The Seven Stages of Thesis

By Jenna Tico '12, Contributing Writer

If I could go back and do it all again, I might do a few things differently. I might have slowed down on the cookies at orientation, for example, if I’d known they would be at every Scripps event, every week of the year, for the rest of eternity. I would have learned the code to the student garden, would have mapped out all the free coffee on campus (I’m looking at you, Admissions Office) and would have invested in a plastic shower carrier to avoid being “that girl” who spilled shampoo in the Browning hallway.

However, if I really had a chance to go through college again, I would have chosen a major that allowed me to write a thesis about writing a thesis: the un-nameable, the process that causes perfectly normal seniors to advance about a decade in mental capacity and regress the same number of years in general sanity. For some reason, the folklore surrounding what is essentially a really long paper snowballs from one class to the next until it has Frankenstein-ed into a force that threatens to rebel against us, its creator, the ones who have (somewhat reluctantly) given it life. Far from simple, the act of writing thesis can be separated into distinct stages and an individual timeline—not unlike the seven stages of grief. Years from now, probably from the cushy velvet of my therapist’s lounge chair, I will look back on the process that we are all dangerously close to—if not past—completing; and when I do, I hope I laugh. And I hope you do too, Scrippsie, because—despite our valiant attempts to the contrary—we did it.

1.Shock and Denial: Right after they sit us in Garrison Theatre, pump us full of iced tea and inform us that we are about to walk in the footsteps of countless “confident, courageous, and hopeful” women, Scripps tells us what’s up: we are going to complete the Core program, and we are going to write a thesis. Core came and went; and somehow, by the time senior year crept up, we’d all managed to miraculously forget the latter. As an underclassman, every time I heard a senior moan about her thesis—or saw the telltale signs of general misery—I turned up the volume on my iPod and entered a state of blissful Schadenfreude. Oh sweet lord, that’ll never be me. So when it was, in fact, my turn to schedule an appointment with a research librarian—“at my leisure,” which is a rough translation of AS SOON AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE—I could only giggle. More than that, I cracked inappropriate jokes and made a point to develop an addiction to as many television shows as possible. I was in denial.

It goes something like this: “Oh sure, I can totally work on the lawn! I can’t see my computer screen, but that’s what sunglasses are for. Plus, I don’t need to be working online...I have all this reading to do, and even though I’m sprawled out on my back and can’t actually see the words with my paper suspended over my face, it doesn’t matter—thesis isn’t due until April!”

Or perhaps this: “Oh sure, I can totally take notes while on the elliptical—in fact, my handwriting is more legible when it resembles an EKG.”

Or my personal favorite: “Oh sure, I can totally work in the Motley, surrounded by a swarm of ten kajillion of my closest friends. Plus, the Spice Girls are conducive to the production of deep and meaningful thought!”

We’ve all lived a version of these. For me, there was the incessant monologue of “Thesis isn’t due until the end of April. That’s like...a page a day for the next eighty days!” But NO, it’s more like ten pages a day for the last eight days that reality punches you in the face and you realize someone is going to have to turn in a thesis, and that someone is you. Apparently, “shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This may last for weeks.” Or, perhaps, months. But who’s counting?

2.Pain and Guilt: In meditation, we are encouraged to sit with our suffering, acknowledge it, and let it pass through us. In thesis, we encourage ourselves to seek any means of escape—preferably with two shots of espresso as a garnish—to avoid reality at all costs. Thesis does not have to be painful, but unfortunately, it often is. It’s like parallel parking for eight months straight. The hardcore ones hole up in the library with nothing but the promise of whiny Facebook statuses to keep them going, while the rest of us only make it as far as the library café, also known as the place where they keep the complex carbohydrates. Even the act of opening Microsoft Word is ringed with pain, heavy from days of staring at the same fluorescent screen—followed by a walk out into the (cruelly beautiful) Claremont weather where, having sacrificed our peripheral vision to nineteen hours of bleeding out words, we promptly run into a tree. And when your words clot, there is the guilt—that smoldering nausea—that kicks you for taking too long to eat dinner, for not spending twenty-four hours a day writing; which besides being impossible, backs you into a corner where—instead of relaxing for an hour like you planned—you spend ten hours straight watching Glee. And you don’t even like Glee.

When it’s all said and done, that might be the grand purpose of thesis: to come down with a persistent case of the I-should-be-writings and still manage to be a decent human being. But sometimes, even that feels like a stretch.

3.Anger and Bargaining: One day, and there’s no telling when, you wake up and you’re mad; not a cute mad, not the kind of anger where you crinkle your eyebrows and pout, but the type of anger that causes you to become a complete demon toward everyone in your direct vicinity. Someone tells you that she had a “great day,” and you respond with “Oh really? I have 21,000 words written and no idea what I want to do with my life.” Alanis Morissette songs take on new significance. You fantasize about switching topics. You contemplate flushing your computer down the toilet, and get even angrier when you realize it won’t fit.

And then there’s the pleading.

“Just one more week? Please?” “C’mon, do I really need a works cited?” “If my thesis magically writes itself by the time I wake up tomorrow, I will devote my life to saving orphans.”

“Sincerely, Your very favorite advisee and person who will babysit your kids for free if you promise not to read this draft too carefully, Jenna.”

4.Depression, Reflection, Loneliness: The other day at the gym, A Walk to Remember came on cable; and for no apparent reason, I burst into tears. I wish I could say it was for Mandy, her tragic illness, her glorious prairie dresses—but the truth was, it had been so long since I’d left my post in front of the computer that even the slightest pull on my heartstrings made them hyperextend from sheer exhaustion.

The truth is, no matter how many peer reviews your department orchestrates, the act of writing is a solitary one; and the process of writing thesis, thousands of words about something we may or may not care about, is downright lonely. At a certain point, a mini-existential crisis occurs: why did I choose my topic in the first place? We want our words to dance, but sometimes they belly flop.

And apparently, there is a limit to the amount of hours you can spend alone in your room before the pink elephants creep in. The positive side is, from under the fog of sadness, an alien of productive procrastination may temporarily inhabit your body and do weird things like color-code your sock drawer. For the most part, though, we end up shifting from desk to desk in desperate pursuit of the Feng Shui of thesis (I can’t possibly write here, there’s a trash can blocking my creative energy center...), our backs aching from sitting in desk chairs and our hearts aching for the small amount of time we have left in them. There’s a graduation at the end of this sentence, and it’s hard to know if any of us will see it coming.

5.The Upward Turn: And then—usually when you least expect it—ideas flow from your fingertips like water, and suddenly, it is doable. This task is surmountable. There are words on a page, words that you have written, and someone has confirmed that they are in English. (Or German. Or Spanish. Or paint.)

These moments may be sparse, but when they occur, they set you on fire. If only for a minute, you are on top of the world. You have shaped the unshapeable—and even if you haven’t, you’re close enough to the finish line that you’ve stopped caring what your body looks like while you run; you’re just running, and that’s all that matters.

6.Reconstruction and Working Through: ...Or, a little era that I prefer to call “Like Chocolate for Water.” You no longer feel bad when the cashier at Trader Joe’s, after bagging eleven chocolate bars, asks if you’re “having a party.” The days are numbered; you can count them on one hand. The sandstorm in your brain begins to settle, and when you read over the parts of your thesis that sound like they were written by a fourth grader, you smile and revise. You’ve made friends with yourself once again, decided to embrace your work—tweaking the flaws that you can, accepting the ones that you can’t—and have begun to introduce basic hygiene back into your life.

Life is good. Or at least, it smells better.

7.Acceptance and Hope: At Scripps, we have the “hope” thing down pat; after all, it’s been printed on all of our paraphernalia since day one. I would venture to say that we are a bit too hopeful sometimes—we “hope” that our thesis will be the best piece of writing to grace the earth, instead of learning to accept and love it as it is. Perhaps some

have been good at this all along; but for me, it has been monumental. Our theses are not capstones, they are not the culmination of our four years here. Rather, they are the beginning—a stepping-stone, if you will—in a lifetime of learning.

Even though the act of writing thesis occasionally bears more resemblance to “Shark Week” than real life, when it’s said and done, we will all have something damn impressive to show for ourselves. Furthermore, we will have the process under our belts: and in my opinion, that is the point. We have to learn to engage with the means whereby, not so much with the destination as with the act of getting there—because what is there to get to? A chance to ask strangers, “Hey, wanna read this really long paper I wrote this one time?” Better than the thesis itself, we will have accomplished the arduous task—all seven steps—of getting there, and if we don’t immediately block out all our research in a fit of post-traumatic stress, we will have that as well. And no one can ever take it away from us.

The act of writing thesis is a lot like being in a relationship. When it’s over, your heart allows you to forget the bad times—otherwise, you’d never date (or leave your house) again. And whether we ever choose to write another paper is irrelevant; the point is that we’ll always have thesis, our love letter to Scripps, an affair to remember.