Laying a Foundation: Seeing your thesis as a beginning not an end

I get overwhelmed by my thesis regularly. It’s not necessarily because of how much work is involved in it, but more how much I want to do and accomplish. It seems every new article, book, or primary source I find peeks my interest and I see possible connections and articles. There’s a sense in which I want this to be my magnum opus; that it has to be, and that means writing down all of it. Like an excited five-year-old that just got asked about dinosaurs, I have to blurt out every single thing I’ve ever learned, thought, or felt on the subject, because who knows when I’ll get another opportunity. It could just be me, but I think a lot of us, at least on our good days and especially at the beginning, can easily get carried away with over ambitious goals because we’re passionate, interested, and see purpose in what we’re studying.


Although, I think part of this tendency comes from a bit of target fixation and the pressures of the great beyond; beyond the PhD that is. My tendency is to hyper focus on a single goal until it’s done, where nothing else seems to exist to either side or beyond the PhD. I don’t see anything beyond submitting my thesis. Even corrections and the viva feel like another task to deal with when this one is done. This is classic target fixation, a term developed to describe when fighter pilots are so fixated on their target that they end up crashing into it. So while in moderation this kind of focus can be helpful, too much can be dangerous.


The other side is the pressures of the post PhD world. Not only is it relatively unknown, but it seems that at every workshop we’re informed about how tight the academic job market is, with an essentially “good luck and god bless you for trying, but it’s essentially hopeless”. To some extent I appreciate the honesty and the motivation to have a plan B, but all I think that does is create a sense of hopelessness from the outset that will only sap PhD candidates of their motivation. To maintain hope with that perspective you have to either believe in miracles, serendipity, or that you really are that much better than everyone else – a trait that doesn’t seem to be particularly common among a group of people plagued by the imposter syndrome. That said, I think there is hope, but that’s for another post.


While I can’t do much about the job market because it’s outside of my control, I can work on my target fixation and that feeling to include every single interesting little tid-bit I come across. The most helpful way I’ve learned to overcome this is by looking at my thesis is as a foundation. My supervisor and I began using construction analogies from the outset of my PhD, which helped me to visualise the abstract structure of my PhD in concrete terms. It was out of these analogies that he explained to me that I need to see my thesis as a foundation for a life’s work, not as the life work itself.


That’s not to say it doesn’t have to be substantial, solid, or make a significant contribution, quite the opposite actually. After a few years building houses I can tell you that a poorly laid foundation is hard to overcome in the framing and finished work. I’ve also seen foundations settle, shift, and crack over time, damaging everything built on top of it. Granted, foundations can be repaired and mistakes can be compensated for in the construction, but a good foundation makes the rest of the work go a lot quicker and the end result look a lot better. But where I find the analogy particularly helpful is in overcoming my target fixation and need to say everything.


A foundation is a beginning, a starting point for the house or in this case life’s work that will be built upon it. As my topic narrows – an inevitable occurrence given the time and word count constraints – I think of the cut the pieces cut from my original plans and these new connections beyond the narrowed scope as the future floor or walls of the house that will be built on top of this foundation I’m working on. My thesis instead of an end in itself becomes a beginning and an exercise in planning avenues to future research opportunities. The goal then is to create a solid thesis that points to and will support the house that could and hopefully will be built upon it, instead of trying to build the entire house in one go, on a foundation that hasn’t hardened yet. Personally, this perspective allows me to think big and still narrow my thesis to a manageable size, hopefully allowing me to produce a solid and eye catching thesis within all the constraints. Which at the end of the day is what we’re all hoping for, right? What’s possibly more significant is it helps me extend my gaze beyond my PhD and better plan and prepare myself to put my best foot forward in trying to land a career in academia.


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