I actually started writing this piece way back in july/august, but somehow never got around to finishing it. Perhaps it was meant to be posted now, which is of course the most apt time :)
Over the course of my 'higher education' career, I have had the (mis)fortune (take whichever you think would be apt) of having done three research projects. I was one of the 8 people in my undergraduate class of 30 to take up a research project as an optional, in exchange of the good ole' practicals. Mad our classmates called us then, but till date, it remains one of the most fulfilling, fun and pride-inducing experiences of my life. Perhaps, the only such experience of my life. In masters, it was compulsory. The less said about my masters thesis the better. In fact, the less said about my masters, in terms of 'academic' activities, the better. And then came M.Phil...where they taught us how to carry out research in the first year, and gave the entire second year to submit a dissertation.
Its been quite a relationship I have had with the whole concept of research; very 'love-hate', for want of a more fitting term. And now, since I'm done with M.Phil (yayieee!) I consider myself somewhat of an authority on research. Yes, I am extremely immodest like that! Ok maybe not an authority, but I deem it fit that I am in a position to share my own personal experiences from the past 5 years of submitting theses/dissertations.
So here goes; my wisdom/accumulated knowledge in matters of research. Highly debatable, highly arguable. But its all true. At least for me.
#1- The first thesis is always special. Always. And it's the most honest. 'Coz you have no goddamn idea how its going to turn out- its all very 'trial by fire'. By the time you come to your second thesis, you become very practical. You formulate hypotheses, and conclusions in your head, as soon as the topic is decided. You start worrying about the tools you'll use, and subconsciously choose topics where you know data collection will not be a huge hassle. And by the time the third thesis happens, the whole process becomes somewhat mechanical. You don't put your soul as much, as you did the first time. Things don't affect you as deeply, whether the little joys or the disappointments. Very much like life, this move from the ideal to the practical.
#2- Data collection is always a test of your social/networking skills. I am not known to be much of an extrovert, and can almost border being an introvert/pseudo-snob when it comes to talking to new people. But fortunately, my three experiences with data collection have seen me surpass my own standards with flying colours. My first time, I interviewed 16 families across Bahrain. I spoke to absolutely unknown people, visited their homes, managed to give them enough confidence to have them share their personal experiences with me. My second time, I put my cousins on the job, and grilled them till they made all their friends/colleagues fill out my questionnaires. My third time, I used every bit of my facebook skills and contacted people who I perhaps would never have spoken to, save the perfunctory "happy bday!" message.
#3- Related to #2. Data collection is always a humbling experience. Always. I always feel overwhelmed when rank strangers, people I barely know, help me out. I know what a pain it is to fill out questionnaires, even if it takes 5 minutes. I mean, we've all shoo-ed away those people outside shopping centers and malls who hang around with surveys. During my first thesis, people gave me hours of their precious weekends. Many of them knew my parents personally, but to give that much time and energy to an undergrad student? And that too with smiling faces and open hearts? Big deal! During my second thesis, there were some people who were so genuinely happy to help, and even sent an "all the best" along with their filled response sheets. And my third thesis? Classmate's roommate's friend. School batchmates' friends. Random person I know's cousin. Friend's boyfriend's friend. Friend's classmates from summer school. Most of them absolute strangers, people I will probably never ever see in my life. Not just the people who filled out the questionnaires, there were those who really went out of their to help, to ensure that my data was complete. Some were my closest friends, people I expect the world of. But some were people I hadn't spoken to in ages. In a world of cynicism, if there's anything which can make one believe in the sheer goodness of human beings, it is the experience of data collection.
#4- There will always be drama. In some form or the other. Files vanishing from the cd checked a thousand times- circa 2007. the first thesis. lesson learnt- rewritable cds are rooobish. but then again, that's when I discovered pen drives. Or it could be giving data to be a 'famed' SPSS expert for analysis, only to discover the week before submission that nothing has been done about it- circa 2009. the second thesis. lesson learnt- learn SPSS! it's the easier software EVER. It could also be a multitude of things- two cousins getting married within 2 weeks of each other, 15 days before submission. Or you being over-smart and joining civil services coaching classes to kill time, not knowing that the prelims is just a month before submission. Genius that.
#5- You never feel like you have put in your 100%. The most you'll feel is "Given the circumstances, I guess this is the most I could do." But there will never ever be the satisfaction that you have given it your all. And when you go through it sometime later, many moons after you have submitted, you will notice the millions of flaws. "There was supposed to be a comma there!", "This was supposed to have a 'the', instead of an 'a'!" "What a loooong sentence!" Let alone the other two, but this happened even when I was submitting my first thesis- the one I consider my best, most honest work.
#6-There will be tantrums/outbursts/impatience/crying bouts/headaches/neckaches/backaches/eyeaches. No matter how many dissertations you do, these are a part of the package. It will always be a stressful experience. Maybe the frequency may differ. Maybe your way of getting over the little tantrums may get better. Maybe your way of understanding why you're being so impatient about silly things will get better. But these are gonna be there. Always.
#7- Talking to people who know exactly what it is that you're doing is MUCH easier than talking to those who simply ask "Kitna ho gaya?" I for one, have no patience with the second lot of people. Over the years, I have learned to avoid being around such people during dissertations, especially around submission time. It's easier telling people that you can't think of implications of your research, or that your hypothesis is messed up, than telling them "Umm...i don't know when it'll be final". I wish it weren't that way, but it is.
#8- The decision to finally print (and eventually bind) the thesis is always a tough one. Doesn't matter how sure you are that this is it, and you can't go through the entire thing again, and you really don't care how it is anymore. Doesn't matter that you just want it to be over. It's the most 'final' decision you will ever take with respect to the thesis. Because once it's done, its DONE. No going back. No turning back. Finito. *yikes*!
#9- No matter how many dissertations you do, your heart will always skip a beat or two, when you see the final result. Even though you know that you have written a lot of rubbish inside, the sight of the beautifully bound pages, with your name printed in bold letters on the front cover, is something else.
#10- There is a certain joy in deleting all the drafts from your laptop, knowing that the backups, backups of backups, will not be required anymore. All that is required is the final product, which will sit starred in your inbox, waiting to be downloaded, the next time you do a thesis.
Too long? Don't blame me- I am going to submit a 100 page M.Phil dissertation tomorrow :)