When are you really finished with a PhD?

Lauren Gawne was a PhD student in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne. She wrote this post while she was in ‘examination limbo’ has now received her examiners reports back and found out she has passed. When she isn’t working on the grammar of Yolmo and making bets about how long it will be until her examiners reports come back she can be found writing at Superlinguo.

sunset picI submitted my thesis a while ago.

I’m not telling you this to make you jealous, just more as a point of fact. It was a lovely excuse for a Monday afternoon drink with friends and colleagues. I felt pretty happy about it, and rather proud of the small bundle of bound copies that signify four years of work.

For all that though, it was difficult to answer people when they asked me how I felt now that I was finished.

As a student under the Australian model, my thesis will now be examined externally, which means I live in limbo for at least 3-6 months. Knowing I still have revisions and another round of submission to go, it got me thinking about the many small milestones along the way to finishing a PhD, and I began to wonder – when are you really done with a PhD?

For me, the most personally satisfying completion milestone of the PhD so far was printing out the first full draft and handing it to my supervisor. This was the night I took my partner out for dinner and toasted the end of erratic work hours and being over-consumed by thesis thoughts. It wasn’t until that draft was printed that I realised I really would get it finished.

Between that momentous afternoon and handing in the examination copies, there were a flurry of smaller milestones as well. My final examination meeting involved my supervisor doing a little dance and shouting to colleagues down the hall way that we were finished (despite this sounding like evidence to the contrary, I have a great relationship with my supervisor).

Thanks to the enthusiasm of the friends in my lab, taking the thesis to the printers and collating those copies were also turned into small celebrations. Although I didn’t have to worry about hard deadlines, I wasn’t really prepared for how long all of this would take, or how many mini-milestones would pop up along the way, such as getting forms signed, a completion talk booked in, small printing disasters dealt with. In fact, by time the submission day rolled around I was actually just glad it was finally out of my hands for a while!

Now I’m in examination limbo, I can already see other milestones on the horizon. I had to give a completion talk, and then there’s receiving the examiners’ reports, making revisions, and submitting those final colour-bound copies, which will all be milestones, and of course there’s the official pomp of the graduation ceremony. In some other PhD systems there’s the viva, or defense, to mark off as well.

I wanted to share these experiences because there is very little discussion about how people feel about this process. It makes sense that most of the discussion is geared towards just getting your thesis finished, and thinking about realities like getting a job, but it’s worth taking some time to thinking about what you’re going to do (short term) post submission.

I was lucky I had teaching lined up in my department, and a conference to look forward to. It’s weird enough waking up without thinking about what I need to do on my thesis after 4 years of it, so I’m glad I had some structure to fill that.

So far, I’ve learned that no single component of this process feels like you’re really finished. It means that sometimes you might not feel as elated at a particular point as those around you might expect you to. Try figure out why that might be, and if you can maybe try and find someone who has gone through the process to chat with about it.

You’ll also find that different milestones are worth celebrating with different people. Submitting the examination copies was something that I wanted to share with colleague who have been through the process with me, but the graduation ceremony is something that my family is already looking forward to.

The other thing that I’ve learned is that, since there’s no single milestone, sometimes the safest thing to do is celebrate them all!

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36 thoughts on “When are you really finished with a PhD?

  1. Great post! I finished a few years ago, and I remember following the last bit of advice – I celebrated them all. When I submitted for examination, I was elated (and also really, really nervous – for the first time during my PhD really). But my partner was not appropriately excited for me, and when we talked about why he said he thought we’d already done all the celebrating! So I think the point about celebrating different milestones with different people is a good one.

    And congratulations on finishing and graduating! Even though I passed those milestones three years ago, I’m still not really finished with my PhD – working now on turning it into a book, papers, etc.

  2. I finished my PhD nearly five years ago now. I felt like I ‘finished’ it many times: there was first full draft, submission, the viva, corrections accepted, graduation…. five years later, and publications are still coming through and I’ll soon lead a fieldtrip to some of my PhD sites. A PhD is such a significant piece of work, it seems like you’re never finished with it – the very nature is that there is always more to do, more research questions asked, and more work to do. And that’s probably a good thing.

    • Thanks Bethan (and Theresa) for your thoughts!
      That’s one thing that I’m getting from people who stayed working in their PhD area, that you are never really finished with your PhD. I think I feel better about that now than I did a few months ago, when it felt like there was another hoop to jump through every few weeks or months!

  3. I think it helps to take a break and do something else as well – get some distance, take a holiday, work on something entirely new and exciting and refreshing. But that substantial piece of work will benefit you for years to come.

  4. Thanks for the post Lauren. I am waiting for feedback on first draft of the manuscript. It’s definitely limbo-land. Also a fair bit of cutting still to do. Congrats on your completion.

  5. Nice post! Congrats on being “done”. It really is a vague concept. I submitted my work to the examination process a short while ago and I was actually looking forward to being in “examination limbo” because it allowed me to pretend that the work was “complete” for a little while, until the reports arrived when I would have to deal with its incompleteness again, as now perceived by the examiners. Then the reports arrived a mere two weeks later! I was expecting them to arrive perhaps in a couple of months, because the examiners are given three months. While that’s nice, I wasn’t really worried about their feedback, I knew it was good enough to be accepted and any changes they might suggest I could then deal with. In the meantime, I was tired of working on it and wanted to take a proper summer break. Suddenly the relief of being “done” was gone again…

  6. Thanks Lauren! I think celebrating the first full draft is definitely the most important milestone… by the time I submitted I was exhausted and sick of it, I was nervous for my viva, bored with my revisions, and in another country for my graduation. But the first full draft… that was a glorious, positive, reassuring, energising moment!

  7. It never actually ends – I’ve now graduated from the Ph.D, I’m a bona fide Dr and the Ph.D. continues – only now it is “the book”. Even after you finish, you never finish.

  8. I didn’t really feel like any celebration until I saw the final copy of my thesis in its hard bound form. I had a couple of glasses of champers after my viva but I still felt on edge! The celebration when I handed in my final copy was a quiet internal one but it wasn’t until that point that I felt pleased with my achievement. It’s a long process…!!

    • It’s interesting that different people attach different levels of importance to different milestones. I think you’re right that some celebrations are more about being quietly pleased and reflecting – which can be just as important a way of recognising your achievement as a bottle of champagne!

  9. I’ve learn that you cannot never do any celebration until you have your tittle in your hands, in my case after the revision limbo of 5 months, now i’m dealing with the limbo the organize the tribunal for my defense, in my case they are five people from different countries around europe and believe me I’ve been trying the last two months to organize a date for the defense, it has been impossible!!!

  10. I’m currently in examination limbo at the moment and I am finding I have to keep managing my emotions, remembering that it isn’t over until AT LEAST I get through my viva. Plenty of things to do though to distract myself from the thesis. What’s frustrating is that I know I want to celebrate after the viva but I don’t want organise anything yet in case I have to make revisions.

  11. I have really struggled with the sense of ‘finishing’ my thesis. I was far too nervous to appreciate my submission properly (except for a sudden and exciting realisation that I wouldn’t have to work on it over the Christmas break).
    I also felt that, despite being told in my viva that I had passed (subject to minor revisions), it couldn’t be real at least until the revisions had been approved. But then after that there was the re-submission process and now I am waiting for graduation – waiting for the moment I have a piece of paper in my hand that no one can take away from me. I suspect that even after that I won’t feel finished with my thesis for a while yet as I re-work sections for publication…

  12. I am just about (this week, hopefully) to send my full draft to both supervisors for final checks. The process here (in the UK) means that I will then submit it to my examiners, have my viva, do corrections and, hopefully, graduate. I’m tired, bored, resentful and fed up. I want it to be over. But it does at least feel now that it will be over, eventually.

  13. Congrats on finishing.
    I am about 7 weeks away from finishing. My first draft is not finished so I have some work to do. However, positive feedback from all the individual chapters has made me relax immensely.

    I honestly don’t think I am now on the downhill slope. Part of the work I submitted to a journal that had major corrections necessary, and after stress fueled couple of months I am now increasingly more confident and relaxed about getting it all done.

    I wonder if people felt stress all the way to the end? Or, if like me they felt a tapering off towards the end.
    [By tapering off I mean I am not working 15hour days, 7 days a week, like I was a couple of months ago. I am able now to do 10 hour days. 6 to7 days a week :) ]

    • Oops I meant I honestly think I am on the downhill slope.
      (there I go again, submitting things without proof reading :P )

      • Thanks a lot for being my own mentor on this issue. We ejenyod your current article a lot and most of all cherished how you handled the aspect I regarded as being controversial. You are always very kind towards readers like me and let me in my lifestyle. Thank you.

  14. Congrats on finishing! I’m about 3-4 weeks from submitting in New Zealand. And I know I am going to be very pleased then – but yes there is that feeling of I’m done – but not really. I’m still going to have a couple of celebrations regardless. 95% of my work is complete.

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  16. Thanks for this post, I submitted a couple of weeks ago and have yet to celebrate. When I was writing I had all these grand ideas of massive parties I’d have after I submit, but in some silly superstitious way I don’t want to celebrate until I’ve had my viva and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel (with hopefully minor corrections).

    It’s fair to say, at the end of September, after my viva i’ll be swigging from a champagne bottle.

  17. Hi Lauren, congratulations on the first submission. I also struggle with this question, I had my viva in Oct last year and my award in Dec 2012.

    I always had in my head that I would keep trying to work on papers etc until graduation (now only three weeks away) even though I now work in the commercial world.

    I recently received major revisions on a paper and I just don’t know how hard I should be on my graduation deadline. Having finished the phd I am not one to give up but I’ve found the whole process so draining (a bit like Ros appears to feel). Has anyone else felt like this or have any advice?

    So, when is done actually done? Well I guess I’m still trying to find the answer!

  18. I submitted a few weeks ago and celbrated by buying a radio controlled helicopter for $75. Found it didn’t come with a battery but finally got one yesterday and had its first test flight but battery was nearly flat. Revving up today for a proper flight : )

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  20. I am crying reading your post. I am in the struggle of finishing my 5 years phd, sometimes i feel so depressed alone. This year is my deadline. I’ll finish it and pursue my dreams of teaching children in remote areas in poor countries, thanks a lot for the posting

    • I’m sorry to hear it’s tough going for you at the moment Ray! I have to say that I didn’t feel like it was ever going to be finished until I collected it from the printers. I hope you find some supportive people to surround yourself with, and when you get it done give yourself the chance to reflect on how you feel.

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