The Virtues of Change, Time & Letting Go In Grad Studies

Three pieces of advice for graduate students working on their Major Research Project (MRP) or thesis.

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Man writing on a chalk board.

This was originally written as a speech to be given to current students at OCAD University interested in hearing how alumni organized data, conducted research, and wrote their Major Research Project (MRP) or thesis.

Creating your MRP or thesis can be both an exciting and daunting experience. As designers and artists, we have unique opportunities to impact the lives of many through our work. However, knowing where to start, when to stop, and what to do in-between can make it challenging.

So to help you along, I’m going to pass on three pieces of advice that I drew from my own MRP experience: first, change is okay: secondly, don’t look for what’s not there, and lastly; remember that time is of the essence.

 Change is okay.

Education is about learning, about self improvement and innovation. Your graduate studies will expose you to many new ideas and modes of thinking – and if it doesn’t, then perhaps you’re in the wrong program. So, it’s natural that your MRP or thesis topic may change over time.

When I first came to OCAD, I arrived with the ambitions to continue my work in typography for the visually impaired. However, I soon became discouraged by the amount of quality work that was already done in this field. I felt like I needed to find a new focus – but had no idea what to do. The answer came through an RA-ship I was doing when we were approached with a design problem: user fatigue and eye controlled technology.

Now, it help illustrate this – think of how you feel after you’ve watched a few hours of TV or time scrolling through Pinterest or studying intensely for an extended period of time. Your eyes get sore, your vision is blurred, you feel mentally exhausted… Now just imagine if you were doing that without the use of a mouse, a keyboard, a touch screen, or switch? What if you were doing all of that – controlling a computer AND absorbing information – with only your eyes?

Well, for some people, that is currently their best option for communicating with the world. And after looking at the existing interface on eye controlled systems, I thought, “You know, with my background in graphic design, I bet I could help alleviate that!” and had all of a sudden found my new MRP topic.

Stop looking for what’s not there and just make it!

I think its safe to say that we all want our work to stand out. We all want to do something new and innovative – and the best topic for an MRP is a topic that hasn’t been explored yet. However, its also good to have a sound base on which to work on – but don’t look for what’s not there!

When I began my literature review, I was convinced that there would be research address user fatigue on eye controlled systems. There maybe was a sentence here and there, but for the most part research was on skill acquisition. I had to make my own data to work from!

To any other researcher, this would have been great! Virgin territory! An untapped resource! A thesis goldmine! But to me, this was unfathomable. How could have no one else looked into this and published a paper on it? It had to be somewhere… So, I spent the duration of Masters looking for information that wasn’t there – or thinking obsessively about it, filling up my Zotero data management account with all the related and unrelated papers I found along the way.

Remember that time is of the essence.

There’s always things we feel we could have done differently at the end of a big project, and for me, I would have liked to have managed my time more effectively. I feel like I spent 90% of my time researching or thinking about research, with much of that time spent looking for data that didn’t exist.

Had I just accepted earlier on that there was no research in this area, I would have been able to focus on collecting my own data and spend more quality time on the design component of my MRP. That is my biggest regret.

Overall, I’m very happy with the written component of my MRP. I am very proud of my work. I was working on writing my MRP all through the year and found the suggested deadlines for sections helpful to keep me on track. I continually had friends and family proof read my writing and give me feedback. I think that my writing style is straight forward, influenced by my communication training and background in sales and marketing. I wanted my MRP to be clear to anyone who picked it up – not just people in academia, the assistive technology or design field. It was really helpful to have non-designers and non-techy people to read my work in addition to academics and my advisers who were working in the field.

So looking back on two years of research, thought, writing, and designing, those were the three key pieces of advice I can bring to you today: Change is okay, don’t look for what’s not there, and remember that time is of the essence. Stop obsessing over the details and just start doing – it will save you a lot of unnecessary stress.

You can read more about my work at http://www.nellchitty.com/thesis.html

Author: nchitty

Inclusive designer based out of Toronto.

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