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MA Thesis Proposal: What I Learned

Photo by Claire Gordon

By Kaitlyn Woodman, MA Student

October 23, 2018

A few weeks ago, I defended my Master’s thesis proposal after a summer of stressing, self-doubting, and trial-and-error. I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous. And even though the process had been explained to me (very reassuringly) by my supervisor as an academic “conversation”, I could still feel my heart pounding and my stomach in my throat as I made my way to the downtown campus.

To give a little context, I’m currently in my second year of my Master’s program in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, and have spent the last summer hashing out the specifics of the thesis research I want to devote the rest of my time here to. I’m also the only thesis student in my cohort, so this past summer had a very steep and solo learning curve, since I’ve never written a thesis proposal before. My incessant desire to be constantly “productive”, combined with working mainly from home and in my pajamas, created some sort of negative, self-doubting monster within me. It was only after many conversations with my supervisor and introspective awareness that I accepted that this journey would: a) not look like how I envisioned it b) not be a linear, neatly wrapped experience. It was messy, it was stressful, and it was often paired with wine. But it was also extremely gratifying and character building and motivating.  

So now, looking back on the experience of writing and defending my thesis proposal, I thought I would share a few things I learned throughout the process!  

Give yourself deadlines, and hold yourself accountable to them: it is super easy to just float along when you only have one, distant deadline in your future. I found it helpful to set mini goals along the way to keep me motivated and accountable, or else I’d run the risk of continually putting off work until the next day, and the next. Physically writing those deadlines in my planner, and telling myself that I needed to have my intro done before Friday, or have my methodology section emailed in for edits by the end of the month kept me (mostly) on track.

Create a routine and dedicate workspace: this is a tip that I’m only realizing in hindsight. I wish I had created more of a routine instead of working from my couch in sweats. I’m pretty sure I would have gotten more done if I had dragged myself to a coffee shop 3 days a week, or actually used the desk in my room that is currently acting as a clothes rack. It got difficult to turn my brain off and stop working when my student space converged and overlapped with my off-duty space.

Keep tabs on the research area: this might not be applicable to everyone, but I found it valuable to keep up to date on the area I was researching, even while I was writing about potentially unrelated things. Depending on your topic, bodies of knowledge can shift quickly, new research can be published, your favorite journal could come out with an edition that links perfectly to your thesis, or, in my case, a new hashtag could start that opens up brand new dialogue and supports your entire thesis. Academia is exciting because of its vast potential, but that can also be intimidating. Keeping track of conversations happening in your research area can minimize surprises and setbacks.

Forget being an “expert” and concentrate on learning: I’m still trying to take my own advice on this one – for almost the whole summer, I was so caught up in becoming super knowledgeable about my research area and replicating an “authoritative voice” that I forgot that I’m still learning. Perfectionism infiltrated my psyche and I felt paralyzed: if I couldn’t do it perfectly, I wouldn’t do it at all. It’s been an ongoing struggle to not feed into that bullshit, and to trust that learning is a continual process for all of us. I don’t expect others to know everything about everything, so why should I put that kind of pressure on myself?

Practice radical honesty: this one applies to yourself and to others. Be honest with yourself about the limitations of your research, and how much you can accomplish in the limited time a Master’s thesis allows. Be honest with your supervisor when you need help. Be honest with your family and friends about what you need to feel supported during times of stress. And, if you feel comfortable, be honest with your thesis committee and tell them how sweaty you are right before you defend (I definitely did this and I am not ashamed). Hopefully that honesty will break down some of the stereotypes of academia: that we must have all the answers, that we don’t make mistakes, or that we never get nervous.

Edit, get others to edit, edit again: I’m not sure if others experience this, but sometimes when I’ve spent so much time on a paper, I get too involved and personally attached and can’t manage to delete a single sentence. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be emotionally involved in our research and writing; I guess I’m just saying that I had trouble seeing past my nose when it came to my proposal. I had read the sentences over and over, and at a certain point I hated it all. Or loved it all, I couldn’t tell. I needed outside support! Most of the editing I received was from my amazingly involved supervisor (thanks, Dr. Nye!), but it also helped to read paragraphs aloud to my family or to meet up and commiserate with fellow students and friends. Constructive criticism not only helps shape your research, but can also prepare you for professional endeavors in the future and get you out of your bubble.

Now my next step is to finish my introduction thesis chapter and move into research, and I’m pretty ecstatic to say goodbye to my proposal for the time being. BUT that doesn’t mean this hasn’t been one of the most motivating and constructive experiences of my Master’s degree so far.