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The PhD-Doctor: The Art of Finishing Up


The fourth part of a series offering PhD students hands-on advice on how to handle the hurdles and challenges of your PhD project.

Even when you have not suffered any serious dips in the course of writing your dissertation, the last bits of it may still become quite a challenge. In this contribution I discuss three of the most important enemies of getting it done: not knowing when to stop, distraction, and the seduction of a new job.

Not knowing when to stop

"One must stop before one has finished." ?Barbara Tuchman

Doing good research is an endless process, because every finding yields new questions that need to be answered. In order to get that answer you have to get back to the lab, field, or library for extra work. This then explains why even researchers with a very well defined research question will have the irresistible urge to keep on digging for the answers to their newfound questions.

Tuchman's famous phrase points to the necessity to quit searching, even when there are still so many unanswered questions. This is not easy because it confronts you with the at least as formidable task of writing the manuscript. But at the same time it is unavoidable as the results of our research only count if they are written down and eventually published.

'Stopping' entails switching from research mode into writing mode. Write on the basis of the material that is available. Of course you will be confronted with loose ends, but for the time being, do not worry about them, unless they really touch the heart of your research. Instead of dealing with each small point separately, collect them together and deal with them in one go by devoting a couple of days to looking up references, running some additional statistical analyses, or double checking measurements. Also be ready to accept the practical limitations of your research and communicate these to your reader by letting them know about limited the time and funds that have restricted the breadth and/or depth of your analysis.


Distraction is your second enemy in your mission to get it over with. You will quickly notice that the final stage in particular demands all your attention, and that even the slightest diversion can destroy possibly productive days. This means that you have to actively organize a working environment in which these are held at bay. Show your colleagues that you do not want to be disturbed by closing your door, tell passersby to come back later, and answer your e-mails at the end, rather than the start, of the day. Still, even in this phase you will benefit from some 'scheduled' distraction by joining your colleagues for lunch or attending interesting talks. Such small events help to structure days that otherwise might become too monotonous and boring.

You yourself are probably the biggest source of distraction. Look out for the temptation of recreational e-mailing, minesweeping, and surfing the Net. Mild forms of self-paternalism may help: Switch off your e-mail notification and remove tempting links from your desktop. Also look for possibilities to temporarily work somewhere else. First drafts can be written in the library (by hand or on a laptop). Working at home is another option, but do not underestimate new temptations that pop up as a result. Really, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of getting it done, even doing the dishes may be more attractive than working on the manuscript.

The most drastic option is to really get away from it. We all dream of some far off logging cabin from time to time. Nothing seems more romantic and productive than finishing your masterpiece in splendid isolation. And in the short run such solitary confinement can be a great help: There are no possibilities to get back to the lab, to consult additional literature, or start digging for additional material in this or that archive. In the longer term however, this may easily start to work against you because, at a certain stage, you will have to check things in order to really finish your work. So splendid isolation may be most productive for a limited time. Think in terms of a couple of weeks, not months, and don't travel too far away, so you can get back easily in case of serious (research) calamities.

The seduction of a new job

About a year in advance of completing your thesis you will have to start thinking about what happens next. Get your curriculum vitae up to date and post it on your Web site. Depending on your preferences you will also have to mobilize the appropriate networks in order to inform yourself about prospects, and employers about your availability. You can facilitate your job orientation if over the years you have collected ad-clippings of interesting jobs. Now is the time to go over them all at once and look for the common denominators in the vacancies you collected.

If there is an attractive job opening even before your dissertation is finished, you should of course apply for it. Consider the application itself as part of the orientation process, and for the moment do not worry about the practicalities of still having to finish the manuscript. These should only be dealt with once you and your prospective employer are indeed seriously considering each other. At such a stage it is of course necessary to make a realistic estimate of the time you will need to finish the manuscript and to try to negotiate an appropriate starting date.

Ideally you should only start a new job if all of the substantive work for your dissertation is done. We all know quite a few former graduate students who landed a new job too early on and are still struggling to get their dissertation done, or even had to abandon their project. It is not just that finishing your project is quite an effort, but starting any new job is always very demanding. Explore the possibilities; perhaps you can start part-time, for example working 4 days a week. Having a full day to finish your dissertation will definitely help, but it is not a panacea, because a large part of it will be spent picking up where you left last week. Family life, moreover, may make it harder and harder to spend weekends working at the book.

Even new jobs within academia may pose serious challenges to get it done. Your (new) department will be very eager to provide you with a nice teaching load and administrative duties which will leave little room for the old project to be finished. So even when you remain within the university, make sure that essentially you will only have to lay out or copy edit your manuscript, because otherwise the work may be finished much, much later than you hoped.

But above all, and whatever your personal demon, do not kill the project by being too much of a perfectionist. When it comes to getting it done, tell yourself repeatedly that, as Joan Bolker said, "the best dissertation is a done dissertation."

Herman Lelieveldt ( is a postdoc working at the department of political science of the University of Twente, the Netherlands, and the executive director of the Netherlands Institute of Government ( He is the author of 'Promoveren. Een wegwijzer voor de beginnend wetenschapper,' a highly acclaimed Dutch guide on how to get your PhD from which this contribution has been adapted.