The Joy (?) Of Finishing a Dissertation

“You must be thrilled to get that off your plate!”, was the refrain I heard from nearly everyone I spoke with after completing and submitting the dissertation for my masters degree at UCL.  Well, errr, ummmm, actually the truth is that I wasn’t.  Having dedicated most of the past 24 months to my learning in the area of democracy and innovation, I was actually sad that this part of my journey from business was actually at its end. In fact, as my finger hovered above the ”send” button, it was nothing like joy or relief which I felt.

This was not the case the last time I handed in academic work, over four decades ago, at the Simon Business School of the University of Rochester.  Back then I was as thrilled as any normal student to be finished with education and to start “real life”.  Something is really different in approaching a degree as a mature student–especially if, like me, the degree was not designed primarily to fulfil some new career aspiration.  This was perhaps a component of the exercise, but the prime motivation was the learning in and of itself.

For anyone considering going back to school and studying a subject at any level of depth, I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Learning new things is nearly always interesting, but for myself, the process of achieving some level of “mastery” of any new subject is its own reward (the masters degree is therefore well-named). I had been interested in democratic innovation (the subject of my dissertation) for some time and had even begun reading on this subject before the formal course began.  Two-thirds of the way through that work, my spirits lifted as I began to make connections, become familiar with certain authors and their work, and see the big picture of a particular subject in some context and within a particular framework. For me this fostered a sense of pure joy.

Beyond joy, I derived a real sense of purpose from this academic exercise.  At my age (I am now 65) this becomes increasingly important.  As I look around me at friends my age or consider those of my parents when they were in their twilight years, there seemed a discernible difference in mental and physical health between those individuals who had and did not have a sense of purpose and positive engagement with the world.  Frankly speaking, the prospect of a quiet retirement fills me with anxiety and some measure of dread.  My father worked until his late 80s, and not only did this keep him sharp, but I suspect it kept him alive (he is now 95).  In a more mundane sense, studying kept me engaged during some of the Covid lockdowns—for which I am extremely grateful.

What I have not secured as a result of my learning is a clear sense of what I will do with it or how I will devote my talents professionally in the years to come—many have asked, which I take as a compliment and that they believe there is something useful I might be able to do.  My studies have however resolved for me my “direction of travel”.  I know now that I would like to spend most of my remaining useful years in the pursuit of learning about democratic innovation and how it can be deployed to improve the functioning of our faltering democracies.  I was not wholly confident that my degree course would lead to this degree of certainty, but I am immensely glad that it has.  What else I will do around democratic innovation (I am currently a senior adviser to the Innovation in Politics Institute in Vienna) remains to be seen, of course. It depends on whether or not I can be of any use to practitioners in the sector and if I can persuade them of that.  Let’s see.  But I am hopeful that the combination of lifetime experience with private firms and charities at all stages of development combined with the beginnings of some knowledge regarding the subject of democratic innovation will be of use.  And ultimately I believe we all want to be of use, somehow, in some way, to someone.  This is now my quest.

My masters degree, and in particular my dissertation, fully absorbed my capacity to do any other learning or writing.  I had been playing at learning French again, which had been going extremely badly, and my efforts to sustain this blog fell by the wayside. I am obviously hopeful that this piece I have just penned (the first in six months) will be the first of many and of course, I hope that they are of some use to those of you who are struggling with some of the same questions. 

As I have mentioned before this blog is designed for those with an interest in politics as well as those with an interest in learning after a career.  I genuinely hope that my reflections, which I have tried to capture as honestly as possible, will be of some value to some of you.

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—20 September 2023

I started my career in mainstream finance and shifted into impact investing before returning to my lifelong passion of politics in early 2021.  This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from “proper jobs” in the investment world back into education to study politics after four decades.  For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here.  I welcome any comments.