Today I emailed in the first complete chapter of my thesis to my supervisor. YES!!! I’m sure I’ll still edit it another 5 times before it’s the version that ends up in my actual dissertation, but for now it’s done. It’s got graphs and figures and loads of references, and hopefully what he thinks are some good ideas too. And now, I feel like a nap.
Getting ready to write
Going through and collecting the data is one phase of research. Then there’s the data analysis. Both of these stages come with their own challenges and pain and frustration, but you get through them. Finally, the time comes to sit down and write it all into a chapter. It’s exciting and daunting at the same time.
The first thing to do is get all the materials ready. I sometimes think of my chapters as a baking recipe. I get all the ingredients ready on the counter and then I put them together. Sometimes I get all the ingredients together and realize I don’t actually have any baking soda. Argh! I have to go to the store and get some.
Writing a PhD is the same way. I get all my ingredients together: any drafts I’ve written previously, the statistical analyses, any graphs or figures I’ve made up, references I’ll need. And I’m ready to go. I’ll have this done in no time – boom! Done!… or so I think.
Yeah right. I remember someone telling in my masters: “take how long you think it will take, double it, and add a few days/weeks/months”. A better measure of time in grad school; sums it up pretty accurately.
What writing a chapter really looks like
This particular chapter I just finished was actually drafted on the beaches of Bali last year so all I really had to do was update it with this past summer’s data and update the discussion. Easy peasy, right?
When I sit down to write, I have all my ingredients in front of me but they aren’t really put together. At the end of the chapter, I have to be able to answer these fundamental questions: “What has my work added to the literature? What have I contributed to my field?” The answers to those questions are always apparent to me when I sit down to write the chapter, so I just put it aside… hoping the genius will come to me later.
I start writing the chapter from the beginning. What have other people found? What is my research objective and how does it fit with what we know already? The intro comes pretty easy.
The methods are easy too. That’s just a description of what I did already.
The results… well that’s where it starts to get tricky. Just because the stats are done and the graphs are done doesn’t mean the results are done. Most data graphs are made in Excel. Excel can make some pretty good graphs and gives you a lot of control over colours and size and axis labels. Pretty good graphing program. Word, which is where you will eventually import your graph and is part of the same programming suite, doesn’t really like Excel. They’re like two siblings that sometimes get along and then sometimes… out of nowhere… they hate each other. Every time I take a graph into Word, I cross my fingers it’ll work. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes Word will decide it doesn’t like your font, or colours, or placement, or size of the graph. Sometimes it wants to put the graph in a different chapter and smaller and harder to read. Sometimes it all goes well. And sometimes I want to throw my computer out the window.
This work of getting the graphs to look good, be accurate, and display all the correct information can take hours and days. This is on top of all the time it took to even decide what kind of graph or figure to use in the first place. Do I have to invent it? Or is there a template out there that I can use? Any time you make something from scratch, it’ll take longer, but it will be tailored to your work. A template takes less time, but may actually end up taking more time to make it do exactly what you want it to do. And all of that is an experiment… and sometimes I get sucked into the figure-making black hole… and I may not come out for days.
Eventually though, the graphs are good and they are in word and they are lovely. The text for the results section comes together pretty easy… until I’m writing a sentence and think: “Oh… it would be really good if I could say how many people actually did this thing…” And then I’m back looking at all the data outputs only to see that I didn’t run that specific test. So then it’s back to the raw data to quickly run one more statistical test so I can get one more p-value to put in brackets at the end of that critical sentence about how many people had bear spray on their hike, and…
There. That’s better. Moving on. Until…
Then I’m at the discussion. The discussion is by the hardest part to write for me. It’s the “so what” of your work. So what if people think this and bears do that? Why should anyone care? How does this add to the body of knowledge.
When I’m ready to write the discussion, the first thing I do is go back to my results. What did they say again? Wow… that graph sure is pretty… what does it say? What does that mean?
When I write the discussion, I always start with the references of what other people have found… then somehow… as if by magic, what it all means becomes clear to me. I can suddenly see how my work fits into this context. I see how my results either corroborate or conflict with someone else’s. I can see how my results might be specific to my study area and that’s why they’re different. And I can see where the research gaps still lie. So even though the discussion feels like it’s going to be hardest part, it’s just getting started that’s hard. Because the reality is that I know my work better than anyone else and I can figure out how it contributes to my field because that’s why I wanted to do it in the first place.
I wanted to do a PhD because there was a gap in knowledge and I’m slowly, one chapter at a time, starting to fill that gap.
But it’s not done. Editing… I edit every chapter 3 times before I send it to my primary supervisor. Then I incorporate his comments. Then I send it to a few other supervisors, and incorporate their comments. Then I send it to the whole committee, and incorporate their comments. While getting it ready to send to committee, I also make a manuscript that I submit to a peer-reviewed journal. That will come back with edits for sure.
But eventually it all gets done. And that day is awesome.
Not to take away from today though. Because the day I hand it in to my supervisor is the first step and that’s awesome. So today, I celebrate the small victories, because each one gets me closer to being Dr. Sarah.