On Thesis Writing and Self-Understanding; Dealing with Fears and Anxieties, and Being Bad at Everything. – By: Arshia

As international students coming to a foreign country, it is so easy to get caught up in an unfamiliar culture, in fending for yourself, and in learning and taking in so many new experiences. And when we do get caught up in these things, the “main event” of sorts – the fact that we’re here primarily as students pursuing a degree – gets lost in the mix.

Or at least, that was the case for me, particularly with my thesis!

While the thought of writing a thesis was always present somewhere in my mind, that somewhere was hardly ever the forefront, until the last couple of months where everything really sped up and I had no choice but to invest every inch of my attention span into my thesis.

My master’s thesis at Uppsala University was the first proper piece of academic research and writing that I produced, especially because my bachelor’s did not have a dissertation or any other lengthy piece of writing. While you may think that that would have made me even more cautious and meticulous with my time dedicated to thesis writing, it actually did the opposite. The idea of a thesis became this gargantuan monster towering over me, and I transcended the fight or flight divide, choosing to just turn the other way and procrastinate instead. As they say, ignorance is bliss.

But of course, the job had to be done, and I had to be the one doing it, and so, come March, I began to truly feel the growing, prickly warmth of the slowly approaching fire that was my submission deadline (in mid-May).

The thing is, all of this points to the moral of the story being “do not procrastinate” or “slow and steady wins the race” or some other clichéd ending – the weight of which I am not denying – but, as students, as people, as human beings experiencing life, we know that nothing has as simple a solution, and knowing the right thing does not automatically translate to knowing how to execute it. I knew all through the earlier semesters that I should be starting my thesis work, I knew I should have been studying when I chose to just waste time watching Netflix instead. But I physically just could not bring myself to do anything. Thesis writing then became much more than just “writing a thesis” for me. Not only did I have to do the research, write, edit, omit, fine-tune, and review, I also had to start, truly, from ground-up. From myself, my fears about not being able to produce something worthwhile, my anxieties about not making myself or the people around me proud, my worries about wasting this opportunity to learn that I had been blessed with.

And of course, every other aspect of life does not conveniently “pause” when there’s a big task to be done, and so, having to juggle thesis writing and the anxieties surrounding it with eating well, staying active, maintaining a social life, interpersonal relationships, other academic responsibilities, and everything else made me feel like I was in an ocean, weighed down by the drenched fabric of my clothes that got heavier and heavier as I just tried with growing desperation to stay afloat.

I had this (mistaken) idea in my mind that if not done perfectly, there was no worth in what I did, regarding not only my thesis, but also life in general. If I do not produce the best thesis ever, I have failed. If I do not succeed in managing every aspect of my life with a smile on my face, I have failed. But how stupid is that? Even writing this down now, I can only think, “Gosh, Arshia, it was never supposed to be that serious; yikes.”

Somewhere along the line, in the middle of April, it clicked in that I should not be worried about whether or not I can produce the most worthwhile thesis, or the most worthwhile lifestyle ever, but that I should really question myself instead on if it was worthwhile to pursue impossible levels of perfection if it meant living in a constant state of worry and fear and hopelessness. The answer: no. Immediately, no.

I also have to thank my supervisor for helping drill this thought into my head that it is way more important to write two hundred crappy words than to write fifteen perfect ones, because at the end of the day, you will have two hundred words that you can edit and make better, instead of a nearly empty document that will glare at you and keep you stuck in the same loop.

Once it truly settled into my body that I was allowed to be imperfect, unfiltered, and downright bad, I produced draft after draft after draft. My rigid guidelines for my life also eased up alongside my thesis writing. If I didn’t eat the most nutritious meals for three days straight, who cares? If I didn’t go to the gym in three weeks, how does it matter? If I didn’t see any sign of human life outside of my reflection for a whole week, that is okay! That’s the gorgeous thing about time (and wonderfully, also the thing we fear the most), it moves. Just because my room is messy doesn’t mean it will always be messy. I could spend four days straight, doing nothing but writing in a growing tip of a room, but there will come a day when I draw open the blinds, clear my desk, fold all my clothes, and wash all the dishes as the sunshine and fresh air pour in through my windows.

My thesis and my reflections on who I am, what I value, and how I hope to achieve what I wish to achieve, everything improved with time, and surprisingly, all I had to do, was do. As international students, especially those coming from less-developed countries where the competition is tough, the finances are hard, and the expectations are high, it is really easy to slip and fall through the cracks of our own inhibitions. We want to be successful; we want to make not only ourselves, but also our families and our communities proud; we want to help others around us also come up with us. With these piling expectations, it is often typical to wish to be nothing short of the best, but there is no hope of being the best at something (not that I any longer believe the best is necessary) if we do not get really comfortable with being bad at everything.

I guess I did end this with some sort of moral, but the moral of this story, unlike a lot of others, isn’t telling you to do a certain thing or be a certain way. It is much more basic than that, and has no requirements. Just Do. Just Be. Things will start moving from there, because that’s what they do. We just have to start somewhere.

The time I spent working on my thesis ended up being the most transformative part of my master’s, because I realized I was capable of much more than I originally thought. Something that I find really interesting and paradoxical about this is that the thesis I did end up producing wasn’t the most ideal piece of writing to have ever existed. It didn’t solve all the problems of the universe as I initially, childishly, hoped it would do. So, even though I did not produce something that I had dreamed of, what I did end up producing was more than I thought I was truly capable of. Perhaps that goes to show that some part of us, squandered deep down in our subconscious, knows that every single thing we do cannot be miraculous (there’s a reason that miracles are miracles), but the expectations we encounter, both within ourselves and in our environments, make us wish that it could be so. So even though I did not create magic, I am so proud of what I did end up writing because, retrospectively, I see improvements in every draft. I see improvement from the first assignments I did when I came here two years ago too, to the concluding paragraphs of my thesis. Not only that, but I see how my mindset changed, and I was able to cast aside a lot of fears that weren’t serving me, but were simply keeping me stuck and unable to do anything at all. And that is so much more than one ideal piece of writing. That is comforting knowledge, emotional stability, and a growing openness to constantly learning more.

I guess that circles me back to what I said in the beginning of this post; something we often forget when we move to a foreign country; we are, primarily, students. We are here to learn, to get better, and as long as we remember that it is okay to not enter the field as professionals with 27 years of experience and a million citations, but as exactly who we are, we’re going to be okay.

1 Comment

  1. Sandeep Jagtap

    Beautiful again!!

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