It’s always further than it looks.
It’s always taller than it looks.
And it’s always harder than it looks.
The 3 rules of mountaineering.
As the final step of my MA degree, I’m finally working on my Master’s Thesis (or pro gradu thesis, as it is called in Finland). The thesis seminar started in January, and so far I’ve written a few pages on secondary material and my research plan. In the paper, I’ll investigate teacher discourse in a drama-influenced foreign language class. (I’ll most likely end up posting something or other about my thoughts on teacher discourse later on during the summer.)
The target length of the thesis is between 50 and 100 pages, so it’s the most extensive piece of academic writing I’ve ever attempted to conquer. Since most university students graduate with Master’s degrees in Finland, the gradu is a big deal and there’s a lot of hype about how working on your gradu is about as exhausting as climbing Mount Everest. On the one hand, I’m thrilled to be at this stage of my studies – working on my gradu literally means I’m pretty close to finishing my Master’s. On the other hand, I can’t help buying into the “oh, it’s just so grueling” frame of mind.
Ironically, the Mount Everest metaphor actually helps me with working on my gradu. It’s a big undertaking, sure. But there are similarities I can leverage to my advantage. Not that I’ve ever climbed a mountain in my life, either. 🙂
Practice, practice, practice
Quite like conquering Mount Everest, you wouldn’t start writing your gradu without some preparation or practice. I don’t think there are many people for whom Mount Everest is the first peak they’ve climbed.
My first shot at academic writing was my tutorial essay on my freshman year. It dealt with learning motivation. If I read it today, I’d probably cringe so much I’d dislocate my jaw, so I won’t. 🙂 After that, I’ve written several papers for different courses, not to mention exam answers and other smaller works. Each of them sucked just a little bit less than the previous ones.
When reading other seminar participants’ contributions, I’ve been able to spot points to improve on and questions to consider. That, if nothing else, has showed me that I have indeed developed an understanding of what a piece of academic text should be like. Even if I can’t write fabulous academic text the first time around, I’ll at least be able to see where the biggest gaping holes are.
Reinhold Messner climbed Mount Everest alone in 1980 – and without any extra oxygen. The thing is, though, that he’d climbed a fair number of mountains before that, and even conquered Mount Everest once before with a companion. In other words, he’d had enough practice to attempt going solo.
For the rest of us, attempting to conquer a huge goal without support from other people would spell disaster. That’s why pro gradu theses are most often written during seminar courses, where the teacher and other participants offer their feedback and suggestions. You have to be able to think of them as helping you instead of judging you, though, for the support to work.
I wrote my research plan on the day of the deadline. I knew the deadline and had most of the material long before that, but for some reason (i.e. pregnancy brain and then fatigue caused by taking care of a newborn) I didn’t get it done. Furthermore, I didn’t even get it started until the week of the Friday deadline.
The reason? My perfectionist mind insisted that I have to create a beautiful, finished piece of text for the group to admire. It took the looming deadline for me to realize that any piece of mediocre text commented by ten people is infinitely more valuable than a fine-tuned text handed in late so no-one has time to read or comment.
Nine months pregnant, with hormones fogging up my brain, I gave myself permission to not fret about the thesis too much. After giving birth to a beautiful little girl, I gave myself permission to spend the rest of the spring taking care of me and her, and not fret about the thesis too much. “Come June, I’ll really get serious with the gradu,” I told everyone. And myself.
Two days ago, I noticed it’s June. I managed to stick to my decision and spent 15 minutes working on my thesis. Yesterday, I spent 15 minutes, and today I managed to squeeze in a whole 45 minutes in 15 minute increments. My husband has promised me he’ll take care of the baby during the times I’m working on my thesis, so I won’t have to interrupt the 15 minute focus.
You don’t climb a mountain by hanging out at base camp and talking about it. It takes muscle work. Sure, you need to plan what to do, but in the end, you have to put in the effort. On the other hand, there are days when you just have to rest so as to not injure yourself or burn out. And even then you’re showing up if you’re not packing your bags and heading on home. 🙂
As for the quote at the beginning of this post, I’m sure it applies to my Master’s Thesis as well. Every single time I open the file and spend 15 minutes working on it, my todo-list expands as well. For every paragraph I finish, I find a few points to elaborate on somewhere in the text. But the summit is there, somewhere in the distance.
And once I get to the summit and finish my Master’s Thesis, I’m done with my Master’s degree, and the next step is graduating and getting a Real Job. But I try not to think about that too much. I might get vertigo. 😉
Thank you so much for reading again, and keep catching your own insightings!