My thesis at MIT was definitely the pinnacle of my academic output, and I’m incredibly proud of it. If you want to take a look at it or the abstract, you can find it online—but, in short, it was a very publishable work that very effectively supported a significant (at least I think so) step forward in our understanding of why great and regional powers go to war with each other.
I start with this out of some learned defensiveness: when I tell people it was done with 10 weeks of dedicated work (while also taking four classes and carrying two part-time jobs and full-time job hunting), the first assumption by my (rightly) skeptical audience is that I half-a#&ed it. But no! It was a thing of beauty.
“I want to do that, too!” I hear you say. So gather ‘round, campers, while I tell you the story of Erik Fogg’s 10-Week Thesis. (Note that the following is an excerpt from my book, How to Crush College.)
My thesis is perennially my favorite example of how using a smart process made me look like Superman—and impressed the heck out of peers, professors, and potential employers. The key takeaway here is that with the right creative, challenging look, the execution is a lot easier than you might think. Let’s look at how I did it.
First, below is my original master’s thesis schedule (yes, it’s simplified). I wasn’t entirely sure how much I’d have to read, due to not having a topic at all. . .but I estimated. Remember, the schedule can change as you learn more, but just having one is hugely helpful on its own. I did know it would be highly quantitative, thus the dataset/graphs. My original plan would take a year from when I started, but would ultimately mean going into a ninth semester, which would have been very expensive. So my goal was to cut total time in half.
Before you move on to see where I found improvement opportunity, I want you to use the SMED questions to find as much as you can. Jot down what you see and then move on.
(Seriously, don’t peek. The exercise is important.)
Promise you’ve done the exercise? Great! Here’s what I got. I’ll add some detail below the image:
Picking my ideas and getting approval could be done very early — I finished at the end of my sophomore year so I could plan out the rest of it.
Once I had my idea, I matched electives in my major to that idea. Four classes focused either directly or indirectly on my thesis. They allowed me to:
- Do reading that related to my thesis, giving me the notes, insight, and citations I needed.
- Write papers that would (potentially—some did, some didn’t) constitute chapters of my thesis and make up a major part of the quantitative analysis. It was by planning in this way that all of the “green” blocks (“outside the cycle”) came to be both planned and realized.
I also outsourced the code-writing to assemble my mega-dataset (which ended up being an obnoxious 600,000 data points). I did the analysis myself but building the dataset was a pain and (as we covered earlier) I lack these skills. In exchange, my good friend got whiskey and contributor status in the thesis. Took him a few hours where it would have taken me ages.
I also continued writing as I waited for feedback. No reason not to—I submitted the paper for feedback twice even when I knew there were some flaws that could be improved, which allowed me to keep working on it and not have to become idle. (This requires expectation management. When you submit for feedback, be clear on where you want and don't want feedback. "I haven't done a proofread yet" will prevent frustration on the part of your professor, TA, or other reader.)
The end result plan gave me a healthy buffer of three weeks to finish within that eighth semester. I did end up using that buffer for spring break (in which I didn’t write at all) for a major overhaul requested by my advisor after the outline. But! It all worked out, I got my A, got a great recommendation, and disappointed my advisor by not publishing.
Improvements like this can be made to many projects. I didn’t consider how to write the drafts faster through learning how to type more quickly, but I did plan them aggressively (“Three weeks for a first draft!? Madness!” I hear you say) because I already knew how to keep out distraction and stay focused, which is covered in other parts of H2CC.
Thanks to Erik Fogg for sharing his plan of attack, which can also be found on The Crush College Blog.