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Getting to the End of Your PhD


Dear CareerDoctor,

I'm just about to start the final year of my Ph.D. at a U.K. university and really want to finish completely (i.e., submit my thesis) by the time my funding runs out; I can't afford to allow my student debt to grow any larger! The trouble is that, looking around my department, this almost impossible; I see many students who have been doing a Ph.D. for nearly 3 years, yet none of them seem to be within 6 months of finishing. Most are still doing experimental work.

Is it possible to complete a Ph.D. in 3 years? If not, should I be applying for jobs before my funding runs out so that I earn some money whilst I write up?


Dear Miles,*

I understand why you might wonder because it doesn't happen often. But--yes . . . in the U.K. it is entirely possible to submit your dissertation within 3 years if your project is on track, your supervisor supportive, and you keep working hard and methodically.

You are the only person who can tell if you have what it takes to finish a Ph.D. on time, so I'll start this column with some advice on how to make this judgment. If you decide that it is indeed possible--that the remaining time is sufficient for you to get everything done--after that it's all about execution. So I'll also suggest ways to manage your final year so that you'll have a chance of finishing on time, and warn you of the likely pitfalls.

Above all, you need to start your final year with a firm grasp of what you've already done and a clear idea of what work you still need to do. So take a couple of days whenever it is convenient--but soon--to put your results in order and examine how they relate to each other and to the main objectives of your project. What scientific claims can you make based on the work you have already done? How much more work must be done for you to achieve your research objectives?

This process is likely to highlight gaps in earlier work that may appear minor but nonetheless will need to be filled before you submit. Have all the control experiments been done? Have you done the experiments needed to fend off the most obvious criticisms?

Once you've got your work plan in order, arrange a meeting with your supervisor, whose support will be essential. Share your work plan and your thoughts about how your Ph.D. looks to you now and what you believe still needs to be done. Will the quantity and quality of your data be sufficient? What other research skills will you need to demonstrate? It is up to your supervisor to decide when sufficient work has been done, and you may well find that the goalpost is being moved further as you progress along.

But as you begin your third year it is important to define clear objectives to keep your work on track. You may also want to remind your supervisor of these objectives--courteously and diplomatically--if you find you are being asked to keep working well beyond the agreed-upon objectives of your thesis.

Finally, you should discuss how much longer it ought to take you to complete the project. Of course, this will only be a rough estimate. If all went well in your first and second years, and most of your experiments are up and running, you should be able to generate data efficiently throughout your third year. Still, as with all experimental work, there is much space for things to go wrong, and an experiment that could be done in 3 days may take 3 weeks or even 3 months to get it right. In science, timetables are hard to establish and even harder to follow.

Once the experiments are done--they will take as long as they take--you will need time to write your dissertation. As a rule of thumb, this may take around 4 months, less if you have regularly reviewed your work and written papers or reports, more if you are starting with raw data, have no experience writing material for publication (this being the standard you will need to achieve), or are just a slow writer.

It's a good idea to start writing as soon as possible--even if you feel that your experimental work is far from complete--for two reasons. First, some gaps in your work will become evident only at the writing stage. Next, many scientists find months of writing frustrating and tedious; better to balance the tedium with experimental work!

Remember to factor in time for your advisor to review drafts and make comments; you will also have little control over the time your supervisor is going to take to get back to you. Arrange your schedule so that you can use your time well while your thesis is under review; one approach is to submit drafts of your thesis for review and comment one chapter at a time.

Now that you've arranged a schedule and discussed it with your advisor, take a step back. Does your Ph.D. look well on track? Knowing your working habits, limitations, and non-work obligations, can you get it done by the deadline?

Your supervisor is the most obvious source of support but you should consider seeking support beyond him or her. Many institutions hold workshops for final-year students to help them improve their skills on project management, time management, and thesis writing. You may also look at my previous column for more time-management resources, and to the GRAD Web site which offers advice on managing your research, with a specific section on writing a thesis.

Perhaps you would find it helpful to talk to those more advanced Ph.D. students you referred to. Is there something you could learn from their struggle? If you ask them (tactfully) what took them so long, most will mention, probably, a lack of clear direction or careful planning; the difficulty of seeing how the whole "story" fits together; "writer's block"; or procrastination.

Use their experience to identify your own bad habits and find ways to overcome them. Beware, especially, of displacement activity--those jobs you find so compelling (cleaning the lab; re-indexing your references; e-mailing) when you know you should be working on something more important and difficult.

Should you start applying for jobs before submitting your thesis? You are right to begin planning your next career step as early as possible, but be careful here: the job search has all the characteristics of the ideal displacement activity: it is important, it keeps you busy, and most importantly it is not writing your thesis.

As for STARTING a new job before you have completed your thesis, I advise against it. Individually, the mental effort required to complete a Ph.D. or to start a new job are huge. Working while trying to finish a Ph.D. will make the whole process much longer at best, and you might well find it very difficult to ever reach the finish line.

Good luck with your final year and with your career.

The CareerDoctor

* Names have been changed.