can feel like you are in Thesis Prison playing scrabble with the Warden. It’s a rare person who doesn’t get a bit stir crazy.

Thesis Prison is similar to the Valley of Shit, but without the self doubt because there’s no time left. March is peak time for thesis submission in Australia, so I’m sure some of you are in Thesis Prison right now. I can sympathise. Recently I started counting calories and running in an effort to lose my ‘baby weight’ (I should add – my baby is now 13 and taller than me). Over a couple of months I have lost a dress size, but I often felt like I was back in Thesis Prison.

So here are 4 tips for getting fit and/or surviving Thesis Prison. I’d love to hear how you are dealing with Thesis Prison in the comments.

Put on your damn shoes

Even though we all know that having a routine is valuable, sticking to it is much easier said than done. Although I’ve come to enjoy running, I almost always don’t really want to do it. But if I put on my running shoes I know I will eventually I will force myself to go because I’ve started the process.

Routines consist of smaller actions done in a certain order.

So, just sit down at your desk and start doing something. Anything. Try some small, but necessary tasks. Good examples are filing and tagging references in your database, cleaning and formatting data, copy editing etc. If you find you are developing a new kind of deferment activity, set a timer to limit it by using the pomodoro technique.

Conversely, just open your document anywhere and pick a place to start writing. Tell yourself that you can always throw it out if it’s crap. Or start reviewing your writing with Claire Aitchinson’s ‘storyline’ technique (described here by Cassily Charles) or Rachael Cayley’s ‘reverse outlines’. Both of these techniques are great for zooming out from a close engagement with your text to see the bigger picture. They can also help you spot opportunities for new writing.

It’s all about time served

Nobody even noticed my lifestyle changes until I’d lost nearly 10 kgs, which took around 3 months. Most of the time I just felt like I was missing out on all the cake and getting nowhere. Similarly Thesis Prison can be disheartening because Progress is often invisible. It’s possible to spend a whole day at your desk and feel like you have achieved nothing.

One solution is to visualise the progress somehow.

If I weigh myself once a week or measure my waist I can see the progress. I use the running apps on my phone to measure distance travelled and calories consumed. Likewise when I was doing my thesis I stuck a piece of graph paper on the wall next to me and charted my progress by colouring in a block for every 1000 words. We follow a similar principle in our Thesis Bootcamps where we hand out squeezy lego blocks for every 5000 words written. It sounds silly, but it works. Of course, there’s an app for that! Try the Writing Journal or use the progress bar tool in Scrivener.

Don’t compare yourself to the other runners

You see the same people running in your neighbourhood. There was one woman I started to think of as the Queen of Running. She always looked immaculate and barely seemed to raise a sweat as she lapped me easily. I stared at her enviously as I huffed around the park feeling like death warmed up.

Compared to the Queen of Running I felt like a faker, or at least totally inadequate. Then one day a friend stopped me on campus to say she’d seen me out on my run and nearly didn’t recognise me because I ‘looked like a pro’. She said I had inspired her to start running (presumably because if I could do it anyone could) and asked me if I could give her some tips. I was astonished. I just assumed I looked the way I felt on the inside while I was running.

The lesson? Thesis Prison distorts your perception of yourself. Everyone is running their own race. Just concentrate on winning yours.

Change it up

Running can be boring, so it’s necessary to change the route often and spend money on whole new playlists and outfits (that’s my excuse anyway).

Writing can be really boring, so try a diagram, or a matrix to progress your wrtiting in different formats. I have a hand out here which shows how you can use a spider diagram to ask questions. There is a good page here, designed for primary school teachers, full of other writing diagrams you can play with.

Alternatively, you could try setting up a matrix to play with your thoughts and see if you can make connections between ideas. There’s a good description of the basic concept on the My Studious LIfe Blog (where I stole the idea from) and I have worked this up into a handout you can print out and work from. A matrix is a helpful way to write because, while it forces some hierarchy on your thoughts, it frees you up from having to make transitions or think about what order ideas should be presented in an argument. I’ve written more about both these approaches in my post about how to write faster.

A drastic solution is to take yourself to a new location where you have no choice but to finish. You could go on a research retreat; read Kylie Budge’s story about going to New York to finish her thesis for inspiration.

I still have another 12 kgs of baby weight to lose. I hope these techniques keep working for me. How about you? How are you coping with Thesis Prison? Any tips for your fellow prisoners?

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