I have officially created the first draft of the first complete chapter of my PhD thesis. That feels good… no GREAT! There is still another field season of data collection, so parts of the chapter may change a lot before it’s actually done and submitted to a journal. The introduction, methods, and some of the results and discussion, however, will likely stay the same. Things with the results and discussion will change somewhat as I add more reference and see what comes out of another year of data. But the first draft is there – all 28 pages of it.
Letting go of attachment
The reality of writing of a thesis is that it’s always changing and you’ve got to be able to accept and appreciate that. This first draft will change many times before it’s done, and each of those changes will make it a better and stronger chapter. Obviously, the text will change as I edit it to be clearer and more succinct, but there will be some big changes too – especially as I shape the meaning of it all in the discussion.
Last week, I emailed my supervisor a graph and asked a question about putting the error bars on it. He emailed me back and told me that the graph was all wrong, that I was displaying the wrong information and that I couldn’t use that graph at all. It honestly took me the better part of an afternoon to make that graph and at first I felt so disappointed about that “wasted time”. I turned the computer off and walked away.
I knew my supervisor was right and that the graph wouldn’t work. So I thought about it, I did a bit of research, and I found a totally new way of displaying the data in a different series of graphs that is better. It took the better part of an afternoon to create that figure, but it’s the right one and it tells the story of the data better. This new graph actually helped me see the data differently, which helped shape of the management recommendations I’m putting forward in the discussion too.
The time I spent to make the first graph wasn’t wasted. There is always learning throughout this PhD process. I learned how to make that type of graph, and then I learned why it wasn’t the right graph. I had to learn what was the right kind of graph and how to more appropriately display the data. What’s great about a thesis is that there is SO much learning all the time, and most of it never makes the pages of the thesis. It’s just part of the process. Being able to let go of drafts and mistakes and move on is so important to getting through a thesis efficiently while keeping some shred of sanity.
Being honest with myself
I’m in Bali. I wrote this first chapter here. When I was skyping with my friends and told them I was going to Bali to “get away and focus and write” – they called me on it. My friend laughed and said: “You have to go to Australia to get away and focus and write, and now you have to get out of Australia to get away and focus and write?”
Ok… so I don’t have to get away. I can write a thesis anywhere. I choose to write it in Australia and Bali and wherever I want. Some people need to be an office with no windows to focus and get it done. But I don’t. I’m actually more productive moving around to different environments all the time. To me, it feels like the PhD has taken on a new adventure. I’m doing this PhD in style – my style.
Writing a PhD is all about redefining convention. A PhD is supposed to contribute something new to your field of knowledge (see my previous post), which is great. But I think, with modern technology, I can also help to redefine the convention of how a PhD is written. I’m studying grizzly bears in Australia. Sometimes people ask me why I bother to come to Australia if I can do everything remotely anyway. I say, “why not”? Why not come to Australia to write a thesis on grizzly bears? And why not take my laptop with me to Bali and write my first chapter in a bikini and sarong on the beach? And why not take my lap top with me on little road trips in Canada and do some writing there too? If that’s how I work, that’s how I work. I just have to get this thing done, there are no rules about where I have to write it.
What I love about doing a thesis is how independent you can be. There is no schedule, only deadlines. There is a process that you should follow to be successful and there are requirements that have to be met, but how you get there is really up to you. If you want to work in an office with no windows, then go for it. If you want to work in a bikini and sarong, then go for it.
I feel very lucky to have a supervisor who nurtures this independence in me and who doesn’t even blink when I say I’m going to write my first chapter while in Bali. He just says: “great idea” and nods his head. And that’s because I deliver. I say I’m going to write a chapter in Bali and I do. And he knows that. He knows that he doesn’t have to breathe down my neck because I follow through and get things done.
This should be fun
I have a motto in life: if it’s not fun, why are you doing it? I know that this PhD will be hard and challenge in me in ways that I can’t even imagine right now. But it’s got to be fun, otherwise why am I doing it? So I’m going to write it in Australia and Bali and maybe Thailand next year. And I’ll write it in my office at home and in my office in Australia. I’ll just be writing it all the time for three years until it’s done. I know this thing will consume me, but I look forward to being consumed (especially if I get to go on tropical adventures to do it). I want to work on my thesis all the time right now, and I know that feeling won’t last forever so I’ll take advantage of it while I can.
One last note
I know some of you are wondering about the results of the visitor survey. Stand by. They will come. I just have to figure out what I can share and what is a little too preliminary to release publicly yet. I can say that the results are interesting and surprised me a little – they always do!