Writing a Current Thesis

Our guest blogger today is Mhairi Brennan. Mhairi is a second year PhD researcher in the Film and Television Department at the University of Glasgow.  Her thesis focuses on BBC Scotland’s television archive material pertaining to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Previously, she worked for several years as a television archive producer. You can find out more about Mhairi’s research here, or follow her on Twitter. 

It’s been a busy year for Scottish politics what with the snap General Election, Brexit negotiations starting, and IndyRef2 either an Aye, Naw or Mebbes depending on which day of the week it is.  When Nicola Sturgeon announced plans for a second referendum on Scottish independence earlier this year, it was understandably headline news.  Likewise, the ‘reset’ of the timetable has brought conversations about Scottish independence to the forefront of public debate again.  I’m taking a personal interest in all of this as I’m half-way through a thesis focusing on the 2014 independence referendum, and all the current twists and turns are not good for my blood pressure.  How smug and clever I felt when I wrote my research proposal back in 2015, asserting the potential of the 2014 referendum to shape the discourse of Scottish and UK politics for years to come.  How panicked I felt when I realised that I’d been right about that, and it dawned on me just how daunting writing a ‘current’ thesis can be.  But although my specific problem with ‘currentness’ might be unique to me, I think many of the obstacles I’ve had to overcome are quite common to PhD students.  So, I’d like to share with you some of the survival tips I’ve learned in the struggle to get this thesis written, to make your journey a bit easier.

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All photos taken by Mhairi Brennan

Remember Your Research Question

When your research field is constantly changing, it’s essential to keep your core questions in mind.  ‘How does this relate to your research question?’ has become a mantra in meetings with my supervisors, and I often find myself muttering it under my breath when the news throws another potential curve-ball at my thesis plan.  My research focuses on the ways in which television archive material can shape cultural memory of past events, and uses the news bulletins and programmes pertaining to the referendum stored in BBC Scotland’s television archive as a case study.  So, while many of the current developments are pertinent to my research, just as many are a distraction.  To keep my sanity, I have my chapter plans pinned above my desk as a visual reminder of what I’m here for, and I try to judge each news update on its immediate usefulness to my research question.

Is it Research or Procrastination?

As my supervisor has wryly observed, doing the research part of a PhD is great fun, but eventually you have to write it up.  The changing narrative about Scottish independence will undoubtedly have an impact on my thesis, but constantly researching the latest developments could easily turn into a three-year exercise in procrastination.  To tackle this, whenever a new development crops up, if it doesn’t directly relate to my research topic I write up notes and store them in a file marked ‘tbc’.  A fellow current-thesis writer has set himself a cut-off date for the period he’s writing about.  For me, it works better to treat my folder like a time capsule, not to be tinkered with until that longed-for time in the future when I’m close to submission stage and ready to make final updates and alterations to my masterpiece.  I’m sure I’m not the only PhD student who suffers badly from fear of a blank page and UofG offers some great workshops on beating procrastination and writing through a slump.

Every Day is a Viva Day

A perk of writing a current thesis is that it gives me the chance to test some of my ideas.  For example, BBC news bulletins about the potential second referendum often include edited montages of news items from 2014, giving me the opportunity to reflect on theories about media templates which I’m exploring in my thesis.  However, the downside is that researching such a recent – and contentious – subject means that it often feels like everyone I meet has an opinion on what my thesis is about (or indeed, what they think it should be about).  I’ve found myself stumbling through a fair few conversations trying to explain my subject to friends, colleagues and once – excruciatingly – to a stranger on a train who wanted to know why I had so many text-books taking up space on our shared table.  Having to defend your thesis on-the-spot is an intense, but effective, way of refining your argument.  It’s also a good way of facing that well-known PhD demon, imposter syndrome.  For the first year of my PhD I could hardly bear to talk about my research topic in public because I felt that I had no right to hold forth on such a well-documented subject.  But the day finally came when I felt I really did know what I was talking about and (whisper it) even started to feel like a bit of an expert in my chosen field.  Some of my colleagues run informal thesis chat sessions, and if you fancy a Viva trial run, it’s worth finding out if any of your PhD cohort offer something like this.

It’s All Worth It in the End

There’s no doubt writing a current thesis is tricky.  But having to constantly defend what I think about my subject matter because everyone else seems to have an opinion on it has actually increased my confidence in my research findings.  It’s also forced me to face up to some of my worst procrastination habits (Twitter users, you know what I mean), and helped me beat imposter system (for now).  So, all in all, it’s been a tough but rewarding experience.  Just no more referendums until after my Viva please.

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