And that’s all, folks

It feels a little strange to say, but my thesis — a comparison of the political and militant arms of Hezbollah and the Provisional Irish Republican Army — is pretty much done.

Oh, there are a few edits left. My footnotes are still in disarray, so those need neatening up, and I’m sure there are typos that still need to be rooted out. But by Friday, those last little issues will be gone, and I’ll have my adviser, Dr. Clarke, sign the final copy, and I’ll drop it off at the Dean’s office. And I’ll be done.

This thesis has been a huge part of my academic experience as an upperclassman at Carnegie Mellon. In the fall of my junior year, I took my first class with Dr. Clarke, where I first began to develop my interest in militant groups. By the spring, I was almost 4,000 miles away in Granada, Spain and trying to plan a substantial self-guided research paper and pick which militant groups I wanted to focus on. That summer — my last summer as an undergrad, really — was spent with my nose in a pile of books and articles as I tried to absorb as much as I could about Hezbollah and the Provisional Irish Republican Army as quickly as I could. I ended the summer with a 20-page rough draft I was pretty proud of. I was about to launch into my fall semester, which I would be spending in Washington, D.C. working at a foreign policy think tank. I thought I’d finish the draft while I was there, and enter my spring semester of senior year with only edits left to do.

Boy, was I wrong about that last part! Over the fall semester, I got virtually nothing of substance done on my thesis.

My D.C. semester was wonderfully challenging. I loved the think tank where I worked, I made some really good friends and I learned a lot. And I could say that all the goings-on of Washington prevented me from working on my thesis, and there would be some truth in that. It was a jam-packed semester. But the real reason I got nothing of consequence done was that I kind of hated my thesis for a while there.

I’m told this is a natural part of the production of any academic work. Maybe it’s like having a kid? For the first part of the baby’s life, you and the kid are thick as thieves. But then the kid hits adolescence and suddenly everything is more difficult because the little bugger just will not stop rolling her eyes at you. Okay, maybe that’s not the smoothest metaphor, but I honestly struggled to feel connected to and invested in my work that semester. I thought my thesis was no good, but since I didn’t really have the time to fix it, that didn’t galvanize me to make it better; it just made me really anxious about having a piece that wasn’t much good be the crowning achievement of my college career.

So I spent my fall semester ignoring my thesis. And then I got back to campus in the spring and continued to ignore it. Because I was sure that my aversion to rereading it and working on it must have been based in some true lack of quality, some egregious hole in my argument that I had registered subconsciously but hadn’t seen yet. But eventually I got to the point where it was due to Dr. Clarke in a week with major edits, and I hadn’t cracked the file open in months.

I printed off a fresh copy, braced myself and sat down with a cup of coffee and a red pen. And there were problems, definite problems – I didn’t really define my research question or thesis statement as clearly as I should have, my Hezbollah section was longer than the PIRA section by a full four pages and I didn’t have a real conclusion as yet. But none of those problems were insurmountable. And so I began to fix them, in that draft and then in the next. And now I’m basically done.

I don’t know if my long dormant months were a necessary part of the creative process, like a caterpillar forming a chrysalis and then popping out a butterfly, or something. It certainly didn’t feel that way to me. It mostly felt like frustration, topped with a liberal dusting of self-doubt. But when I managed to get over myself and settle down to work, I managed to produce a paper that I’m proud of.

The two most important things I learned from this thesis are these: that any creative process, whether it’s for the academic or professional world, will have its fits and starts, and, when in doubt, it’s best to just grit your teeth and get it done. Hopefully, I’ll remember that the next time I feel overwhelmed by a project.

Working on this thesis has been an exciting challenge for me this past year. I’m so grateful for the support that I received from the Dietrich Honors Fellowship staff, especially Dr. Jennifer Keating-Miller, as well as my advisor, Dr. Clarke. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m excited to present my work at Meeting of the Minds on May 4th.