The Law of Good Enough (or why your thesis will never be finished)

I spent quite a bit of time recently meeting our section’s post-graduate students for tutorials. In some cases this is to welcome new arrivals, or to catch up on progress from those who have been away on lengthy field seasons. The ones I most enjoy seeing are those  who are busy writing up — because they’re the ones I’m most able to help.

It can be difficult to persuade a postgrad staring down their thesis deadline that 15 minutes in my office is time well spent, which I fully understand. Usually they are stressed, feeling the pressure and unable to focus on anything other than the thesis. Much of this derives from a sentiment I hear echoed again and again in various forms: “I just want to do the best job I can”.

No. Stop. This is not the way to approach a thesis. You need your thesis to be good enough.

This shift in attitude is hard to accomplish when your whole academic career has been geared towards achieving the highest mark possible, or at the end of four years when you want to have something on your shelf to be proud of, that you can look at and think “I wrote that” and feel a warm glow inside. Allowing yourself to fall into this vanity trap is pathological, and the root cause of a lot of unnecessary stress on the part of post-graduates.

Your thesis is the means to an end, which is graduation. When the day comes, you will walk across a stage for 20 seconds, shake someone’s hand, collect a piece of paper and get a photo taken in a silly gown. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written the most perlucid, inspiring and impressive thesis of all time. No-one will clap any louder, or any longer. No-one will ever judge you on the quality of that thesis, good or bad. All that matters is that it was good enough.

In one of the labs I worked in we had a thesis that did the rounds of the post-graduates who were writing up. You might think that they were sharing a particularly wonderful thesis so as to learn best practice and be inspired by the achievements of others. I’m sure all the supervisors would have preferred that. But no, the thesis everyone wanted to see was singularly atrocious. No-one reading it could fail to spot glaring errors, hideous formatting and some of the worst figures ever committed to print. That’s exactly why everyone was so keen to read it — if this person passed then surely there was hope for others!

I’m not going to reveal whose thesis it was, because that doesn’t matter. They have gone on to a successful academic career where they are respected in their field with an international profile. Does anyone care that they submitted a shoddy thesis? Of course not. It was good enough. On the other hand, the best thesis I ever read remains that by Mike Shanahan, who preceded me by a couple of years and even worked at the same desk. Nothing could be more demoralising than to witness a standard of writing to which I had no hope of aspiring (at the time). Perhaps he still looks with satisfaction upon that thesis. He might do so again if he reads this. My bet is that it hasn’t crossed his mind in a decade or more. Did it benefit his career? Maybe, but probably not that much.

There is an argument that a better thesis will lead to an easier viva, and that’s perhaps the case, but my suspicion is that the correlation is not strong. How a viva goes depends on the personality of the examiners, their particular bugbears, the wind direction and the alignment of the stars. You can no more predict the questions than you can anticipate how many corrections you’re likely to get. The time to be a perfectionist, or at least to aim for the highest standards you can, is when you’re preparing a manuscript for publication. Then you know it’s going to be pored over in great detail. A publication is your contribution to the legacy of science, a work that will be forever associated with you. The thesis? That’s a bookend.

The best advice I ever received while writing up was from another old hand in the group who told me that a thesis is never finished. Eventually you just relinquish it to the examiners. Bear this in mind if you’re tempted to read and reread chapters, add more references, or tinker endlessly with the figures. There’s always something else you could do. Just get it done, make sure it’s good enough, then move on to the rest of your career.

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Edit: @ZarahPattison made an interesting point on Twitter about thesis by publication. Although this is arguably the best possible way to prepare a thesis, it’s not for everyone, and many universities don’t even allow it. I wouldn’t like to give any student the idea that it was an expectation, not least because I didn’t manage it myself. It’s certainly true that a well-written chapter is easier to turn into a manuscript, but that’s missing the point. If you want to write a manuscript, write a manuscript. If you have a manuscript then turning it into a chapter is easy. If you need to finish a thesis then get the chapters done and worry about the manuscripts later.

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7 thoughts on “The Law of Good Enough (or why your thesis will never be finished)

  1. mikeshanahan

    Oof! That’s high praise – Thanks Markus. I had no idea anyone else other than my supervisor and two examiners had read my thesis. When I was writing it, my supervisor (Steve Compton) told me how David Bowie wrote songs by cutting up pieces of paper with words on them and rearranging them to create something beautiful. Steve suggested I use the same approach with blocks of thesis chapter text to find a good structure. It was good advice.

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      That’s good advice, but in the modern world of word-processing programs it probably happens more seldom. I still write a first draft manuscript by hand and edit the final version on paper. Apparently that makes me a dinosaur.

      Incidentally, your assumption that no-one else had read your thesis pretty much reinforces my point. I’m still glad that I did though 🙂

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  2. Staffan Lindgren

    I have resorted to this law on several occasions when a student gets to the xth draft and still can’t get it quite right. But something closer to perfection than ‘good enough’ is at least an initial goal, as the quality of the thesis does reflect somewhat on the supervisors as well. Nevertheless, I agree that graduation is the ultimate cause for the exercise, and the thesis as such will have less impact on future aspirations than the degree.

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Fair point, and I’m mostly concerned with how to deal with the closing stages. In my experience it’s seldom been necessary to put pressure on a student to improve their thesis. It’s much more important for their mental health and well-being to take some of the stress away.

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  3. prettygurrly

    Thankfully I had a supervisor that also had the attitude of good enough. Yes I want to be proud of what I’ve done but whittling down the tremendous amount of work I did into three good chapters was the best advice he gave me. You don’t have to put everything in and it needs to be good enough – I did get a chapter published and a second is waiting on corrections for a journal…and my viva is in a few weeks!

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  4. Pingback: Weekly links round-up: 06/02/2015 | BES Quantitative Ecology Blog

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