MA? PhD? When the writing gets tough…

Finished your undergraduate degree?  Fancy an MA/PhD? Or did you – but now your degree is done you’re not sure? Maybe you feel you’ve failed, or would do if you tried for a ‘higher’ degree? Be sure to read last week’s sound advice about that and then come back and read on.

You can learn a lot from making your own mistakes. You can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes, too. I’ve made a lot of mistakes! Here’s what that’s helped me learn about stepping up from a bachelors degree.

When I did my MA dissertation my supervisor was happy that the first piece of work I handed in could be either a piece of extended writing or a project plan. It depended whether I was going to ‘read my way around’ the title or ‘write my way into’ it.

I hadn’t a clue how to ‘write my way into’ something I’d not even started researching and I was silly enough not ask her what she meant. I should have done!

No – I needed to do a lot of reading first, and make lots of notes, and organise them all systematically, and then reorganise them thematically, and choose the most promising themes, and plot a sequence to deal with them in order so that each turned into a chapter, and the structure of the whole project simply presented itself, and ‘thereby I plight thee my plan’ I could say to my supervisor. And I did – submit my plan, I mean (I didn’t actually go about plighting it; it was sent as an email attachment).

And I followed the plan. I did indeed then ‘write up’ my notes and hey presto – one completed dissertation. Yay! 😀

Moreover I had a lot of notes left over – more (quite a lot more in fact) than those I’d used. And that was fine, I told myself. It seemed to me it meant I’d been ever so thorough. No doubt what I had finally submitted wouldn’t have been as good if it hadn’t been informed and underpinned by all that additional material. Besides, it meant I now ‘knew’ a lot and that seemed to chime nicely with the whole ‘education for its own sake’ vibe and the ‘being a more rounded person’ as a result thing. I was certainly more rounded; all that sitting still, snacking whilst studying – I ballooned! :-O

I thought a trawl through all my left-over MA notes would be a good place to start if I were to think about a PhD. But, looking through them, they meant very little. I’d no clue why I’d written most of them. At the time everything was something potentially important which I wrote down so as not to forget it. Now I could remember hardly any ‘it’, never mind why ‘it’ – whichever one ‘it’ it might be – had mattered. Hmmmph! >:-[

But what that did do (hurrah!) is jolt me out of the notion of ‘reading my way around’ a title next time. A quick mental calculation of the quantity of notes amassed, as against the proportion written up, correlated with the length of the dissertation… Yikes! I’d not live long enough to complete a thesis if I approached one that way! 😦

Back to the ‘write your way in’ route. Rather than stacking up a load of ‘potential leads’ as you read, pursue one and one only until you discover whether it ‘leads’ (no pun intended) to a) a ‘dead end’ b) an ‘already been done’ or c) a ‘looks promising’ i.e. it gives you something that you can develop from everything else that seems to have already been written about it.

It’s important to bin a) and b) as soon as possible. Equally, as soon as you get a c) it’s worth following it up, straight away, reading all there is about it, writing everything up as you go, whilst at the same time working in all you can of your own new contribution to the topic. What you’re hoping is that this will generate a substantial chunk of what you ultimately complete, and springboard you on similarly to producing another weighty wedge of it.

Moreover, you’ll have accumulated the minimum (and not, like me, the maximum!) of extraneous material. That means your time and energy gets channelled much more purposefully into the final product, increasing your chances of doing the best possible job and getting the best possible marks.

Think of it this way:

1. Rite. As in ‘a rite of passage’ or ‘an ordeal’; a lesson learned the hard way. I’ve already undergone that. You don’t have to! 😉
2. Write. Just get on with it! Don’t faff around only reading. If it’s not worth writing about as you read it then it’s not worth reading. And if you find yourself returning to it, to write from it after you first read it, you might as well have been writing as you were reading it.
3. Right. Do it ‘right’ i.e. correctly.  Make sure that what you write as you go is aimed at building up a chunk of your final product (even if, ultimately, it has to make way for something else you do later); don’t just write only to accumulate notes (like I did!). That’s not right; its wrong! 😛
4. Wright! I’m stretching this a bit here; the past tense of wright being ‘wrought’ – as in ‘overwrought’. Don’t let happen. Don’t get overwrought. A last word on that follows:

Don’t forget that there are still the ‘dead end’ and ‘already been done’ leads to deal with. You have to be prepared for some of these to involve investing considerable time, effort and energy before realising you’re better off letting go and dropping them. Similarly, you might find something later on, in light of which what you wrote earlier has to be revised because you now see where that should slot into place; or you missed it before; or it has only recently come to light. It can at times be very frustrating and disheartening. That’s when you can all too easily get ‘overwrought’.


You absolutely must have the resilience and perseverance to push on through these patches. It’s a bit like gardening – the weeding is soul-destroying but it’s got to be done; and it’s got to be done scrupulously and thoroughly, to get what you want to flower to flourish fully! You can buy yourself some flowers to look at and keep your spirits up when you’re flagging if you want!! Think of all that effort as ultimately well worth it so your dissertation or thesis can blossom to be the very best bloom it can be (to stretch a floral metaphor way past its stem’s snapping point!).

And the rewards are immense. It’s a huge accomplishment to get an MA. And if you nail a PhD you will actually be the world’s expert in whatever you’ve written about. Honest, straight up, guv’! There will quite literally be no one else on the planet who knows what you do in the detail you know it. That’s quite something 😀

So, if you’re up for all that then go for it. Get it all sussed out and start applying this summer 😉

And remember: when the weeding gets tough, the tough get weeding; when the writing gets tough, the tough get writing!

Ready…? Steady… Go…!



Steven Havelin

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