Writing, Defending, and Celebrating My Master’s Thesis in a Pandemic

I submitted my first chapter draft in December 2019. Then I (successfully) defended my thesis on December 4, 2020. But how did I get there?

By Alex

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When I think back to March 2020, I remember that I was struggling with writing my Master’s thesis. I submitted my first chapter draft in December 2019, received feedback in January 2020, and then had almost no progress for a while.

Fast forward to December 4, 2020 — my (successful) thesis defense date.

But how did I get there?

Because of the stress of the pandemic, I had almost no motivation between April and June 2020, and no idea how to tackle my thesis again — especially from home.

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I did little things to try to keep going without pushing myself too much. Losing access to the library motivated me to purchase a couple books that were major references for my research. Even if you can’t buy brand new ones, there are plenty of old book stores and buy/sell groups on Facebook where you might be able to find a gem or two.

By the end of May, I thought about what else I missed about Rutherford. There was something about sitting in front of a desktop computer that made it easier to focus on writing. I purchased a second monitor and keyboard to accompany my laptop and give me that old Rutherford feel. These items are often going for cheap on Edmonton buy/sell groups so no need to pull out the big bucks if you don’t want to. But, I do feel setting up a workspace at home that feels like the place you used to feel most productive is worth the investment!

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I originally planned to go to L.A. in August to attend KCON and conduct interviews with Asian Americans who were either involved in the K-pop / Asian-American music field, or were simply fans of these artists. With those plans foiled, I pivoted to another form of evidence: podcasts. I listened to podcasts that interviewed Korean-American artists with careers in Korea in order to uncover important parts of music history that were relevant to my research.

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Even if you can’t find something directly “citeable” from a podcast for your research, listening to podcasts by specialists or people who care about the same stuff as you might help you learn about other studies or pieces of evidence you haven’t come across yet. Though it’s not quite the same as grabbing dinner with new friends after a conference, it is a great, affordable alternative. It’s also low effort, which is important for days that you want to be able to do something but can’t push yourself too much.

Look out for other low-barrier virtual opportunities to keep your mind stimulated and stay up to date with new developments in your field. For example, online workshops and conferences are often more accessible and practical than in-person ones.

These actions helped me realize that what was in front of me was not a massive, impossibly tall mountain. This was a path on a hill well-travelled by many students before me — this year’s conditions were just a little bit tougher.

I prepared for my defense in a couple of different ways. I searched on Google for “common humanities thesis defense questions” and practiced answering every single question on every single link on the first and second pages of the results. I created a presentation and talking points and practiced in front of my younger siblings and my parents. Up until this point, my family had no idea what my research was about. I was so thankful and proud to be able to share this with them, and it was actually a good way to connect with them. My dad even took notes!

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A lot of friends around the world were quite interested in reading and learning about my thesis. It wasn’t possible for them to attend my thesis defense, so I hosted a mock thesis defense presentation on Google Meet and invited about 10 friends. After the presentation, I let them ask whatever questions they might have. It was a huge success and another fun way to connect with friends and practice for the defense.

Take advantage of being able to bring together people into one virtual space — your friends and family are probably dying to hear what you’ve been up to in grad school.

The actual defense was a blur. I presented. The questions were very specific to my research, and at times felt more like a discussion rather than the “grilling” I prepared for. I waited in the Zoom meeting room as they decided on my fate — and was rewarded with good news: passed with no revisions!

The celebrations began immediately! I actually had to jump into a work meeting after the defense (another interesting part of defending remotely), and my team paused the meeting to congratulate me on the call. I shared the good news on Twitter and Instagram and messages began to pour in from all over the world.

My family got me a cake too!

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Unexpectedly, my cousins dropped off food from my favourite restaurant, Hanjan. I then went to a planned virtual “watch K-pop videos together” date with a friend and was greeted with a surprise party! This was my first ever surprise party, and I’m glad I got to experience it with people all over the world I have met through the years.

Some ways to make your defense feel special is to share the news with others, plan a post-defense virtual party, or order in your favorite meal as a treat! You worked hard for this and you deserve it.

If you’re pondering how it could be possible to write and defend a thesis during such an unpredictable time, my advice is this: Do what you can. You’re physically, mentally, and spiritually processing so much collective trauma right now — it’s okay if the only thing you can do is passively listen to podcasts or a semi-related YouTube video right now. Or if you need a complete break, take it. You need that energy for the day when things slowly start to click into place and the words start flowing out of you. You don’t have to organize a huge mock thesis presentation if you don’t want to or can’t do it. Start with explaining it to yourself. Start with explaining it to the pre-grad school version of you in your head. And when you successfully defend, share the news with the people you care about and allow yourself to be proud of yourself and enjoy the congrats you receive! If I can do it, I swear you can do it too.