When you take on the challenge that is an academic thesis, one of the most common pieces of advice you get is to really love your subject, because you’re going to basically dedicate your entire existence to it.
Like a lot of my life, completing my thesis was not straightforward. At first, it was technically supposed to be completed by the summer of 2014 (when I walked), then the fall of 2014, and then the summer of 2015. It was finally defended in September 2015.
I did love my subject – which used sociolinguistic analysis to examine race conversations centering on Blackness in popular digital media. What’s not to love? It was a marriage of my work experience writing in the digital space, and my academic and personal interests in race conversations and the experiences of black people. It was the most academically challenging work I was going to undertake yet.
But a thesis is also personally challenging, no less in 2014, which was easily one of the most grueling years I have faced in my twenties to date. Between unexpected family deaths, delays in immigration status changes, starting a full-time job, and all the other mundanities of life that one has to deal with ordinarily, it was an especially trying period.
Aside from learning a great deal about one’s subject, there are many lessons one learns while doing such work, that have nothing to do with the academic subject matter. Having attained enough distance from the work after completion, I realized that doing this work taught me a lot of non-academic lessons that I needed to learn or re-learn.
One of the first things you learn immediately is the importance of seeking objectivity, which is ironically more a place of aspiration, than certainty. No matter how good the researcher, they enter the research with bias, preconceived notions, and expectations. But it is good practice for how to approach your perspectives in new situations, and maybe even old ones in other areas of your life.
You learn that even when you’re in the midst of doing something extremely difficult, there is still such a thing as trying too hard. And that trying too hard ultimately has the same outcome as not trying hard enough. What’s the outcome, you might ask? One you don’t want. Finding that space between the effort and the ease of work and life is always best.
You learn the importance of having people on your side. If you don’t know it by now, you can’t “make it” on your own. The love of family, friends, mentors, kind strangers, and everyone in between is what makes any challenging journey possible. And besides that, even if you were to do things on your own, it is much better to have people to celebrate with at the end of your journey.
Sometimes I stop and look back at this recent period and it feels almost like a dream. The tears, the anxieties, the frustrations, and the just “trying to keep yourself together,” feels like it was happening to someone else. But at the end of it, you learn that the process, the process of anything that caused you to empty out your being and you soul, can only have a beautiful outcome. Even if it’s not the outcome or process you planned. Indeed, you learn too that the beauty of struggle in the process, is more significant than the beauty of the outcome.
You learn that everything has an ending. That no matter how present and real and unceasing something may feel, it has an ending because everything is temporary. Sometimes this is the only thing that you need to remember if you’re going through something – “this has an ending, this has an ending.” Sometimes that’s the only relief that life gives us, and that’s okay. Maybe it’s even a blessing.
You learn the meaning of perseverance. Perseverance isn’t just hard work. It isn’t just the effort, and finding that place between the effort and the ease. Perseverance isn’t just hanging in there till it’s over. Perseverance is that will that refuses to give in until you have done the best you can do. Perseverance is being marred with pain and sweat and blood and tears and fatigue, and still continuing because you have to see it through till the very end. Perseverance is enduring until you have given it everything you can, and even in that moment you think you’ve given it all you have, you reach inside you for something more. Didn’t someone famous once describe it – perseverance – as the hard work after the hard work? Because that’s exactly what it is.
Finally, you learn that when you have overcome something challenging, you’re the only one who’ll ever really know how much went into it. And no matter the congratulations, the celebrations, the applause, you know that these are just moments. But that period of your life that you gave a little bit of yourseld to, will always be a period you think back and say, “How did I do that?” And the feeling you’ll have more than anything else? Gratitude.