The Finale

I’m a fan of genre TV shows. I have been for years, so many, many long stories. I heard someone describe Lost as a ninety-hour movie and that seems pretty apt to me. Partly it’s the characters, the settings, the ideas but more than anything it’s the sheer scale of the stories being told. Heroes become villains, bad guys become unexpected allies, a late dramatic reveal upturns everything we know…

…and then there is the finale.

Things come to an end. A resolution is needed, but we need fan service too. Both characters and audiences need to be satisfied. All threads have to be tied up neatly.

With that much expectation is it any wonder that so many finales fall short?

The viva is the finale of the PhD (corrections are the credits rolling). So much has happened to get to that point, and so much is expected, wanted, needed from that event – is it any wonder that candidates sometimes feel it’s a bit of an anticlimax? That they were thinking it would be longer, or tougher, or that there would be something more about it?

If yours feels like that, don’t worry. You’ve not missed something. Your expectations were so grand that maybe they could never match the reality.

You’ve done it now. Reflect on the journey that got you here, look ahead and keep going.

More Than Gold Letters

After the dust of my examiners’ questions had settled and all the corrections were done I got to make some pretty nice hardbacks. My name and the title of my thesis was in gold on the cover! I was done! My thesis was great!

Except… I thought I would feel something. I was happy, sort of, I guess… And I knew that finishing my PhD was a milestone. I wasn’t expecting fireworks, or a band to strike up, but I thought I would feel something.

The end of my PhD was an anticlimax, I didn’t feel much of anything. At the time. As the months went on I realised that it was something big. It opened doors for me. It gave me a skill set that I use and develop nearly a decade later. It helped to give me a perspective on the world and shape my values. I co-authored a couple of papers and contributed to my field too.

My story might not mirror yours: it may be that you are totally over the moon after your viva. But you might not. Just a friendly word: it might take a while to sink in. Regardless, I think most PhDs, in time, come to realise that the PhD is so much more than a book with your name in gold letters on the cover, however cool that looks.

Interesting Challenges

Throughout my PhD I thought that I was particularly attracted to what I did because I loved the challenge of maths. Maths can feel like there is a secret language at work. If you know it, or know enough, then you can feel powerful. It’s hard to get to know enough, and then to build up enough intuition about how to apply this magic to solve problems.

After my PhD I realised that I loved having interesting challenges to work on, and for a long time maths had been filling that space for me. So I started looking for interesting projects. This blog is an interesting challenge to work on. I have to write a lot (and edit a lot). I have to do a lot of planning and scheduling. Interesting challenges are worth it. They stretch you. They develop you. They’re worth finding or making.

At the end of your PhD, spend some time thinking about the interesting challenges you had. What did you learn from them? How did you encounter them? What happened as a result? Your examiners will not necessarily launch into asking you about the interesting challenges of your PhD, but if you spend time reviewing them you’ll find rich ideas to reflect on.