Writing my Master’s thesis was the most gruesome, adrenaline laden and disorienting months of my academic life. I lost weight, gained it back, acquired strange sleeping patterns, found warmth and true comfort in good old Stroopwafels (Dutch cookies).

I would like to share 6 mistakes I made in the process which in hindsight I could have avoided. For someone writing or thinking about their Master`s thesis now, this may sound familiar or not, but maybe my struggles can at least reassure you that you are not alone and perhaps give you some tips.

In spite of my turbulent journey, I managed to produce a reasonably good paper from which I have derived two publications. One of which is here. Co-authored.  www.sajce.co.za/index.php/sajce/article/view/465

All the mistakes I made were all very closely linked and I have broken them down into bitable bits below:

  1. Lack of focus: Focus is a dreaded word while you are writing your thesis especially when you are deficient of it. You will not make any strides if focus remains elusive particularly at defining the problem stage then in generating the research question. Often lack of focus is not self identified but picked out by lecturers or other peers which can be frustrating. I struggled to focus my paper into one clear argument and I was in a maze for months until finally I got it. My main problem was that I could not narrow my research problem into one clear argument because my entry point into the research problem was mixed up. My research area was on Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD). Targeting children aged 0-3 years in Urban poor contexts.

How I tried to overcome this:

  • I spoke about my paper to my peers and lecturers very often. Speaking about it made it clearer in my mind.
  • I had to learn to let go of any ideas that did not fit into the argument no matter how good they felt.
  • Another very helpful tip I learnt from one of the lecturers was viewing the thesis as a story. So she would ask me what story I wanted to tell. And when asked this, I found it easier to explain without worrying about academic terms like problem statements and others. When the story became clearer my focus became sharper.
  • I also read many good papers and analyzed how they had structured their arguments, then I begun to see patterns, the words they used and through this process, I found some good grounding for my own paper.
  • Then finally, I adhered to one brilliant idea one of the lecturers also taught us. That we could consider centering our termly essay exam papers around our research topic. This meant that by the time you are writing the thesis you have gained good knowledge on the debates around your research topic and could identify a clear thesis entry point.
  1. Writer paralysisNow this type of paralysis is real and I felt it comes alive in its true glory whilst writing my Master’s Thesis. I felt blank, empty and like a spectator. I would watch with admiration at some of my classmates who would set out to finish their chapter in a week or two and voila they actually did it. And I, sitted in the same library with the same goals would only write two paragraphs and half of them I had to cut back eventually. I had my writer paralysis support group where we would mourn about our paralysis to a point of monotony. However, I felt better that I was not alone in the fog. My paralysis emerged from lack of clear focus on the research problem.

How did I overcome this?

  • I had a very good Cambodian friend (I miss dearly) with whom our experiences were similar to the T. So we decided very often we would sit down and just tell each other what part of the thesis we were struggling to write, then we would listen intently and begin to offer each other ideas on what to read, what to omit and what to write about. Having a friend who was my selfless sounding board and motivator was very useful. We would attend each other seminars so as to have in depth idea on each other’s arguments and listen to comments from the supervisors so that we could guide each other later. Some advice: Do not do it alone. Find someone to walk with.
  1. Limited exposure to academic text: When I begun the Masters Program I had not exposed myself to reading academic texts. So here I was in the first days we were given a list of academic texts and told that the following day we would need to be ready with an analysis of what we thought about the reading and our counter arguments. So I picked the first article only eight pages long and I managed to read only one paragraph. I had no idea what the text was about, the words were so difficult at one point I doubted if they were English or Dutch words. I felt dizzy, angry, frustrated and I slept.

How I overcame this

  • I enrolled in the academic reading class which to date is one of the best classes I ever attended and the academic writing class. These two skills really helped me to quickly pick out from a text the main argument and the supporting idea and helped me know when an argument was good, flawed and inconsistent. This was very useful during the problem statement development, literature review and data analysis. Do not underestimate these two skills sometimes one may need coaching on how to do it right.
  1. Over reading and under writing: after learning how to read academic text, I began over reading. This habit seemed to stem from fear and also to lack of focus again. Being a newbie in development studies this for me meant that I had to catch up quite fast with all the current debates especially in my area of research. The limitless availability of the latest online and offline academic literature in the university became my undoing. I must declare I love reading and this also contributed to this. Most of the text made sense and seemed to all have a place in Master’s thesis.  I would read and read for hours, unfortunately without writing.

How did I overcome?

  • I confided in my supervisor that I could not put a book down and she told me to immediately, stop reading and start writing. She told me writing my thesis involved making choices and I had to make a choice of what I needed and make it fast.
  • She also told me (which I found very reassuring) that the Master’s thesis was just one of the many writing processes I would engage in, in my life so there was no need to have everything in there.
  1. Poor Referencing practices: Now as a rule of thumb never read text you intend to use in your thesis without correctly referencing it immediately because when you come back to look for the text it might be missing or at times you have to re read the whole text especially if you had identified a good quote or piece of information. This is really poor time management and time one of the most important resources in the process. I learnt this late and boy I struggled.

How I tried to overcome this?

  • I begun reading selectively so I could not have tonnes of references which I would not use later. On top of this I could immediately do a complete text referencing with the support of Refworks. Not easy but necessary.
  1. Perfectionism: This was my utmost undoing. When you school in a university where there many acclaimed researchers you are likely to unrealistically raise the expectations of your own performance despite being a novice researcher. That is how the perfectionist seed was planted into my being. I would read award winning thesis written by students and wondered how they could string such beautiful pieces. I longed to be like them. I longed to be praised like they were. I kept imagining my name being mentioned to the incoming class and the world changing thesis I had written. I imagined them Google me up and ask me a host of questions. In response to this need, I begun over consulting, intensified the reading, collected way too much data and finally I got confused.

How did I overcome?

  • First I took a chill pill (I relaxed).
  • Then thanks to my seasoned supervisor, she immediately understood where dilemma was emanating from. She told me the thesis itself as the end product did not matter most. What mattered was the journey. Therefore my concern should have been as to whether I was growing as a scholar learning how to be a better researcher and whether I was unlearning unhelpful scholarly practices. I began to appreciate how far I had come as budding researcher and I liked what I was shaping into. Slowly the perfectionist seed begun to die. It is really about the journey.

These were just but the few mistakes I made, there were a lot more especially on the actual development of the paper. I will discuss more.  Next session I will share my thoughts on How to choose a good Master`s Supervisor.

The writer  is a research enthusiast she enjoys having research conversations with students and other researchers . From these processes she shares her knowledge and learns a lot as well. Together with other seasoned researchers she will be holding sessions in July at the British Institute in Eastern Africa for individuals who are working on their thesis now or developing a paper for publication. The sessions dubbed Research Conversations. She schooled at the Erasmus International Institute of  Social Studies, Netherlands. Click on the poster below

Research Conversation Poster