Lost it


Hey all,

Just a query. I thought I was doing well so far: I've pretty much finished my IPA and after my supervisor dragging it through hot coals my second sup said he liked it and there was lots of good ideas : D I spent a few days feeling chuffed.
THEN. I've been trying to think about how I'm going to structure the beast. This has descended into me realising that I don't have an overall, cohesive argument anymore. I've got lots of little chapter-sized arguments and some general thoughts wafting around but nothing nearly as solid as I thought I had.
I'm meeting my sup on Monday morning but I'm too ashamed to say: 'you know how I've spent 3 months on this? Well I've suddenly realized I don't know what I'm saying anymore.' I need to read a lot more primary material before I can even start to make my mind up.
Has anyone else experienced this? I realise it might not make a whole lot of sense!


Uhmmm aren't you a FIRST YEAR? that too in the first half? And you are thinking of 'structuring the beast' and 'chapter wise arguments'?!?!?!?

Sometimes, being planned and being focused can go just a little bit overboard and ultimately not help!

We do continuously strive to find that central argument, and we do not find it in a magic moment. You need to wait. 21 year old Phds (or even 23 yr Phds like me) in their first years do not know things like how to structure the beast. And if we suddenly think one day that we do, we are amusingly wrong.

It is a JOURNEY, and its gr8 to sit on top of it and never let a moment slip away. But now is just not the time to search for chapters and structuring the whole. And even if you like the creative process and the sheer 'orientation; and comfort such searches provide, you must give them a huge leeway for change, or else the 3 yr Phd would not be a process of evolution, only three steps: 1) surefire idea about the entire thing 2) going and getting the data to prove that surefire idea and 3) submitting it.

its not that way keep_calm!


Hi Phd Bug.

Thanks for replying so quickly :-) Maybe I didn't make myself clear though. I totally understand that my thesis is going to go through continual change from now until the end and there's a big chance that the things I'm writing about now might not even end up in the finished product.
Personally I'd be quite happy to ramble on for a few more months until I'd got my footing. However, I am being specifically asked by my sups to give them some sort of chapter outline and I can't really do that until I understand the essence of what I'm trying to say (I'm from an English lit background if that makes any difference).Every time I mention a text to my tutor he asks how that would fit into the scheme of my thesis- he asked me in my very first meeting how I would structure an idea I had into chapters.
Most of the advice I've had so far has been to start writing as soon as possible, even if you then have to go back and totally revise/disgard it. So I was thinking to start work on a chapter in January/February and I'm trying to organize my thoughts in order to do that.
I appreciate what you've said but I don't want you to think that I'm trying to decide on some infallible masterplan at this stage :-)


Hi KC,

My sup has wanted 3000 word structured essays every fortnight and we ended term with 20,911 words of such essays, which I wrote and she read and thoughtfully critiqued. I am submitting a lit review chapter on 12th Jan, and conceptual framework chapter on 15th Feb and my pilot is in end Jan, for which online recruitment adverts and interview schedules and ethics checklists have been finalised and signed off this week.

That said, ALL of this may go down the drain. It is another matter that my sup thinks its all going fantastically well. And that I shouldnt be calling my pilot a 'pilot' anymore.

As I do all of this, even I too have a vague idea of what the final thing might (might) look like. I trust thats what you are looking for. All I was and still am trying to say is that now is not the time to be bothered by not knowing what that plan is like. it is nebulous and that is how it shall be.

Tell your sups that. This is my very nebulous plan, which shall morph and morph along the road.

A prof I know begins the PhD interview for selecting students with a first question that goes "What shall be on the last page of your thesis".

Your sups are checking your focus. Try, try try and hone and tell them your cloudy answer and be confident that thats all that can be rightfully expected at this stage.

Best, your fellow first year.


Thanks again Bug,

I guess I was feeling a little disappointed as I thought I had grasped the basics of my nebulous idea, as you put it. And then when I sat down and looked at the ins and outs it wafted off again lol. The basic problem, if this will make any sense, is that I'm currently looking at a huge range of literature and while I thought it all vaguely 'fitted together' I've now realised that what I'm arguing for one section theoretically contradicts what I'm saying in another part.
It's not really a huge problem. But I need to decide what my way around it is going to be:I could for example leave it to rest for a while and keep reading, with the probablity that I will find something which helps crystalize my thoughts. Or I can say the scope of the thesis is too big and decide just to concentrate on the one genre of literature. I'm hoping this is something my sup can help me out with on Monday. But I do think it's something I need to decide soon so I can work out what direction my reading now needs to take.
Its heartening to know that this is normal though Bug, so thanks for that. You mentioned that your supervisor gets you to write regular essays. I think this could be the way forward for me too rather than trying to think of chapters, which inevitably leads to a sense of panic.
You've helped a great deal



Good luck KC

PS: I like the nickname you used BUG!


Ha ha, well you gave me KC so I needed to give back...and 'PhD' doesn't have the same ring!


I think that there are some many approaches to chapter writing, and what works is so different among individuals. Some people like to outline each chapter prior to writing, with lists of sources ( or have supervisors that require that). Fortunately for me, my supervisor has not done this, as it would be a very horrible way for me to work....I write ( madman phase) and ideas often occur to me as I am writing--much of the 'aha!' or 'Eureka' of insight occurs as I am struggling to piece concepts and ideas together, and sort out my own thoughts. Often its not until its own paper, that I see a big conceptual hole, or a hole in my own thinking that can require some backtracking to deal with. ( I am struggling through such a conceptual hole at this moment!) I am, just by way of reference, writing up, and its sometimes hairy to realise that there is a bit of fuzziness or concepts that don't tie up well in a theoretical framework, and its back to the slog of working it through....

Those moments of feeling clueless come and go throughout the PhD, I think the bliss of not knowing the vastness of what you don't know is what enables anyone to even start on a PhD, and then as you go, you realise how much more knowledge and information is out there, that you never even remotely knew existed, and this can be daunting, and force you to take account of wider bodies of knowledge as you go. I think that those moments of as you said " I don't know what I am saying anymore" are the ones that lead you to the deep research, thinking, etc, that lead to the originality and pushing of knowledge that a PhD is all about. It can be frustrating, but it leads you on deeper and deeper....the PhD seems to be like a layer of circles, you spend a lot of time perhaps circling around and back to ideas, etc, but hopefully always with more knowledge, more ideas, more links, whatever, so that each time you revisit something, you see it slightly differently!


Thanks Olivia, that was really helpful. Especially this bit stood out for me:
'the PhD seems to be like a layer of circles, you spend a lot of time perhaps circling around and back to ideas, etc, but hopefully always with more knowledge, more ideas, more links, whatever, so that each time you revisit something, you see it slightly differently!'
That's exactly how I feel about the past few months. I recognized a theoretical problem and thought that I could 'solve' it through research (of course I know that you can never finitely solve any theoretical problem but you see what I mean, I hope). I've now ended up coming back to that same problem without any real conclusions. Or rather, the conclusions that I do have don't match up. But, like you say, I have come back to the problem with a lot more knowledge and understanding than I previously had. And now I go off again!
What you say about people having different approaches to writing is interesting. It was quite a while since I finished my dissertation, which was my last substantial piece of written work, so I'm finding it hard to remember what my approach was back then. It might well be that I'm like you and need to work things out on paper: I think the best thing I can do is just start writing up some ideas that I know definately stand and see if having written them down I can see any connections/problems which weren't there before. If I find that doesn't work then I may well be the 'other' kind of person.
Your post really helped, and all the best with writing up!


I'm just finishing my English Literature PhD (really just finishing: I'm handing it in on Monday!) and I didn't start writing at all until January of my first year, when I wrote an awful, awful introduction that I've scrapped entirely. I had a plan at that stage, but it was nothing like what I've ended up producing. I think it's really important to have some kind of plan, and a plan that you think is good, even if it's just for peace of mind. It helped me to think of every plan as both permanent and provisional (so, for the purposes of 4am insomniac terror, the plan is permanent and also The Best Plan Ever; for the purposes of actual work, it's totally provisional and fluid, even to the extent of massive rewriting). I don't know if this braintrick would work for you? Are you good at cognitive dissonance?


Hi Alicepalace,

Very well done on finishing your thesis :-) I'm going to sound very stupid now, but what is cognitive dissonance?