Advice and Experience

Finishing a Phd

by Dr. David Longley

The last few months of my PhD were, for me, among the most enjoyable of the entire process. I had gone through that initial phase of excitement at tackling a unique topic, wading through primary sources for those wonderful nuggets of illumination, the long middle slog of writing the chapters I knew to be weaker than the others (we all have our ‘worst’ chapter), and the endless structuring and restructuring of chapters and arguments. I had made the justifications of my choice to family, had the countless conversations about my topic with outsiders that ended when I realised I had been lecturing for a good 10 minutes with a glint of manic enthusiasm in my eye, and, along the way, I had made new and wonderful friends. But it was those last few months, when I had herded my wayward chapters into the single 523 kilobyte distillation of several years’ work that was ‘ThesisFinal.doc’, that my journey was at its most rewarding, most stimulating, and most enjoyable. There it was, the whole thesis there in front of me, almost too large to comprehend as a whole but whose every detail I knew personally, ready to be edited and polished, tweaked and perfected into something of which I was truly proud.

It goes without saying that each person’s PhD journey is different, shaped both by the person undertaking it, and by the particular set of constraints around their life, and more importantly, their time. As such I won’t presume to lay down a set of what I consider to be the golden rules for those final few months. Rather I offer up a few things I felt worked for me, and what, if I had my time again, I would do differently:

What Worked…

Giving myself some time off — Once I finished the full draft, but before I sat down to edit and polish, I gave myself a full week off from all forms of academic work, including the thesis. One of the first things we teach our undergrads about essay writing is to write the essay, then leave it for a day or two, before returning to it with fresh eyes and mind. It is good advice, and one I feel that should carry through to all levels of academia. Most of us rarely have time off during the process, and I found I benefitted greatly from the chance to clear my mind, rest, recharge, and start the editing process with a fresh perspective.

Once I began the process I followed the same logic. Each week was made up of six days of hard thesis work, up early and working late. One day each week I set aside as completely thesis-free, doing my best to get out and about, see friends, and stretch my legs.

Keeping my key arguments at hand — Given that part of the editing process is ensuring that your key arguments flow throughout the thesis, I found it greatly beneficial to keep a printout of my three main arguments, as articulated in my introduction, stuck to the wall behind my monitor, always there to keep me on track and shape the logic of my edits.

Keeping a notepad and pen by my bed — A small one, but during the final few months your brain does not just turn off when the lights do. I would often think of good expressions, turns of phrase, explanations and segues while dozing off. Quickly realizing that the attitude of “I’m sure I’ll remember in the morning” was one not borne out in practice, I took to keeping a pen and notepad handy, so I could quickly turn on the light, jot down my thoughts, and fall asleep.

…and what didn’t

Not giving myself enough time — From the time the final draft was completed to the date of my submission I had roughly two months. Granted, they were two months in which I had very little on other than thesis writing, but I nevertheless underestimated how long certain tasks would take. I would roughly divide the ‘editing’ process into three distinct tasks. The editing, re-writing, and polishing of individual chapter drafts, the editing of the document as a cohesive whole, and the final proofreading and grammatical checks. The editing and polishing of the first two chapters I had written almost two years earlier took several weeks. In contrast, the final chapter I had written required only two days’ worth of improvement, so great was the contrast between my early writing and that honed with years of practice. Of course, and as anyone will tell you, a thesis is never ‘finished’, one could go on tweaking and adding forever, but do not underestimate how much you have improved while you have been working on the thesis, and thus how much work your early chapters will need.

My conclusion — Writing a conclusion is easy, writing a good conclusion is not. To close the story you have told, tie together your smaller arguments into your overall contention, point to the wider implications of your study while not leaving yourself open to accusations of omission, and leave your tired reader closing your thesis feeling enthused and energised: all these are required of a quality conclusion. There is a lot of good literature out there on the best way to write an academic conclusion. Related to the above point about time, I gave my conclusion neither the respect nor attention it deserved, the final version being a bit vague, formulaic, and lacking the punch and clarity it could have had. Respect the conclusion. Though a bad one cannot break a thesis, a good one can certainly make a lasting impression on your examiner.

Ultimately, enjoy the final few months of the thesis. They are when your interests and passions and enthusiasms are on the page before you, the distillation of years of hard work—a journey both difficult and rewarding, and, ultimately, yours.