How To Finish Your PhD!

As part of the Researcher Wellbeing Week 2013, Research Hive Scholar and sixth-year part-time Gender Studies doctoral candidate Charlotte Morris organised a workshop for research students to share experiences, issues and insights into what it takes to finish a PhD.  No matter what stage of your doctoral journey you are at, it can often feel hard to keep going and stay motivated.  When you first being working on your doctorate, it can seem like a dauntingly long journey ahead; when in the middle of your doctorate it can feel overwhelming and even as you are writing up you might be wondering if you will ever finish.

The session began with a discussion on the issues which can potentially hold back doctoral researchers from being able to move forward and complete.  The most prominent theme here was poor supervision and supervisory relationships.  Participants sometimes felt powerless and that they didn’t fully own their learning process and thesis.  They concluded that it is essential to have a sense of ownership and to take control of the process rather than relying solely on supervisors and discussed that sometimes other individuals, such as other doctoral researchers, mentors, or writing buddies, can provide valuable input and support.  The Doctoral School, Student Life Centre and Students’ Union are potentially useful sources of support when supervisory relationships run into trouble.  It is also essential that students know their rights and use the Annual Progress Review to raise issues where possible.  

Further issues raised included personal motivation; confidence issues; feeling there is not always enough time, especially where doctoral researchers are also teaching, and that the PhD can become de-prioritised in the light of other work, academic and family responsibilities.  It was discussed that it is particularly important to be able to find the time and prioritise thesis writing towards the end of the process.

Following these discussions, the session was joined by three invited speakers and recent completers — Dr. Rachel Masika from International Development, Dr. Rebecca Raynor from History of Art and Dr. Sophie Bisset from History — to share their insights and tips for successful completion.  Dr. Rachel Masika share the insight that a turning point had been realising that the finished thesis did not have to be perfect but ‘good enough’ to submit.  In the light of the previous discussion on supervision, it was asserted that it is imperative to feel that you own your PhD.  It is also important to be strong in your position, even if it differs from your supervisors or examiners and to communicate this clearly.  It also helped, particularly towards the end of the journey, to see it and treat it as a job.  

Further suggestions from the contributors were to read about the experiences of other doctoral researchers, for example, through the ‘Thesis Whisperer‘ blog to help get the experience into perspective.  This was especially important when doctoral researchers did not have much person-to-person contact with their peers (for example, distance learners or those juggling additional work and family responsibilities).  One contributor had taken the advice to treat her PhD as a ‘bad boyfriend’ in order to let it go.  Another described the journey of moving from uninformed optimism through a stage of pessimism towards a sense of realism towards the end of the journey.

Strategies for managing the final stages included using ‘countdown’ software; setting definite deadlines; switching the internet off and task switching, for example, working on the bibliography when you were not in the right frame of mind for more heavy-duty writing.  All described how their productivity had become much faster and more efficient than when they had first started writing.  It had been beneficial to get into good habits of writing and really honing in and focusing on the thesis.  One important motivating strategy was handing in the ‘intention to submit’ form which provided a definitive final date to focus on.  However, one of the contributors had also found it extremely beneficial to take a break and then come back to it during the last phase of writing.

There was discussion about the importance of, where possible, getting together with peers who were experiencing similar situations as they were supportive, motivating, and helped keep them on track.  Writing buddies were also identified as being extremely beneficial in providing feedback, support, and motivation.  

The session ended with contributors talking briefly about their experiences of doing a viva and how they felt once their PhD was finished.  All had positive, if nerve-wracking, experiences of the viva and reminded colleagues what an important part of the process the viva is.  Their experience had been helped as they were very well prepared and this learning was invaluable.  While the experience of finishing was positive, exciting, and celebratory, colleagues were reminded that they would probably feel exhausted when they got to the end of their journey and it is advisable to take a break if possible.  When asked if they would, with hindsight, change anything or do anything differently, contributors felt that the whole journey, while often challenging and marked by obstacles and mistakes, was an invaluable learning experience which helped to prepare them to continue successfully in their lives and careers.

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