Celebrating The Little Things

This week, a very important thing happened. I got my research ethics application for my thesis submitted by the deadline.

Admittedly, this application is a small hurdle in a very long process. For me, however, it came to be viewed as a near-insurmountable hurdle in what was a seemingly interminable process. In early 2009, I successfully defended the research proposal for my thesis. The next (theoretically very fast) step is getting research ethics approval to carry on moving forward.

Clearly, there is something of a timing gap between then and know; a small matter of some three years or so. So what happened? There are many factors that I could offer in terms of plausible deniability, including numerous personal challenges and a relocation of 3,000 kms. And, truth be told, I did take a year’s leave of absence in dealing with some of this. The larger truth, however, is something different.

Apart from a (largely valid) reputation as a driven workaholic, and a procrastinator, I am also something of a perfectionist. And yet, for me, I hate rework. A fundamental personal truth is that I want to do something once, have it be perfect, and never have to deal with it again. Wham, bam done… and moving on. There’s other things to do.

Fortunately (or not), for much of my life I have been able to get away with this. I can write, edit and format on the fly, can type at the speed of thought (slow but steady) and can structure something in my head without usually having to resort to an outline. The result is that I can usually churn out a document, give it a quick proofread (or, even better, get someone else to do it) and call it done.

This is, however, not helpful once you start undertaking academic work, and particularly something the scope of a thesis. The process is inherently recursive. You will go in circles, it is simply a question of how many times before you call it enough. A literature review leads to a question. A question leads to a methodology. But a question defined means the literature review can now be tighter and more focused. And focussing the literature review can lead to new methodological opportunities. And so the snake chases its tale until there is no beginning and no end. Not, to be clear, my preferred work style.

What this meant, and where this is going, is that once my proposal was completed, I knew two things: there were gaps in my literature review, and (deservedly) criticisms of my proposed methodological approach. Both of which led to a level of inertia that grew exponentially as I avoided tackling the monster.

Three years later, I essentially had to start over. Starting over, however, meant compressing several years of work into a few months. All to get a literature review that was on firm ground, and to finally get an ethics proposal crafted that outlined my methodological approach, and to which a research ethics committee would give a green light. Fast forward three years – and three insane months – later, and that’s I where I am. Finally.

The challenge inherent in this is, despite the opportunity to deviate from what I proposed three years ago, what I finally presented in my ethics proposal is not very different than it would have been if I had written it three years ago. I am three years older and wiser, and much water has passed under the bridge of my life, continuing to mold and shape me. But a concerted three or four weeks spent three years ago would have found me in much the same place.

Despite all that, I am celebrating. I have hit an important milestone. I am happy with what I have produced. I have a much stronger literature review. And I still need to go back and refine the literature, because it can still be tighter and still needs to be more focused.

This is new for me. I accept the rework. And I acknowledge the milestone. It is more than just checking something off the to-do list, and moving on to the next thing. It is an accomplishment, and one I am proud of. It is nice to take notice of it as it passes by.

Leave a Comment