Making Chapters: How to plan your thesis according to me (and avoid panic attacks while you’re at it).

IMG_0844 For the past year I have been grappling with the tedious process of planning out my thesis. Unlike the optional European multiple-article-format for submitting a PhD thesis, us South Africans only have one option – the long format, single story, Book.

Up until this point the longest thing I’d ever written was my Masters thesis – 25,000 words – less than a third of the mountain that I’m up against now. Yet, suddenly the word count seems like far less of an aspiration than it does a limitation. Reading as broadly as I have, and collecting as much data, suddenly makes it feel like I could write three books. It’s also a rather daunting task to try and compress nearly a year and a half of intense primary research (including hundreds of fieldwork days, in-depth interviews, long-format workshops, and collected visual artifacts) into one coherent story, when these text documents already surpass that word limit by themselves.

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For a long time I felt as if I had the entire format of the story “in my head”: meaning, if anyone asked me what my thesis was about I could spitfire a well rehearsed elevator pitch. Starting with the problem, identifying the pocket I’m looking at, and then rambling off a list of “findings” that offered new questions and new avenues. Elsewhere, in hundreds of text files hidden in a folder called “notes” was my written out roughs for segments of my thesis, either based on “brain dumps” or lists. Only once I started writing did I realize how incredibly complex and often-times incompatible my theoretical backbones were, perfectly formulated within the disparate pockets of literature, or whatever, I was reading at the time of creating them.

My argument was too anecdotal (figures, as it was something I felt I should be able to “explain” in one sitting). Jumping from Media Studies, to Visual Cultures, to Design and HCI, is no simple feat. Within my loosely strung argument, I would have to delve deep, unpack and deconstruct. File down the puzzle pieces so that they fit, and more importantly – convince others that this was the best way of going about the task, and not simply one of many ways. After two years of lurching forward through literature reviews, field work, and seemingly endless days coding data in NVivo, I had reached a wall. It all felt too diverse, too unrelated, too complex. The imposter syndrome had sunk in – I realized how very little I knew about that which I had set out to do: understand the creative ecologies of young creatives in relation to formal education and beyond. I became angry: how did I get here?! Why didn’t I see this before?! What’s WRONG WITH ME?!!

It was around this time of severe existential angst that two things happened in short succession – firstly, I had marked a number of deadlines in my diary: Apply for COIMBRA, Apply for Short Research Stay, Apply for AoIR conference. And these offered a two and a half week break from staring at my sloppy thesis, it gave me a welcome, focused and manageable purpose.

Then, once I sent off these applications, and opened the file called “THESIS” I had a full-blown panic attack . A feeling of dread crept up my spine and rendered me a shaking, terrorized mess that felt like I was about to die. How could a Word document suddenly seem like your worst nightmare? The blinking placeholder a sinister scythe.

So on the recommendation of my psych-major friend, Bryan, I started seeing a therapist. Bryan also recommended that I start rock climbing, and took me under his wing and to the local climbing gym in Obs. I stopped seeing the therapist two visits in: All it took was for her to point out that the majority of my stress revolved around the fact that I hadn’t taken the time or the mental energy to truly come to grips with Gary’s death. Instead, I was propelled to work: tick every box, apply for every opportunity, run another workshop. She formulated that this sense of “slipping” I felt, was a result of suddenly needing to sit still and process. I couldn’t, because it made me sad, and that panicked me so I would find other things to be anxious about – transferring this negative energy into all of the aspects of my life. She made me list my support systems, the positive things, solutions to worries, and then she made me sit still. At first for 20 minutes, and in the next session we sat still for the entire hour. She taught me about mindfulness, and taking short burst breaks from your inner dialogue – experiencing the world on a completely sensory level. And in a way, this is what climbing did too – standing on a minute ledge 6 metres about the ground gives you no option but to zone in on your muscles and your senses. I had found a new way of feeling centered. I now feel like this is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in pursuing my PhD: you need to take breaks, and calm yourself, otherwise you’ll run out of fuel, and life will stop being enjoyable. I’d rather enjoy my life than drive myself nuts over a PhD. Luckily these things aren’t mutually exclusive – finding a coping mechanism for anxiety-inducing situations will help you throughout your whole life.

By this point we were in April, and I got notice that I had received funding to leave for Denmark in a mere 19 days. My initial plans for Denmark included deliverables of chapters and journal articles, but I decided to rewind: Instead, I would map out my thesis like a blueprint. I would put together all of the pieces in one place, and work through everything that I had done, de-cluttering my research, like one would spring clean a closet.

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I decided that I would take one folder on one harddrive to Denmark, and the last few weeks before I left were spent sifting through notes, re-coding, re-structuring file systems, and editing down video. I felt invigorated and fresh. And when I got on the plane, it felt like an artist who had brand new tubes of paint. In my office in Aarhus, I got to work on composing my master piece. I researched software that could do this, but eventually decided (like with my coding system above) that I would physically draw it out. As a very visually minded person, it was the best feeling to scribble out the very roughest version of my argument into big bubbles, drawing arrows, scratching things out, and finally getting a broad idea for 7 distinct chapters.

I visited the stationary office and plastered my entire wall with A3 pieces of paper.

Next, I started working through my notes – as I read through I would get up and plot these ideas on the wall. Intermittently, I would have visitors in my office. Really fantastic academics, such as Kim Halskov, Geoff Cox, Rikke Toft Nørgård, Nicolai Brodersen Hansen, Anne-Marit Waade and Annette Markham.

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I would walk them through the thesis structure, and discussions would emerge, I’d grab a marker and jot down keywords, right where they would go, where the ideas made sense. I had found a way to explain the thesis to others without losing specificity, or detail, or feeling like I needed to be able to recite it from heart. I could point at my map: “Here goes Fanon, there goes mobile HCI, this is where Participatory Design fits…” and every day new markings would appear as I was reading through my notes and editing my videos. As I “took my research for a walk” around Aarhus and its many amazing minds, my thesis started to emerge. As new bits of information were passed my way, I could plot them on the wall.

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And each time I would talk someone through it, I would start seeing the glue that held these ideas together. Coloured post-its with lists, and notes in pencil and bright red marker started mapping arguments, case studies and theories.

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When I left Aarhus I took this map down and it has now been transplanted to the wall behind my desk at ICT4D. At the moment, I’m writing each chapter as an extended abstract, and designing the flow of sub-chapters. I might redraw the entire map once I have that, but it helps to have a mindmap that’s tactile, malleable, and in my own hand writing to remind me where I am in the hurricane of thoughts and words.

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It took me a while to realize that formulating your thesis requires you to “stand still”, take inventory, and breathe. You have the story, now you just need to figure out how you’re gonna tell it. I might have another meltdown in two weeks when I enter hermit-writing mode – but at least I’m easing myself into sitting still. And I know how to cope with these feelings of dread. This process might look different to different PhD students, but I would highly recommend, if you feel like the world is falling in around you, for you to grab the biggest piece of paper you can find and start visualizing your thesis where you can see the entire thing in one place. Draw your own treasure map, and then follow it.

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