The final stretch (six steps for finishing your PhD)

I’ve refrained from commenting on the final stages of my PhD up to now, so as not to feel I was jinxing the outcome. Happily, my viva came around at the end of February, and my thesis passed without corrections. I’ll try to devote a post in the near future to some of the questions that came up, but first, for what it’s worth, here’s some general advice on getting across the finish line.

  1. (Re)read the manual

This is especially true if your thesis diverges from the scientific method (introduction – method – results – discussion) by presenting and analysing findings together (e.g. a series of thematic chapters). I rarely plug books this whole-heartedly, but if you haven’t read Authoring A PhD by Patrick Dunleavy, ignore the rest of what I have to say and just go and get a copy. As well as invaluable advice/reassurance on structure, it’s very helpful on style (thanks to the Thesis Whisperer for the original suggestion).

Want some bonus reading? Savage Minds, a group blog for sociocultural anthropologists, will make you feel less alone in dealing with the challenges of ethnographic writing (take a good look at their writers’ workshop series!).

  1. Write, write, write

There will be days when it feels like getting blood from a stone. But there are some things that usually make it easier:

  • A positive mental attitude. Positivity is not one of my strong suits, but writing is, so I developed a mantra: it’s not about getting it done, it’s about reaching the flow. This came from the realisation that whenever I’m in the flow of a written assignment, my stress and anxiety melt away – and I actually enjoy what I am doing.
  • Structure. Following Dunleavy’s advice, I broke every chapter into sections, and every section into sub-sections, so I was left with chunks of text usually between 1000 and 2000 words (750 and 2500 were the limits). Taking the thesis one section at a time made it much more manageable, and much easier to track progress.
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Remember to stop and smell the roses

  • Routine. My ideal mornings involved writing as much as I could from home. Then I’d go for a short run or nature walk; spend the afternoon editing or preparing for the next section; have an hour off to talk to a friend and unwind; and work on footnotes for as much of the evening as I could stand (often with the help of some music, a glass of wine, and the neighbour’s cat for company. If possible, I suggest you borrow a cat for the last two months of your PhD).
  • Systematisation. I was allowed two drafts per chapter. Draft one = any old mishmash of previous efforts, copied and pasted to meet my word count. Draft two = my attempt to turn found text into readable content with clear structure and style. This draft went to my supervisor and proof-readers, and was modified based on their comments. The chapters were placed in sequence for the final round of polishing (with the help of my supervisor and two amazing proof-readers). In parallel, I worked on footnotes for each chapter, ticking things off on a wall chart as I went along.
  1. The proof-reader is always right

This is true when they are reassuring you that your thesis is interesting, readable and most likely going to pass. It is also true when they point out that your repeated use of ‘scare quotes’ to highlight contested concepts, metaphors or field-related jargon is disconcerting for the reader, or when they attack your use of the word ‘within’ 20 times in one chapter when just ‘in’ would have sufficed. It helps to have a range of proof-readers, including some who know your field and your work in depth, some who are intellectually curious and kind people, and some who will preface their replies with “I hope this isn’t too nit-picky, but…” It is a good idea to tell each of these people in advance why you have asked them in particular to read this chapter (to all my proof-readers, thank you again from the bottom of my heart!).

  1. Think about your examiners

Several people have asked me how examiners are appointed in Ireland. Some were horrified that the student has to compile a shortlist of potential external examiners. Your supervisor contacts them in turn, until someone agrees to take on the role. An internal examiner is appointed from your department – you discuss this with your supervisor.

Selecting your examiners has advantages (you can think about who you really respect in your field) and disadvantages (is it your fault if you end up with a dragon?). Conference attendance is a good way to get a sense of potential examiners – who can you imagine having a lively discussion with?

The point I want to emphasise though, is to think about this well in advance and submit your list a couple of months – or at least weeks – before your thesis is due. I say this as someone who sent in her list the week after she submitted, and ended up waiting four months for the viva.

One of the reasons I waited was because I was trying to see how the thesis would shape up, particularly which of two disciplines would come out strongest. In retrospect, this was a weak excuse for not gritting my teeth and getting on with it. Thinking about the viva when you’re three chapters in and still unsure of your conclusion is nerve-wracking – but it isn’t worth a four month wait!

  1. Prepare for the viva

If you can, find a couple of recent graduates who can tell you how their viva actually workede – their advice matters. The Irish system is relatively tame. There are usually five people present: you, the two examiners, a chairperson (whose job is to make sure things go according to regulations), and your supervisor (who has the right to attend, but not to speak). The student makes a short oral presentation, followed by about 90 minutes of discussion. The examiners have a brief chat in private (witnessed by the chair) and then you and your supervisor are brought back to hear the result. It sounds simple, but it was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.

Remember, the outcome of the viva is, to all intents and purposes, decided in advance. Your examiners have read the thesis and decided whether it is, or can be brought up to, PhD standard. The purpose of the viva is to confirm their decision (by demonstrating that it’s all your own work and/or that you know exactly what went wrong, and how to fix it). So long as you are prepared to stand by your thesis, while accepting some criticism, there’s no reason to be nervous. But since you’ll be nervous anyway, take plenty of long walks and avoid caffeine and sugar in the days leading up to it.

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Sunset on the eve of my defence. Try to get as wind-swept as possible.

A good way to warm up for the viva – one or two weeks in advance – is to practice some basic questions. What was the most interesting aspect of your research? Which part did you enjoy most, and why? What are you most proud of? These questions might not be all that likely to come up, but preparing the answers can rekindle your enthusiasm.

Do also consider the nastier questions (What are the weaknesses of the thesis? What alternative methods could or should you have considered?) – but don’t dwell on them too much. Jot down some possible answers, discuss them with your supervisor or a friend, and think about how to reframe negatives as positives (Why was your approach the most feasible at the time? How might you incorporate this counterargument into future publications?).

Use the time before the viva to review key literature, and get up to date with any publications you might have missed – including ones that came out after you submitted. Read some of your examiners’ work and think about what questions they might raise.

Finally, reread your thesis – even if the thought of it brings you out in hives. I found reading my own work difficult, but in the end I had a very manageable list of points (five to ten per chapter) that I thought I might be asked to elaborate on, while being more confident in the overall thesis.

  1. Bear in mind…

The viva is meant to be a constructive process; the chairperson is there to offer you a break, refill your water glass and pass you the tissues. Everyone will (probably) be kind.

There will be questions that surprise you. There may also be questions that are phrased as a series of three or four related comments. You might only manage to respond to one of these points before the next follow-up question is asked. Don’t panic – you will be offered a chance at the end to say anything that you feel needs to be said.

Lastly, whatever the outcome, congratulate yourself on making it this far. And if you are lucky enough to be given a full pass, be prepared for the elation to rapidly give way to exhaustion. Five years of accumulated stress dissolving in a single moment can feel a bit like being run over with a steamroller. But once you’ve grown accustomed to that empty space where the thesis used to be – the possibilities are endless.

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