#73: What’s needed to finish your PhD?

Are you uncertain if you are ready to submit your PhD dissertation? Or hesitant to wrap up your work and move your project to the finish line? You might be stuck in the wrong mind-set, or not sure if you’ve enough material, or simply procrastinating thesis submission. Let us help you to identify what might be holding you back, and how to figure out what’s really needed to make it to the finish line. 

PhD Success Lab

Have you ever thought about what is actually needed to finish your PhD? Really identified what still needs to be done so that you can wrap it up? Have you identified the remaining tasks that you have to accomplish in order to complete your thesis and hand it in? Or are you dragging this out–conducting one experiment after the other, running another round of analyses, and asking yourself what else you might include?

We often observe that advanced PhD students are hesitant about wrapping up their PhD work, deciding on a clear strategy for finishing, and getting ready to hand-in their dissertation. Below, we discuss reasons why you might be dragging it out instead of finishing on time. We will also let you know how you can avoid getting stuck in the final PhD phase, and instead head towards your PhD graduation day with speed and determination. 

We have a super helpful free worksheet ‘‘Completing my PhD: what’s needed’ attached, which will help you to shift your mind and focus your attention toward those essential tasks you should be working on during the final months of your PhD so you can submit your thesis on time. 

If you want to hear more about how to complete your PhD study successfully, sign up to our free webinar ‘4 Secrets to a Successful PhD’. 

Phases of a PhD study

PhD projects go through different phases: 

Phase I:

In the start-up phase, you decide on your project goals, your individual research objectives or which hypotheses to test, and you study the literature, get your supervisory committee together, and design your experiments or decide on your field-work. 

Phase II: 

The second phase begins when you start executing your project – now you are working on achieving your research objectives. The emphasis in the middle part of your PhD is on project execution and data gathering. It also includes the writing of the scientific papers that will be included in your dissertation, and writing the dissertation itself. The transition from phase one to phase two is not always clear-cut, and some features can run parallel – especially if you are working with a series of sub-projects that together will form your overall project.

Phase III:

The final phase starts when your research draws to an end. This comes when your research questions are answered, data are gathered, and field-campaigns are completed. Your focus is now on doing remaining analyses, data interpretations, revising papers that came back from review, and on dissertation writing. While some parts of phase two and three may run parallel, the emphasis in the final PhD phase clearly is on finishing your PhD project, and getting your thesis ready so you can turn it in. In this final phase, your mind should focus on PhD completion and on your life after the PhD – if you want some inspiration, check out our blog post “Life after the PhD – it’s waiting for you!” 

In the final PhD phase but stuck in the mind-set of an early PhD?

At the beginning of a PhD study, what exactly you are going to investigate or develop is often quite open- you are looking around for inspiration, ideas, latest approaches or methods. And even in the second phase, you keep an open eye on how to take your project further. As you are generating your own data and getting first results, you may come up with new ideas, and thus refine and improve your projects. So you work with the mindset of a researcher who’s on the lookout for novel aspects that can be included, or further work you could undertake to make your project even better. This is perfectly fine, and the way it should be in phase two.

Obviously at some point you’ve got to shift your mind, call it a day (or years), and stop watching out for new things. Your focus now should be on completing your sub-projects, papers, analyses, and wrapping up. This is the end-phase of your PhD, and you should now shift your mindset towards honing in on what you achieved and handing in. 

But not all PhD students manage this transition. Although the end of their PhD time (also regarding their working contract or scholarship) approaches, they cling to the mind-set of an early PhD student. 

Being ready to finish a PhD often is a deliberate decision you take rather than an automatic result of a definite end-point of your research. Because, well, the end-point may not be so clear after all – you could go on answering further research questions. Towards the end of your PhD, you may be at the height of your experience so far, you have insights you’ve not had before, and your research skills are well-trained. Plus, you may have exciting results and heaps of data, and in that situation it is very tempting to just go on with your research instead of heading towards the finish line. 

If you are a PhD student in the final phase, you should always ask yourself: What are you lacking so that your supervisors and faculty would accept your submission of the dissertation? That shows that you have shifted your mindset towards PhD completion. To give you a start with that, we’ve included a free worksheet ‘Completing my PhD: what’s needed’

Apart from working with the wrong mindset, there are a couple of other reasons why PhD students hesitate to enter the final stages of their PhD and move on to submitting their dissertation. 

Why aren’t you moving towards the end of your PhD?

Reason 1: Procrastinating thesis submission

You may feel quite comfortable in your role as an advanced PhD student. You’re well accustomed now to the daily trot of work at your department, your work is exciting, you’ve got nice connections to other PhD students and the wider scientific community. Why should you shake up your life and put yourself under the stress of completing? It may sound strange, but this is playing a big role. Although you know that your contract is running out, for now, you feel safe – and handing in will end that feeling of safety. 

Also, as long as you go on doing more analyses, reading, and writing, the outcome of your PhD is open, and you feel that you can still improve it. But when you decide to finish and present your work to the faculty for evaluation, it is fixed – judgement day! What you hand in constitutes your PhD, and that may feel scary, and may be the reason you drag-it-out. 

Reason 2: No clear idea how to move towards the finish line – being confused

Towards the final PhD stage, your project and results may look quite messy, and you may have difficulties bringing it all together. Maybe you have lost the overview of everything you did over the past years, and are lost as to how to finally mold it into one coherent thesis. Or you may still be awaiting final reviews of papers to be included in your dissertation, and may be unsure how to write up the other parts of your dissertation. 

If you want more directions for the final phase of your PhD, sign up for our free webinar ‘The 4 Secrets to a Successful PhD’

Reason 3: Uncertain if you have enough or what exactly you are lacking?

We often meet PhD students who think they do not yet have enough data, groundbreaking results, or sufficient knowledge in their subject area to get the PhD done and move on to the defence. However, this uncertainty is more frequently the outcome of muddled feelings, and quite possibly imposter syndrome for some, rather than being based in evidence. 

If that’s the case for you, ask yourself, why do you think you don’t have enough material yet to finalise your dissertation? Would you know any more or would you have better results if you postpone any longer? And since you are a scientist, why not get some evidence. 

How to find out when you’ll be ready to submit?

Learn from peers:

Figure out what other PhD students did before you, what exactly they have included in their PhD theses, and what was necessary for them to complete successfully. Ask postdocs who recently got a PhD from your faculty how much they included and what they submitted, and how the entire evaluation process went for them.

Discuss with supervisors:

Obviously this is also an issue that you discuss with your supervisors. But be careful what you ask them. They may be as excited about your findings as you are and would certainly have ideas for more or additional work, while forgetting that your contract is coming to an end. Above all, you should be clear about wanting to complete, and communicate that you are keen to achieve that. Then you can discuss if you’re ready or which essential bits are still missing. 

Often, the last PhD committee meeting is used to give the green lights for entering the final PhD phase, wrapping up your PhD work, and moving it toward submission. This is a perfect occasion to ask your supervisors if there’s anything that is still required from your side, or if they think you’re good to go. 

Check PhD regulations:

Finally, look at the exact requirements of your university or faculty – do you fulfil all formal criteria for finishing your PhD? Including the educational part, coursework with necessary credit points, teaching or supervision, you name it! What are the administrative or formal steps you have to undertake upon handing in your dissertation? So get those PhD regulations out one more time and double-check exactly what you have to do. 

Gauge the benefit of going on with your PhD work:

Ask yourself if there is an additional benefit to continuing? Like: A really big breakthrough is just around the corner and would amplify the impact of your PhD work. Or you could have significantly better chances on the (post-doc) job market. So, how does the additional time and resources you invest in completing later stack up against the benefit of completing sooner (and being on the job-market sooner)? If your university has a ‘pass’/‘fail’ system and no grading for your PhD work, and you know that you can finish with great results already – then why should you go on?

Conclusion

Consider the above mentioned points, and then make a decision on when you will be ready. We suggest you make up your mind for yourself. It’s important that you know what you want to do. It is a sign that you are ready for graduation if you are able to judge your achievements realistically and make that decision for yourself. Do you want to hear more about how to complete a PhD?

We’d love to help you make the remaining time in your PhD more enjoyable. Would you like to hear more about how to complete your PhD study successfully, sign up to our free webinar ‘4 Secrets to a Successful PhD’. 

Resources: 

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