Crises and Progress When Writing a Thesis or Dissertation
There will be crises during the thesis or dissertation process. This is so often the truth that those very few exceptions to the rule come as rarities too delightful to bring serious criticism to bear upon the general assumption. Accepting the inevitability of crises before they occur is therefore realistic for a thesis or dissertation candidate. This is not to say that crises should not be anticipated and prevented whenever possible, but that not all of them can be so tidily managed. Besides, crises can be a vital part of intellectual progress if they are viewed with a positive eye and approached with a steady determination to succeed.
Perhaps the most common of crises among thesis and dissertation students is triggered by unexpected criticism from mentors. Experienced thesis supervisors will of course call this progress rather than crisis, but for a student who was feeling certain about his or her research and writing, criticism can seem like a crisis indeed, especially when first beginning the thesis process. It is imperative to take the time to absorb the emotional impact as well as the criticism itself, to meet with your mentors to discuss whatever changes might be required and to make those changes as soon as possible. It is only a waste of time to continue on a route that will not prove successful, and if you believe that doing so will ultimately prove your point, it is best to consult your supervisor about this decision before proceeding with your research and writing.
When used to its full potential, criticism from your supervisor and other committee members provides a new perspective on your work and allows you to make improvements that you could not have imagined or completed on your own. That is progress, and the result can be the same when you discover that the intellectual ground you thought your unique territory is already under investigation by another academic or scientist. Let us say, for example, that you come across an article on your topic that has just been published or discover at a conference that someone else is two years ahead of you in conducting the same sort of research. This can be a crisis indeed, but it is important to learn as much as possible about the overlapping work – read that article critically with an eye to the differences it presents in relation to your own research, and contact that other researcher to share information. It is rare that two scholars will approach a problem in precisely the same ways, so there is usually plenty of elbow room for refining your topic and carving out your own niche. Indeed, the discovery of such overlaps has often been the occasion for focussing a topic that would have proved much too broad in any case.
No one would deny that a thesis or dissertation candidate faces a crisis when he or she loses one of the specialists who make up his or her supervisory committee, particularly when it is the primary supervisor or mentor who is lost. Career moves can necessitate such changes, but often if a committee member moves to a different university, supervision can be maintained at a distance for theses and dissertations already in progress, even if only in an unofficial way. When a committee member is lost in a more permanent way, there may be personal trauma to cope with as well as administrative requirements, and there can be no doubt that the thesis or dissertation process will change in some ways. A new supervisor, for instance, may want things done in different ways, but he or she will need to be reasonable in requesting changes, just as you will need to be open minded in listening to suggestions and firm when adhering to whatever you consider essential. In some cases, the loss of a supervisor will give a student incredible freedom in proceeding with his or her work. This can feel like progress indeed, but do be careful to supervise yourself and keep your goals in sight.
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