If you’ve talked to me this semester, you’ve probably heard me talk about my thesis, and probably make some half-panicked remark about how I have not accomplished as much as I would like to. Completing my honors thesis is my big ticket item for the semester. It is the undercurrent that will be both encouraging me to keep moving and nagging me to get going before I fall too far behind. Tackling a thesis like this is really unlike any other academic undertaking I’ve done before. To start, there are no hard deadlines for the steps of my thesis, but rather one completion date for final submittal. For this reason, I have to remain self-motivated and disciplined to keep myself moving. While this is a change for me, the biggest difference between completing my thesis and taking a traditional course has been how I make progress.
When you take a class, you have weekly homework followed by midterms, eventually culminating in a final project or final exam. It is always clear what the next step is, and it feels like you are making linear progress through the course. The thesis on the other hand has been a lot more nonlinear that I am used to. I spent a lot of time last spring and this past fall working on narrowing down the scope of my thesis (understanding human sleep patterns based on mobile phone usage data), so it felt like I was doing a lot of talking and thinking without much to show for it, except a couple of research questions. As I start to dig into the analysis portion of the project, this has also been nonlinear progress. I develop a script to perform a specific task for my analysis, and I get really excited when it’s complete. Then, I typically find some error and have to go back and edit. The iterative cycle of development, testing, and revising makes it feel like I am stagnant in my progress rather than making meaningful strides towards the finish line. I am beginning to understand that this is the nature of research – you may pursue an idea and jump down the rabbit hole, only to find that it won’t work or there’s a mistake somewhere.
As I write, I realize that this linear vs. nonlinear framework can be applied to the next chapter in my life as well. When you are in high school, the progress is clear and linear. You take difficult classes, get good grades, and do extracurriculars all towards the goal of getting accepted to college. And once you get to undergrad, it’s a little more ambiguous but similar path – take classes, maintain a good GPA, get professional experience, find out what you want to do with your life. All of these are in preparation for the next step. As I start to enter the professional world, I predict that my progress will feel less and less linear. Whereas high school and undergrad have clearly defined end dates, a real-adult job does not necessarily. There will have to be more introspective questions of “what path am I on?” and “do I want to be on this path?”. My challenge to myself for the remainder of the semester is to become comfortable in the ambiguity and nonlinear progress.