I am in a master’s degree program where students know and begin working on their thesis from day one, semester one. At least that is what the director of our program likes to say. Every time my cohort gets reminded of this, we join together in nervous laughter.
We are now in our second semester of a four-semester program and none of us seems to know exactly what we are going to research over the summer. We all have vague ideas and to-do lists meant to move us forward. Thankfully our predecessors and professors have shared a bit of useful wisdom with us.
Possibly the best advice I’ve gotten so far is to not know exactly what you want to do. This probably isn’t quite what you were expecting, but hear me out.
In the social sciences especially, it can be more hurtful than helpful to zero in on a very specific topic for your thesis. You may go to start working on whatever it is you planned to do and everything falls apart. Or better yet, something more interesting comes along. But unless you are one of the lucky ones out there, Murphy’s Law will probably be breathing down your neck and your plans might just fall apart.
For example, a more advanced student in our program went abroad last summer to do her research. She went to Turkey, and shortly into her trip the political climate changed in a way that made it impossible to do her research. She was forced to change her plans. So, you may be thinking, wouldn’t it have been better for her not to have any plans at all?
But of course, we have to have some idea of what we want to do. If you plan on getting a master’s degree, more than likely you will have to apply for a research grant or present your research plans. You definitely can’t just show up empty handed. The key is to develop an idea, but to also keep your mind flexible to change.
Develop an idea – sounds doable, right? But that’s the part where I am currently stuck. I have a general subject that I’m interested in, but narrowing it down to something I could actually study in just one summer and write about in two semesters feels like a huge undertaking.
But you’ve got to have trust in yourself. And I trust that I will find a way to narrow down my topic in time for presentation and funding deadlines. (Cue more nervous laughter.)
What is more concerning for me at the moment is the pressure to have an “original” topic. Without giving too much away, I’ll share a bit about my thesis topic: I am currently planning to go abroad to study a beauty practice performed by women in a specific community.
I’ve gotten quite a bit of academic side-eye for having this interest. The rolling eyes seem to sarcastically say, “Oh, how original! Another girl that wants to study beauty among women!” I’ve already had two professors suggest that I also look at men engaging in the same practice. I’ve also had other students comment that it is nice that I am studying such a “lighthearted” topic. It is frustrating to hear these things. When someone suggests that my topic is “lighthearted,” I can’t help but hear what they really mean: frivolous and insignificant.
And why is it that no professor has suggested that I include more beauty practices, but they are quick to contest my decision to focus solely on women? For just this one project, is it not enough to consider only women? Is it ever enough to consider only women? Or do we always have to place them within the context of men?
At some point, we all have to decide if we want to tune out these comments and criticisms. I’ve decided to hear them. They won’t force me to change my topic, but they will remind me what I’m up against when I have to explain why my project matters on funding applications and in presentations. Maybe more importantly, these comments help me remember to stay flexible. In graduate school, you never know when plans might change.