How not to run off the end of the PhD cliff

What happens after you graduate? Some people tell me they feel like they have just run off the end of a cliff they never saw coming. That final sprint to the end and the immediate aftermath can be confronting. In this post Dr Lauren McGrow,full-time feminist academic, part-time poet and casual caver, has some advice for the end stages. Lauren is based in southern Tasmania and has just completed her Doctor of Philosophy at Charles Sturt University, examining faith-based outreach to sex workers in Australia. Lauren’s writing has been published in the Melbourne Age and she blogs at Seaweave.

Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 10.47.24 amIt’s now been months since submission and graduation, which has allowed me time and space to contemplate what it means to finish well. How does one survive the final stages of submission, while maintaining a sense of integrity, wellbeing and dignity? This is a very stressful time in the life of a PhD student, and I would like to share five fundamentals which may help others to reach the thrilling (and surreal) end point.

Have a Soundtrack.

Music is a medium that can stimulate abundant creativity and bring energy. By the closing stages of a PhD, the voice of the inner muse is deathly quiet. She has escaped the drudge of everyday writing, editing, cutting, pasting, rewriting. It’s time to ride on another’s creativity and music can be an easy access point that drives motivation.

Preferably, choose an album that is somewhat related to your topic. This may be hard to do if you are studying the lifecycle of glow worms in a cave system in Southern Tasmania, but not impossible, although my topic was somewhat easier to link with music.

The last few months of my PhD thesis, I enjoyed Beyoncé’s visual album. My topic was, broadly, positive representations of sex workers so when Beyoncé sings ‘I do it like it’s my profession’ while writhing on a stripper’s pole, I was motivated to continue through the intellectual and emotional exhaustion, common at the end. Another friend found a new love of cello music while completing an honours thesis, which inspired her as she wrote her way towards submission.

Maintain Small Pleasures and Rewards.

The thesis becomes everything during those final weeks. I stopped working and socialising, stopped cleaning the house and surfing the web.

It was painful to watch others go on with life, when I was all consumed with this project. But I didn’t stop meditating or walking on the beach with a happy dog. I also cooked delicious vegan meals, including a couple of new recipes.

These small moments of joy gave respite and expanded my sensual and physical experiences of life, which was narrowed over those final months. A good question to ask yourself is how can you continue to enjoy life while also meeting your academic goals? If answered well, you may be able to open out a more spacious way of living during times of intensity.

Community of Support.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an extended circle of care to write a doctoral thesis.

In my life, there were six people who provided a steady stream of love, acceptance, listening and encouragement. These were close friends that I could be emotionally messy with when necessary. They also provided practical assistance, helping with footnotes and proofing.

When I had exhausted one friend, I would go to another. This sounds ruthless I know, but the lesson here is don’t just lean on one person, it takes many voices, many hearts, many insights to bring a living project like a doctorate to completion.

Build Resilience Early On.

In my experience, practicalities that should have been addressed earlier took on immense importance in the final six months. There are a number of ways to build resilience and here’s a few that were meaningful for me.

By the endpoint, you should have established a ‘bullshit-free’ relationship with your primary supervisor. Use the early years to thrash out any communicative and ideological issues so that when pressure comes, your relationship is strong enough to carry the thesis through, with generous truth and understanding. This is not always easy, and sometimes impossible but it is worth the effort to build a good working relationship, now and into the future. At the end, my supervisor was the only one who could (and did) tell me to pull myself together.

Next I would suggest that you don’t ignore small details such as footnotes, work on them throughout. This is something that I didn’t do and by the time I was ready to address them, there were hundreds of scant footnotes, which took weeks of work to locate the sources and correctly reference. It was utter foolishness to neglect this aspect of academic writing.

Another resilience-building technique is to have multiple readers. By the time of submission, only two or three other academics had read my work. Consequently I was terrified of letting the project go out into the world. Did it make sense as one piece? Was my writing good enough academically? These questions are normal but as feedback was limited, I could only trust that it was right. If a succession of readers had given different types of advice throughout, maybe that terror would have eased a little.

All in all, my resilience levels fluctuated at the end, as choices I had made earlier on (both good and not so good) came to yield maximum results. Yet each project is different. If you consider your own PhD journey, what is it that you can do now to build robustness and resilience that will take you across the line?

Plan or at Least Dream of a Future.

During those final months, I composed lists of activities to do post-thesis. I would go horse-riding. I would read each book on the long-list of the Stella Prize. I would enjoy housework. I would party in Melbourne during the comedy festival.

These lists made me happy and encouraged me to think about what brings joy. I also talked to other academics about their PhD completion. What did it bring them personally? What about for their careers? These were helpful conversations, which revealed that life as a Doctor could include unusual choices that do not necessarily follow the well-worn path. Consequently, I was able to ask (and begin to answer) those questions about what comes next.

Completion of a doctorate is no small achievement and it is worth celebrating to the full. I haven’t quite read all of the Stella prize and housework is about as enjoyable post-thesis as it was beforehand, but a sense of freedom is slowly dawning. Standing on the other side, I can say that if you trust the process, trust yourself, act wisely now and go hard in those final weeks and months, the experience of submission will be well worth the pain of the journey.

Sounds advice Lauren – do you have anything to add? How do you plan to fill in those non thesis hours when you are finished?

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21 thoughts on “How not to run off the end of the PhD cliff

  1. gamanrad says:

    Thanks, as ever, for giving us another shot in the arm, Thesis Whisperer (and attendant whisperees). I’m wondering, however, if you could have included something about the almost post-coital slump (you did say you’d been focused on sex work) that saps one of any urge to go on at the end of a process that always felt as though it would never end. My own situation (perhaps I ought to write this up as a separate blog) is that, as a mature student with family, I still recall my trusting son’s young face looking up at me and saying, so, how old will I be when you’re done? He’s now fifteen and looks scornfully down on me, and asks, and when, exactly, will you start to be paid for doing this kind of stuff (a disparaging wave towards laptop, books, and papers). I had a couple of job applications sketched out before the viva, and a book proposal, but now I’m in a worrying hiatus, waiting, Beckett-like, for something to change. I know, of course (I’m also a Yoga teacher) that nothing ever really does, but I’d thought at least the shift in focus would bring a relief. Apart from the few heady post-viva days, and another high when I received the extern’s (glowing!) report, I’m just as poor and, so far at least, apparently as unemployable, as I was in my teens, twenties, thirties, forties. Sorry to put a damper on things. I made soup too, today…

  2. Una says:

    Gamanrad, I hear you. I have children too. I got two A’s for my thesis, but they seem worthless. I got a job three weeks after submission, but only 3 days a week and not enough money to get us out of poverty. At this stage it seems that nothing is going to be able to compensate my partner for the sacrifice he endured for my work. As the reality of the toll rings clear, I feel that never have things felt so dark.

  3. Ben Wilkie says:

    The final stages and submission weren’t so problematic for me – it was what happened after submission. I was never able to enjoy the feeling of being finished.

    In the aftermath of my PhD, it wasn’t easy caring about thesis revisions and getting publications out while I was also worrying about paying for food and bills and rent. The proverbial rug, my scholarship, had been pulled from under my feet, and teaching work had all but dried up (it was non-existent during the four months after I submitted; remember to factor semester dates in when planning to submit).

    When the new semester came around, I could only get two hours of teaching work. That wasn’t easy, and by about this time my thesis examination reports came back and I was required to do some (painfully pedantic) revisions. I couldn’t help but feel my doctorate was punishing me.

    If I had the chance again, I’d have set aside time in the last months of my PhD to prepare and plan for life post-submission.

    Start early. The final stages of your PhD are a good time to begin putting feelers out for academic work, casual or otherwise, and to start considering non-academic opportunities. Remember to think about ways you can reward yourself, and get fit and healthy – many people collapse in a big mess after submitting. Rediscover old hobbies and get excited about the prospect of having hours upon hours to indulge them once you’re done with the PhD.

    But, if nothing else, have a financial plan, and be overprepared; plan for the worst, but hope for the best. Even if the worst hits you, it can be managed if you build resilience early.

  4. Jonathan Dough says:

    Just submitted a few weeks ago. And now, the actual award of the PhD, such as it will likely be at some point, seems irrelevant.

    Now, getting $ is the main thing. The problem is, that whereas I once felt proud putting “PhD candidate” on my CV before, now I feel a bit embarrassed about putting “PhD submitted” on job applications.

    To me, it now seems like the Mark of Cain on a CV – as in, why would you waste your time? Are you mentally ill or something?

    Weird, huh?

  5. Sydney sider says:

    No, not weird, Jonathan. I resonate with you and a lot of the comments here (and in the wider blog community). Post submission 6 months, and i am mixed with the harsh reality/boredom of “freedom”, unemployment, unfulfilment, and complete disillusionment with academia. I don’t regret pursuing my passion, but I think I have achieved myself in to a black hole.

  6. Clarissa says:

    Thank you so much for posting this!! It s exactly , exactly what i need right now!!! Your blog has been one of my PhD angels!! 🙂

  7. Anonymous says:

    I submitted in a state of depression after a grueling five years and have recently received my reports with “revise and resubmit”. I have not been able to find work in the meantime and my meagre savings are drying up fast. I am totally disillusioned with academia and wish I had never done it, in fact I have been regretting it for the past three years and wish I had quit back then as it has taken a huge toll on my mental and physical health and my relationships, and reduced my chances of getting a good job while miring me in debt. All my friends have good jobs, cars, houses, partners, kids.. and I am over 30 and have almost nothing, and am teetering on the edge of hopelessness. Years of therapy have achieved almost as little as the PhD. I hope others take note of my experience and do a Masters instead,or just get out and into the workforce and get a life.

  8. gamanrad says:

    Dear Lauren, Una, Ben, Jonathan, Anonymous, (and others, if you think this speaks to you),
    What I think affects us all is the sense of the overwhelming intellectual effort that leaves us completely materially and emotionally depleted. There is no easy way of lifting ourselves from here into a place where all will be well, but, even after reading Zizek (whose take on the disposability of most of us in a capitalist system could be depressing) I still think we deserve to reflect on quite what an outstanding thing we’ve done. It is the equivalent of a medieval quest, it’s the accumulation of a huge amount of knowledge, of self-discipline, of being able to deal with bureaucracy, with technology, with individuals who forget so quickly what this level of insecurity is like and who repetitively obsess about the complexities of their own political or social relationships. Remember, folks, though: we learnt to think deeply, to become experienced at focusing on a particular aspect of experience, to write. We learnt at least the beginnings of communication at a level none of us could have dreamt possible. This was partly a therapeutic journey for me. I dealt with the reverberations of abuse for for decades. It didn’t kill me. This won’t either. Yet so many good people I know did not survive. And I’m still here.
    The good don’t necessarily survive. We, however, have. Which gives us something of an obligation, in my book, to live as the best of us would have done. Please let what I said bring you the opportunity to lift yourselves out of the prisons of self-doubt, envy, regret or bitterness, and into the affirmation that we are worthwhile, we have done something of value, we have taken the final step into the gilded circle! If there is nothing here when we arrive, perhaps we need to question the process, more than ourselves. We acted in good faith. The system is dysfunctional. Let’s revolt! But let’s not blame ourselves, because we wanted to contribute to the overall advancement of human knowledge, and, whether or not the species recognises it, now or ever, that, my friends, is what we’ve done.

  9. RF says:

    Timely post, as I wait for my examiner reports.

    In some ways hearing about experiences such as this worry me – everyone seems to have spent months fully absorbed in their thesis for 16 hour days in the lead up to submission. Me? Not even close. I’m not even sure you could say I was writing full time. All through my candidature I rarely worked outside office hours. Some people may look at that with jealous disbelief, for it just makes me feel like I haven’t “earned” the PhD like others have. And although I’ve had no problems with passing milestones to date, what if this lack of sacrifice is evident in my work and it’s deemed substandard by examiners as a result?

    And even though I haven’t put in the sort of hours others have, I’m not sure I would have been able to. I still feel quite flat and depleted at the end of it, but because I haven’t had that work intensity, I don’t feel like I “deserve” to feel that way. I just feel lazy.

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