And Then You’re Done

Finishing my PhD was a strange time. I remember a weird few weeks of tidying my desk, taking folders home on the train, clearing stuff into recycling, and then a gap of months of trying to figure out, “What now?”

How do you want things to change for you?

  • Will your PhD journey have a gradual conclusion, tidying up loose ends, leaving things in their right place while you prepare to start a new expedition?
  • Will it simply finish one day, a red line drawn across your calendar to mark the end of one era and the start of another?
  • Will it just change? Will you realise one day that you’ve moved on and you didn’t see it happen?

Finish your thesis, prepare for your viva, but spare a little thought for that Future-You, who will one day find that they’re done with their PhD.

What can you do to help prepare them for that situation?

A Good End

I’m a little wistful lately, remembering the final days of my PhD.

Not my viva, not corrections, but those last few days when I was packing things up. It is late-summer 2008. My office-mates are either on holiday or have heads down trying to get things done while the campus is quiet.

I had stacks of papers I’d never read, filed away into a box where they remain never-read. Notes for ideas that I thought I might get to, which stayed filed away until a few years ago when I recycled them. Drawers with odds and ends, emptied out now into containers so they could be sorted.

There was no celebration though; no marking of the occasion by me or anyone else. We’d had dinner after passing my viva; months later I’d celebrate graduation, being Dr Nathan, with my family. On those days of finishing though, there was just me, the excess clutter of my research being loaded into boxes and a collection of bittersweet feelings rattling around my brain.

Endings can be complicated and not always within our control. We can try though. My wish for you today is that you have a little space to think, to reflect and then to plan what the end of your PhD might be like.

Your PhD doesn’t end with your viva. Graduation is the epilogue to your story. What would be a good end for your PhD?

Finally!!!

There’s lots of Finally!!! moments at the end of a PhD.

Finally!!! My thesis is finished!

Finally!!! My viva is almost here!

Finally!!! I’ve passed my viva!

Finally!!! My corrections are done!

Finally!!! I’ve graduated! I’m finally, finally, done!

At each moment where you think Finally!!! take time to think: what got you this far? How far have you come?

And what can you do to get you to the next Finally!!!?

You Don’t Want The Viva

Regular readers of the blog might know I am a huge fan of Seth Godin. I’m re-reading his most recent book, This Is Marketing, and I wanted to share a passage I’ve been thinking about for a while now:

Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

The lesson is that the drill bit is merely a feature, a means to an end, but what people really want is the hole it makes.

But that doesn’t go nearly far enough. No one wants a hole.

What people want is the shelf that will go on the wall once they drill the hole.

Actually, what they want is how they’ll feel once they see how uncluttered everything is, when they put their stuff on the shelf that went on the wall, now that there’s a quarter-inch hole.

But wait…

They also want the satisfaction of knowing they did it themselves.

Or perhaps the increase in status they’ll get when their spouse admires their work.

Or the peace of mind that comes from knowing that the bedroom isn’t a mess, and that it feels safe and clean.

So: you need a viva, but you don’t want it.

You want what the viva will lead to – passing your PhD. But who just wants a PhD? The three letters don’t mean a lot by themselves: what do you want them for? A job in academia? An increase in status? Pride in something accomplished?

When we stop seeing the viva as the end, but a step – a means to an end maybe – then perhaps we can see it for what it is. A practical thing, not a mystical or terrible or unknowable thing. A necessary step and one that can be prepared for. It leads to something even more important and better.

You don’t want your viva – but since you’re going to have it anyway, why not aim to make it the best you can?

Two Days After

Being done is special, a real achievement. But the end of a PhD can feel quite abrupt.

So much time is spent building up. You build up your knowledge. You build up your ideas. You build up the picture of your work. You build a structure for your thesis. You build yourself up for submission, and then for the viva, and then…

…thousands and thousands of hours of work is weighed up in a few hundred minutes – if that!

The day of the viva might be happy, but it might be muted. The day after might find you still dazed. Was that it?

But I hope, at the latest, that two days after your viva, whenever it is, you could start to really feel that you’ve done something wonderful. Reach out to friends and family if it’s not sinking in. Finishing your PhD is a real achievement, even if you’re not feeling it immediately afterwards.

The End of the Viva

As with every aspect of the PhD and the viva, there is a variety of experiences for the end, but several common stories.

Candidates might be asked if they have any questions or comments. Then when all the talking is done, examiners most commonly ask the candidate to leave the room so that they can have a quick chat. While the candidate waits nearby, perhaps nervously, perhaps not, the examiners confer and make a firm decision. They check they’ve got satisfactory answers to all of the things they needed to raise, and talk about the viva and what they think of it all.

The length of the wait varies. One person told me they waited two minutes and were called back; another told me they waited half an hour, and while there were no problems they had really started to worry! Ten to twenty minutes is seen as a reasonable length of time for examiners to chat.

Typically, examiners give the result then. They tell the candidate what the outcome is and what that means. If corrections are involved they might say a little about them. Examiners might need time to put a full list together. While minor corrections is the most likely outcome, it’s important to know in advance what all the outcomes mean. How much time is given? What is the process for getting examiners to certify that corrections have been completed?

The viva is not the end of the PhD. The end of the viva is not the end of the PhD. It can seem like there’s always something to do. But you’re getting close. Compared to everything that’s come before, you’ve not got far to go.

Fortunate

If things work out during your PhD, that’s not simply luck. You have to work for it. If you get the most fantastic results or the brightest ideas they come to you only through effort.

Which means that when you get to submission and then the viva, it’s not simply luck. You HAVE worked for it. The end result of a good thesis and a good candidate for the viva is due to your effort.

You’re fortunate, not lucky. If your hard work has produced results this far then what would stop your fortune continuing to the viva?

Done or Finished?

Two words that people use a lot around the end of the PhD.

Finished makes me think that something is over. But there’s always more! More experiments, more words, more questions. So I don’t like finished for a thesis, a viva or a PhD. There’s always something more that could be added.

(could, not should)

Done doesn’t feel quite right either. It’s a bit too short, a bit final, a bit simple for the complex and messy nature of research.

The thesis, the viva, your PhD, they all mean something. Done and finished feel lacking.

The word I’m leaning towards is completed. Completed feels right. The thesis, the viva, your PhD can be completed. They have everything they need and it sounds like more of an achievement than simply being done.

If you’re on the path, I wish you all the best as you head to completion.