The Psychological Stages of Thesis Writing

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Although I remain cheerful at this point with a very rough draft of my thesis nearing completion, the more I research and write, the more I’m convinced that thesis writing challenges (and more generally, grad school itself) are at least one-third psychological.

For example, I’ve discovered there are distinct phases one goes through when embarking on a giant, required project such as this:

First, Elation: You’re pumped, thrilled. Your idea is the best ever. You’re going to get it published and print a million copies. If it’s a website, it will become the new Twitter. You are a creative mastermind.

Second, Despair: After about a week of pure joy, you actually begin researching in earnest. The more you read, the more you become aware of how much you don’t know and how much there is left to write. You may spiral into a very dark void of despondency and hopelessness.

Third, Acceptance: Sometime around week 3 or 4, you come to realize that this will never end unless you start writing. So you do. Feelings of hopelessness turn into feelings of plain old overwhelmedness, a familiar and therefore more comfortable place for most grad students.

Fourth, Bargaining: While you’re writing, you play mind games with yourself. I’ll write two pages after I bake this cake, wash the baseboards, write this other piece I’m freelancing, alphabetize my bookshelf, paint this dresser, etc… The urge to procrastinate will be very strong. You may find yourself getting strangely in shape when you take up a new hobby, like running (been there).

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Fifth, Insanity: But there comes a time when you can procrastinate no more. You will write then, possessed by a spirit of desperate productivity the likes of which you may never otherwise know. You will find you can subsist on nothing other than coffee for days on end, as if from some miraculous, biblical tale.  Once the frenzied writing subsides and you sleep for the first time in weeks, re-writes and edits begin. Stay strong, and remove all possible weapons (knives, staplers, cats) from your home.

Sixth, Elation (again), Frustration, and/or Apathy: Then comes the time when you can write no more. You’ve fought the good fight, you’ve reached the end of your semester. Your project has emerged from the cocoon of your seminar class into the big wide world. Everything is now out of your hands. This can inspire a complicated blend of emotions including, but not limited to: relief, ecstasy, pride, joy, fear, frustration, helplessness, lostness, separation anxiety, anger, confusion, apathy, and, perhaps, a new-found understanding of mortality.

But these stages, too, shall pass. So pour a cup of coffee, go do some interviews, seek many hugs, spend hours at your computer, try to be kind to yourself and others, and when it’s all done, celebrate.