thesis thoughts (probably first of many)

One of the most useful things my supervisor told me as I was writing up was that the PhD thesis is above all a finite, time-bound exercise. Scholarship has moved on (alas?) from the freedoms and format of the Braudellian enterprise. The PhD is not, in other words, a magnum opus, not a life work, and certainly not (though I admit it was difficult for me to accept this) a measure of one’s self-worth. In the end, my thesis was at once more than, less than, and different from what I wanted it to be. Other quips: each thesis is never finished, only submitted; each project is never done, only strategically abandoned. And in this way scholarship grinds and plods forward, one hopes, and thus one’s book is always better than and different from the thesis. One hopes.

Still — and inevitably — there are things I wish I’d done differently, things I’ve learned to do better for next time. But that, I realized, is OK too. I thought about it this way recently. The human genome project lasted 13 years and took US$2.7 billion to complete. By the time it ended in 2004, you could sequence the human genome for $20 million in three or four months. Today, you can do it in a week. But you couldn’t, I imagine, do it in a week without having first done it in three or four months, or in 13 years. (Is there an economic principle for this? probably). My PhD certainly seemed at times as though it would take 13 years, and I’d never see the end of it. The whole thing was profoundly, frustratingly, necessarily inefficient. But, onward and upward.

I suppose I will return periodically to PhD-reflection in the coming weeks, but here’s one of my regrets for now: I wish I had kept a consistent progress log throughout the life of my project. I started doing this far too late into the process, but even ten minutes a day of uninhibited, reflective verbiage became, over the few months before submission, splendidly useful. It became a snapshot of my state of mind and thinking at any one point; a tool for self-motivation; a record of where I left off from one day to the next to pick up the thread the next day; and importantly, a permanent and convenient place for idea-capture. Even if many of those ideas were dead ends, and never saw fruition, I can already see that my brief, inelegantly scrawled log will be an invaluable resource to revisit when I come to turn the thesis into a book. If you are starting or in the midst of a major project, I highly recommend it.


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