Thursday, June 18, 2015

Finishing the PhD – Or What Happens to Otherwise Normal People in the Last Few Months of the PhD?

Exploading mind pic for claireby Claire Aitchison, Doctoral Writing:

There should be a warning to family and friends about what happens in the final stages of the PhD and it should read something like this:

WARNING: Do not try to communicate or interfere with this person. Advance at your peril. If possible, for your safety, STAY AWAY.

In preparation for a workshop on the final stages of doing a PhD, I asked my family for their thoughts. As quick as a flash, the following words were thrown around the dinner table: obsessive, self-absorbed, single-minded, vague, emotional. They seemed to be talking about me.

When I tell this story it always gets a good reception because anyone who has done a PhD will immediately recognise these behaviours.

And that’s because at the end stages of the doctorate - people change. Take comfort: it is reversible! Bringing 3-5 years of work to completion requires significant mental effort, at times bordering on overload. There isn’t a lot of space left for getting the shopping right, listening to homework squabbles, thinking about dinner.

First, there is so much to do. In order to juggle the multiple demands of tweaking the text, re-checking calculations and results, revisiting arguments, citation choices and theories, sorting Endnote blips and so on, and so on, one has to block out peripheral, less important things. The primary final stages task is to bring all the components together into a coherent and unified entity. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is a big job.

Second, this can be a time of major emotional labouring. The stakes are high and time is tight. Nerves can fray and relationships become strained - both at home and between student and supervisor. In many ways those irritating but levelling parts of normal life (cooking, doing the dishes, family time and even working) can become valuable safety valves for releasing tension, forgetting the pressure, and keeping a sense of humour.

Another way to keep yourself sane is to begin (at least 4-8 months prior to the target submission date) to deal with the many important final stages tasks.

Final stages tasks:
  • Do a complete raincheck on what you have done - and what you have yet to do (vis a vis research and writing)
  • Get the latest versions of the rules and procedures for completion, submission and examination (they are likely to have changed since you enrolled)
  • Find and follow your institution’s ‘Countdown check list’
  • Ensure the Grad School has the right information about you and your project (you don’t want them reading out your former married name at Graduation)
  • Suss out a good proofreading/editing service
  • Budget for the final stages (costs may include editing and printing services, conferences, you may have to give up work for a period of time)
  • Plan what you will do after submission (eg take a holiday or polish off a couple of journal articles?)
Monitor your time very carefully making a time line that includes:
  • Final, final, revisions, edits and reviews - of each chapter - and the whole manuscript (including referencing, tables and figures). AVOID NEW WRITING/last minute brain waves - BUT do take action if it is really necessary
  • Supervisor availability and turnaround for final reviewing of chapters
  • 1-3 weeks for external editing, proofreading and layout
  • Time to discuss and plan for possible examiners (see last week’s post, and watch out for our next one)
  • Time for nomination, communication and approval of examiners (this process is usually conducted by the Grad School and it doesn’t happen overnight)
  • One week for printing and/making a digital version as required
Final stages writing

Here’s a quick check list for some of the final (is that word ever going to come to fruition!?) writing tasks.
  • Lock in the title
  • (Re)write the Abstract
  • Use your Table of Contents as a mechanism for reviewing logical consistency and structural cohesion. It must make sense on its own and also when read embedded within the manuscript
  • Everything you do now must be considered in terms of the project as a whole; whatever changes you make must be cognisant of the overall integrity of the argument or message. The Table of Contents will be your constant guide
  • Attend very carefully to reviewing your Introduction to check that your research problem, research questions, methodology and results - do, in fact, match what you ended up doing
  • Review your Introduction and Conclusion chapters against each other. They should ‘speak to each other’ working as book ends to hold the content together
Final stages editing

Even if you plan to send your thesis to an external proof-reader it is wise (and economical) to make the document as perfect as possible beforehand. Don’t underestimate the time this can take. One approach to editing is to review the thesis on 3 levels:
  1. Manuscript overview - review the whole document for cohesion and consistency of genre, voice, presentation, intellectual integrity, formatting and referencing style. Take the time to go through the whole document checking references for accuracy, style consistency, missing page numbers, and always double check their location (and presentation) in the Reference List
  2. Macro - check for consistency of structure, sequence and hierarchy of segments, paragraphing, and balanced chapters
  3. Micro - check for spelling, punctuation and sentence level grammar
So close and yet so far

Often doctoral students think that once the hard work of data collection and analysis is done that they are on the homeward track and completion is just weeks away. Sadly, this is rarely the case as these final stages can often stretch out for months and months.

It can get disheartening, and you don’t want to run out of steam, so - in addition to all the other tasks - see if you can schedule a break somewhere in the last months to rejuvenate your mind and your body (and supervisors may also benefit from setting it aside for a week or two). Both you and the thesis will be better for it!

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