I am currently between a 6 & 7 with my oldest (MS) and a 4 & 5 with my youngest (PhD).
Some might prefer the roller coaster analogy; but to me, the development, execution, and completion of a thesis is more than just a carnival ride.
What do I know about raising a child (i.e., thesis)? This much:
The moment one is accepted into a graduate program is like (planned) conception. It’s the product of lengthy planning, much counseling, financial investment, and numerous late nights of doing what needs to be done. The moment of reading one’s acceptance letter could even be described as orgasmically ecstatic. In fact, based on how I’ve seen students behave, it should probably be done in private. Nevertheless, this is the moment at which your ideas become a “potential thesis.” Grad life starts at conception.
It is not clear when the thesis will be born, but sometime between conception and part-way through your first year. We can estimate (e.g., 6 mo. to 1 year), but the actual moment will occur spontaneously. You adviser might plan & schedule it for you, but this is unnatural. Natural birth often occurs after months and months of carrying around the weight of extra books, reading until your nauseated, and putting on a few extra pounds from late-night snacking and lack of exercise. The moment it happens, however, is chaotic and miraculous. Often, after many hours of painfully dilating one’s mind with papers & new ideas, a novel concept will pop out. You immediately sever all ties, wrap it, and embrace it as a new unique part of you. It’s weak and vulnerable and looks nothing like a real thesis, but it’s yours and it’s beautiful.
The first year is exciting and tough, with hordes of late nights spent trying to figure out how to nurture your new ideas into a mature thesis. Often, you don’t feel adequate. You are stressed and mentally, physically & spiritually exhausted. At the same time, you’re exhilarated. You’ve brought a new thesis into existence. Who knows what it will become? What awards, scholarships, fellowships will it receive? Nobel? National Medal of Science? The sky is the limit. You pour your heart and soul into what is already a significant reflection of who you are. It’s so precious and beautiful. Sometimes it craps and vomits back all that you’ve put into it, but you love it anyway; you have vested in it your deepest hopes and dreams. It’s nascent, sweet, and novel, and everybody loves it.
4) Terrible ‘too’s
Like SkyNet, your thesis becomes self aware. It’s biting, kicking, screaming. It doesn’t listen. It has learned to say NO! Your preliminary experiments fail. It wants to go it’s own direction, and every time you try to do a redirect, it fights you. Every time you have a novel idea, you find it has already been done. Everyone is telling you that you’re doing something wrong, and offering suggestions. Your computer has tantrums, freezing, beeping, & turning blue. Your mind consistently feels like a soiled diaper. You have just fully realized how poor you actually are and that you have no social life. You feel that you are in over your head; that this was a big mistake; that you aren’t a good grad student. It’s too complicated, too critical, too unrewarding, too unforgiving, too unsupportive, too unstructured, too expensive, too much sacrifice. But you’re stuck at this point, too committed. You aren’t going to hand your ideas off to be developed by some stranger, right? But you are terrified that your thesis is developing into a little uncontrollable monster that you still love, but is ruining your life.
5) The good years
You made it through the ‘toos’ and now your thesis is a perfect little reflection of your ideas. You’ve got it all figured out and it worships you. You know the literature & the methodologies. You’ve secured the funding. Your adviser is quite pleased with what you’ve done. You’re proud of your thesis and have huge faith that’s it’s going to mature into a successful project. You are into a comfortable routine and can see progress being made daily. You feel experienced and give all the new graduate students advice. You are on track to graduate on time and you’re thinking that you’ve turned out a pretty good grad student after all.
Think again. Just when you thought your thesis had matured into a perfect young manuscript, it freaks out on you. Your adviser returns it with red blemishes spattered all over its pages. It’s sassy & rebellious. You are rejected in review. It’s excessively complicated, awkward, and difficult to read. You feel bad, but try to avoid it. It clearly needs you, but acts like you’re ruining it’s life. If you try to reshape it, it rejects your edits; nothing you do improves it. You never knew you could both love and hate something so much. It’s too much work and is out of control. You would rather just walk away. You see the theses of your peers and feel like they’ve turned out so much better. You ask yourself, “Where did I go wrong?” Again, you feel like you are in over your head; that this was a mistake; that perhaps you just don’t make a good grad student. You are counting the days to getting the paper out the door just so you just don’t have to deal with it anymore. And if you don’t get it out the door, it just might live with you, at home, forever.
7) Early adulthood
The thesis has been published as a manuscript in a decent journal. You are quite proud of it. Others have accepted it as a valuable contribution to the literature. It has been cited for the first time and you have been congratulated on a job well-done. You feel like a good scientist. The thesis isn’t perfect, but it’s on its own and has time to develop further, but this development is completely out of your hands, and you’re glad. You revisit it every once in a while, just to check in & see how things are going.
8) Late adulthood
Your thesis has been cited numerous times and helped shape your field of research, at least to some degree. Your thesis is one of the things in life that you are most proud of, one of your greatest accomplishments. You forget all the hard times, and tell people that grad school was one of your best decisions and one of the best times of your life. You feel like you’ve left behind a valuable legacy.
Thanks to Clint Edwards for inspiring me to document one of my late night rants (sensu Dayton 2010).