The epic starting-your-thesis post

As you already know, it’s winter quarter—time to stand at the window, watch the snow fall, make a large pot of coffee, read, make soup, write, eat aforementioned soup, etc. (repeat until March).  As lovely as this all sounds, one anxiety-inducing thing about winter quarter is that there are A LOT of unknowns.  Who will my thesis advisor be?  How will I find this person?  How can I turn my current questions, which are likely big enough to fill a dissertation, into something that I can manage in 30 pages? I don’t know about you, but my heart rate is increasing already.  So, after taking a few deep breaths, remember that you’re always welcome to come by the office and talk to any of us.  But if you’re snowbound, here are my answers to some questions you might have about getting started on your thesis.

*After working on this ever-expanding document for a while, I realize that it may be overkill.  Many of you have already navigated some of these difficult tasks beautifully.  This Q&A amounts to a re-hashing of all of the things that I found stressful when I was starting my thesis.  I hope that it is helpful.

How should I approach potential advisors?

This can happen in a number of ways.  Whether you have already taken class with this professor, are currently taking their class, or have never interacted with them at all, your first meeting should be about gathering information.  That said, approaching a professor that you know only through their profile on the U of C website can feel a little strange.  Keep in mind that for most of these professors, advising student projects is an important part of their job and they have likely done a lot of this in the past.  In other words, even if you’ve never met a professor, s/he will not be surprised to receive the kind of introductory email that you will send.  BUT you will do well to give this email some thought.

The email:

Clearly every professor is different.  Some are more easily annoyed than others. Some are more generous than others.  But I think that there are a few things that are pretty safe to include in an introductory email to a potential advisor.  First, you’ll want to introduce yourself as a MAPH student, and then briefly introduce the preliminary problems/questions/cultural objects that you are thinking of addressing in your thesis.  It is likely that the 1-3 sentence gloss that you will give in this email will feel insufficient to you, but this is something that you will have the chance to expound upon during your meeting.  Sometimes it is helpful to include a sentence connecting your interests to what you know of the professor’s work.  This can indicate to the professor how you imagine that her/his perspective might be helpful to your project (which is just a good thing to have thought about), and it can give both of you a way to prepare for your meeting.  Even if the common ground between the two of you is quite apparent (perhaps you’re approaching a Shakespeare scholar about doing a thesis on King Lear), it is good to try and get specific about how this person might be able to help you, just as a starting point.

The meeting:

As I mentioned before, this first meeting should be about gathering information and also about practicing talking about your thesis ideas.  It might be useful to have such meetings with a few different professors before you “pop the question.” (For more, see Phil’s post “Calling All Lonely Hearts”.)  To prepare for the meeting, you should think a little bit about how you’re going to explain your (still very preliminary) ideas.  If you have a draft of your proposal, you should bring it along and/or email a copy of it to the professor beforehand.  While it can be scary to hand over a draft that you are uncertain about to someone you respect and admire, doing so allows you to get feedback right off the bat.  Not only can this help you with your drafting process, but also, the suggestions that a professor makes about your proposal can clue you in to what kind of advisor they might be, what direction they might want to steer your project, etc.  Other ways to prepare for the meeting: as in a job interview, you should have a few (project related) questions written down.  If you have come to the meeting with a bibliography (or have described your bibliography during the meeting), one good question has to do with what else should be there, but isn’t.  Is there something that you really should be reading that you’ve somehow missed?  The professor will likely (hopefully!) ask some questions of you too.  Try not to stress too much about this part of things.  You are in the early stages of a project, and the professor that you are meeting with hopefully has some appreciation of this.  Answering these questions provides you the opportunity to practice thinking through your ideas aloud and it can also help you to become aware of issues that you should think on further.  Don’t sweat this!

How do I pick an advisor?

In the beginning, try to keep an open mind.  While there may be a really obvious choice in terms of disciplinary interest, things like personality and availability matter too.  You should think through what is most important to you in an advisor and try to assess your own ways of working.  If you are beginning with a pretty clear vision of your project and know that you can work independently, it is probably fine to approach someone who may only meet with you a handful of times  to provide a few suggestions as you’re drafting.  If your ideas still need a lot of honing, it might be good to go with an advisor who has some definite ideas about what’s right for your project and/or someone who wants to meet fairly regularly.  Speaking from personal experience, I fell toward the “needing more guidance” end of the spectrum, (read: had no idea what I was doing) and was really happy to have an active advisor who took the time to read several drafts, to meet regularly, to make plenty of bibliographic suggestions.

Also keep in mind that you can seek the advice of others without committing to the advisor/advisee relationship.  If there is someone whose feedback would be very valuable to you, but is too busy (or high-maintenance or confusing) to be a helpful advisor, by all means, meet with this person!  (And then go home and eat soup.)

What is the point of writing a proposal?

It is true that the proposal is just one step in your larger project. Because it is very difficult to predict where your research will lead you (and thus, what the final version of your thesis will look like), the proposal is often made obsolete by the production of the thesis.  Which is perfectly fine. That said, there are several benefits to giving the proposal its due time and effort.  1.) The proposal can give you a starting point in terms of how you will approach your research.  Thinking through your methodology and your potential conclusions gives you an idea of how to start your work.  2.) The proposal is meant to help advisors understand your project.  Having a clear proposal makes things easier on advisors and can give you some language with which to concisely describe your project to collaborators (like your precept group, etc.)  3.) If you plan to continue in academia, you will be writing in this “proposal” genre again.  This will be good practice for you.

How often should I meet with my advisor?

This is something that you will decide with your advisor fairly early in the process.  I met with my advisor every other week, and I’ve talked to several other people who had a similar arrangement, but meeting more or less frequently can work well too.  If you can get a sense from a professor about how often they would like to meet before you sign on, that might help you to make your decision.  In my own experience, my advisor and I would set our next meeting at the end of each meeting.  This helped me to break my project down into more manageable bits, because I knew how much time I had to complete smaller tasks and report back.

How am I supposed to keep up with my thesis reading when I have a million pages to read each week for my other three classes?!

It was during winter quarter last year that I was forced to face the painful fact that I would often not be able to complete all of the assigned reading for my classes.  Like many of you, I was taking one class with a particularly heavy reading load, and I realized that if I actually completed all of this reading, not only would I never sleep, but I would not pick up a single thesis-related book or article all quarter.  So all of that to say, if your experience is anything like mine was, you’re going to have to make some difficult decisions about prioritizing reading.  Hopefully your professors will provide some clues about what readings or sections of readings will be most important for the next class.   If they do not do this, you can attempt to figure out which chapters/sections/ideas will be most important based on the interests that your professor has expressed in class.  Barring that, you should prioritize readings that look like they might be relevant to your thesis.

It might also help to actually schedule certain times that you will dedicate just to thesis reading.  It doesn’t really matter when you do this, but deciding to set aside specific times for thesis research can help you to ensure that that work does not fall by the wayside as you’re dealing with often more pressing deadlines.  (Also see Phil’s post, “How much is too much?”)

In the midst of all of this reading, try to remember that getting a full night’s sleep (or some hours of sleep) can help you retain what you’ve read… not to mention, make you feel better about the world.  Sometimes you just need to call it a night.

What should I do when I get stuck?

Listen to this song.

Make some tea.

Sally in the snow!Pet Sally.

Take a walk.

Come back to it.

Come to the MAPH office and talk to us about it.  Talk to your preceptor or your advisor about it (or both).

Sometimes it can help to give yourself a quota.  As in, “I will write 200 words bearing some relevance to my thesis today”.  This can be helpful when your blank computer screen is getting the best of you.

Final thoughts:

Try to keep the lines of communication open.  If something about your project is giving you trouble, let your advisor and preceptor know.  One thing that I had a lot of trouble with was not keeping my preceptor and advisor up to date with the work that I needed to do for each of them.  This often resulted in an insane amount of work, because I’d be doing trying to complete two big thesis-related tasks at once.  Remember that keeping these two worlds (MAPH/Precept group and your advisor) informed about each other can often result in assignments that a more relevant to your project and a more manageable work-load.  So, you know, use your words.

(Phil, A-J, feel free to add thoughts below!)

That’s it for me.  And now, signing off in traditional MAPH 2011 fashion… CRUSH IT!

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