Learn from my mistakes to gain the most from your thesis or dissertation experience.
It’s been a year and a half since I completed my Master’s thesis, and I’m still riding an emotional wave of relief. Although the research was valuable and the learning was rich, it feels incredibly good to be finished. Although the professional learning is never done, the MEdL degree is a chapter closed and a professional goal realized.
As I look back on my thesis work, I know that I made the journey a lot more difficult than it needed to be. After months of reflection, my intention in this piece is to share some insights and strategies that might spare others the agony I experienced just a short time ago.
My Context: A MEdL Degree Program
I registered for Vancouver Island University’s Master of Education in Educational Leadership (MEdL) degree program in the spring of 2017. It was an amazing program, and I highly recommend it to fellow teachers.
My first year of studies began later that summer on the VIU campus in Nanaimo, and I enjoyed it from the beginning. My instructors were inspiring, colleagues were encouraging, and the course content was engaging. I was re-living the student life, learning a lot, and enjoying the ride.
Those first two weeks of classes in August 2017 were followed by ten months of online studies while I returned to my professional practice in Burnaby, BC. All 45 students in our MEdL cohort were placed in triads — groups of three students that supported each other’s work throughout the school year. On average, I wrote a couple of small reflective papers a month, and the two colleagues in my triad reviewed my work before submission each time. Although deadlines imposed occasional pressures, this first year of readings and course work felt helpful and manageable.
This year felt so manageable, in fact, that I decided to launch an education podcast during spring break of 2018. Although I didn’t know what I was doing at the outset, the podcast was a passion project that I had been dreaming about for some time. I loved the creative work involved, but it instantly demanded several hours of attention per week. This added workload wouldn’t exactly help the tasks that loomed on my academic horizon.
In the summer of 2018 I traveled back to Nanaimo for five more weeks of classes on the VIU campus. The last two weeks there were spent in preparation for our thesis work: selecting an appropriate area of focus, defining research forms and directions, conducting preliminary reviews of the academic literature within our areas of focus. My professors encouraged me to consider research in the realm of educational podcasting — a thesis that would align well with activities I was already involved in.
I was engaged and excited – at least in theory – but made little initial progress during those summer weeks. I had more than a year to complete it, so there was no need to rush.
After some celebrations and goodbyes in early August 2018, our class parted ways and returned to our respective homes. We had a few weeks of summer remaining, and we looked forward to relaxing with our families and loved ones before heading back to school as teachers and administrators for another year.
The clock had quietly started to tick on my thesis work, but I wasn’t listening. I still felt exhausted by the 2017–2018 school year and the five weeks of university classes that had immediately followed. My mind and body craved a break, and it felt good to spend time with family.
My thesis was sent to the back burner.
A Growing Problem
Summer vacation came to a quick end, and the fall of 2018 brought another year of teaching. My circumstances had changed: I moved from a school in Burnaby to one in Surrey, and although the learning community was wonderful, almost everything was new. I had new colleagues, new expectations, and I was teaching new courses. My class was fun but a handful, and it required a good deal of energy to teach well and fulfill my professional responsibilities.
Between teaching, the family life, and my podcast, I had a lot going on. My thesis work felt distant and difficult to engage with: it wasn’t the kind of work that I could jump into for 20-minute intervals. To make any kind of significant progress required high energy and blocks of time in the order of hours — and such blocks were hard to come by. When these patches of time did appear, it was painful to consider spending them on thesis work instead of so many other attractive priorities: family, friends, work, the podcast, and creative pursuits.
In the spring of 2019, I managed to formulate a coherent plan for my field research. With the patient help of my advisor, my application was accepted by the Research Ethics Board on its first submission. I completed my research (an online survey) in May, and the process went smoothly. I got the critical mass of participation that I needed, and another box on the path to thesis completion was ticked.
Unfortunately, the smooth ride for my field research only masked the reality of my lack of progress elsewhere. Between August 2018 and July 2019, I made very little progress. I mean, I chipped away here and there, added a few paragraphs, and reviewed a couple of articles. But by the end of the 2018–2019 school year, 90% of my thesis work remained.
I hadn’t really had my head in the thesis game for quite some time. There were issues of argument, support, citation, validity, and justification that I still didn’t fully understand, and my review of the academic literature was still lacking. A huge amount of work was required, and I was starting to feel more anxiety than I had felt in some time.
To make matters worse, I was now on a tight deadline: complete my thesis by the end of August, or pay a continuance fee of a few thousand dollars for an extended semester. The thought made my palms sweat and heart pound more every time I thought about it.
Fear of Failure and the Agony of Deferral
It was early July. School was out for the summer. With two months between me and the August deadline, I was up against it. Yet even then, I found reasons to avoid my thesis. Good reasons.
Date time with my wife was more critical than ever. Our boys needed daily hikes and trips into nature. Email needed checking. Podcasts required promoting. Rooms needed cleaning. Files needed organizing.
Of course, like any good cycle of procrastination, all the stress and anxiety would return with brutal force as soon as the temporary high of these distractions began to fade. My brooding thoughts flitted from fear of failure to toxic self-loathing for my sheer lack of willpower and ineffectiveness.
Not a great emotional space from which to read academic journals and construct eloquent arguments.
The Final Battle
My anxiety ramped so high in July 2019 that at times I even contemplated walking away and leaving my degree program entirely. But the awareness that such a move would haunt me for the rest of my life helped me grit my teeth and stare this work in the face. By mid-month, I was making daily progress on the thesis, and by early August, it became my primary activity.
Weeks later, with the deadline looking like a dragon from Hades, I stopped caring about leaving the house, annoying friends, or neglecting my family. I stopped cleaning bathrooms, mowing the lawn, or working out. I had finally gotten to the point where nothing else mattered. I had to finish.
And finish I did — thanks be to God. After submitting two previous drafts of the thesis, I retyped all sixty pages, combing through it carefully for grammar issues or citation problems. It appeared to be in good shape.
When I got the email confirmation from my advisor that my work had been accepted, I cried tears of relief. This thesis had taken me to a dark place, and it wasn’t a fun ride. I had sacrificed another summer for it, and I was back in the classroom.
But the work was over. My goal was achieved. I was finally victorious.
Lessons Learned and Advice to Other Graduate Students
As I look back on my MEdL program, I really have few complaints. I thoroughly enjoyed the summer classes taken at VIU’s beautiful Nanaimo campus. I enjoyed the course readings. I even gained satisfaction from the papers written throughout the first year of the program. Best of all, I can say that I experienced significant growth that has altered my personal perspectives and professional trajectory. In both respects, Carol Dweck’s Mindset was a huge factor.
It’s pretty clear that my thesis work is where things really went awry on my journey to a MEdL degree. If I were to do it all again, here is what I would do differently on my thesis.
How to Master Your Master’s Thesis
1. Engage with the literature early and often.
A thoughtful and comprehensive thesis study begins at a point of familiarity with the relevant academic literature. You must become something of an expert in the field, because you must have a sense of the work that has already been done and the arguments that have already been made before you can write with any authority. To avoid the literature review is to hobble the entire process, which is precisely what I did through the K-12 school year of 2018–2019.
If I could do things all over again, I would aim to read a minimum of three journal articles a week, making light notes on each. If I had done so at the outset of my thesis work in August 2018, I would have completed thoughtful reviews on over 100 articles and become something of an authority in my space long before summer even started. That would have been a game-changer for me in terms of comfort and confidence before starting to write in earnest. It’s the tortoise and the hare all over again.
2. Establish accountability.
My thesis work finally started to gain slow momentum when I arranged weekly phone calls with my advising professor. Those Wednesday morning phone calls were scheduled ahead of time, and my pride compelled me to make at least some kind of progress each week between calls. If it’s not your advising professor, hire a local or virtual coach (not a loved one — that doesn’t work) to check in with each week. Don’t let yourself wander too long in the dreamland of denial and procrastination, or months can go by with zero progress made. And that can spell disaster.
3. Set micro goals and write them out.
We all know that large goals must be broken into manageable chunks, but for the first ten months of my thesis work, I wasn’t really doing that. As a result, the sheer magnitude of the job in front of me filled me with paralyzing dread. If I took on another thesis, I would be meticulous about setting achievable weekly goals — and writing them out. There’s something about actually putting goals to paper (even if virtual) that makes it a little harder for denial and bargaining to creep into the picture.
4. Keep a progress journal.
There was something tremendously encouraging about keeping a progress journal. Mine was simply a Doc in which I recorded every single bit of progress. Added a paragraph? I recorded it. Reviewed an article? Recorded. Corresponded with a relevant authority on LinkedIn? Noted that, too. As I added more items to my list for the day — however small — I felt like I was winning, like I was building just a speck of momentum. Like maybe, just maybe, I could do this thing. And that hope was critical.
Here’s a sample from my progress journal. Most recent entries appear at the top.
5. Connect with experts in your field.
My literature review became more exciting and interesting when I started reaching out to some of the authors of the journal articles I was reading. We connected on Twitter. We messaged on LinkedIn. We chatted at length on Zoom. Building loose relationships with academic leaders in my space and learning the scope and purpose of their work added further relevance to my own learning.
6. Remember your WHY.
Why are you working on your thesis to begin with? Write down your answer. Read it aloud. Say it to others. Rehearse it often, because your why can power you through every bit of adversity you face. Without a clear why, you’re far more likely to avoid, procrastinate, or give up on the journey entirely.
Wherever you are in your own thesis journey, I wish you well. I hope that in some small ways my story — and the strategies I suggest here — will encourage you along the journey.
It won’t ever be easy. But it can be rewarding. And it will be worth it.