Planning the final year of your PhD

Courtesy of Chris Evans (Flickr) via CC
The final year can feel apocalyptic (Photo: Mayan Calendar courtesy of Flickr Chris Evans via CC)

As I’m winding down the term and getting ready for some well deserved rest I’m also planning ahead for 2013.  Now PhD students are notorious for making (several) plans, whether that be plotting out another Gantt chart or revising their yearly calendar for the umpteenth time.  I think it’s a necessity adapt your schedule – it’s how we get things done!

This post is about being more strategic when planning you final year.  It’s blindingly obvious that one needs a plan in order to finish but it’s entirely another thing to actually make a plan and stick to it.  As a final year student I often feel rather anxious and wonder if I’m ever going to get this thesis done.  I felt like I was going around in circle and so, I asked around and found some useful advice.  I recently attended a training session that brought together final year PhD students together to exchange ideas and encourage one another to, well, finish!  It was really good to meet other final year students who were struggling with similar issues. Below is a list of questions raised during the discussion that helped me think more constructively about how to go about planning this crucial year:

1. What do you think is preventing you from finishing your PhD? Write them down. All of them!

I listed everything that I through would get in the way of finishing my thesis, and I mean everything. From my personal feelings of insecurity to seemingly trivial things, like the heater in my flat not working properly making it too cold to type! Once I did this, I went over this list and found that I actually had control over the majority of the items.  In other words, I had the ability to minimise these barriers into something that was manageable and the ones that I had less control over, I realised that there was help available – if I asked.  Doing this enable me to get some perspective on the mountain I was making for myself.

2. When do you plan to submit your thesis vs. When you do plan to complete your first full draft?

This is THE question! For me, the editing stage isn’t about checking your commas are used correctly (that’s proofreading) but rather creating the coherence necessary to making a thesis, well, a thesis.  The advice I’ve been given is to concentrate on getting the major sections down and, when I have all the pieces, I can start putting them together (a.k.a. editing).  My aim is to submit my thesis, when it’s nice and shiny, on the 1 September 2013. I worked backward from this date, and saw that I must have a completed draft by 1st May 2013.  It’ll be in pieces and looking forlorn  but then would have several months to concentrate on bringing my ideas together so that it looks like a thesis and not like a bunch of notes with the label “Chapter x” on it.  This approach may not be for everybody, but it’s my plan of action.

3. What are your writing / editing / proofreading “due dates”?

I like working to a deadline.  Due dates motivate me.  They’re a tangible goal to work towards.  I started from my hand-in date (01/09/2013) and worked backward, setting key dates for when major sections needed to be submitted to my supervisors with the view of juggling my teaching, admin and conference responsibilities.  I’ve then broken down these key dates into weekly due dates which have enabled me to schedule my time more effectively.  When things come up (meetings, tutorials with students etc.) I feel I have more control over how I allocate my time because I can adapt my schedule as needed or say no when I can.  Having this option is motivating because I feel that I’m in the driver’s seat.

4. What further support do you think you’ll need in order to meet your submission deadline?

This is a question about resources and about having a very honest look at yourself and what you believe you’ll need in order to finish.  Speaking for myself, the advice and feedback from my supervisors is key where at this point they can only really provide feedback if I give them something to read.  I’ve been in a very fortunate position of having an excellent supervisory team where I feel supported from both my first and second supervisor, and they’ve been essential  helping with the conceptualisation of my thesis.  Now, during the writing stage, I’m in the driver’s seat and they’re observing from the sidelines (or from a helicopter – depending on your metaphor) where I’m leading.

5.  What are you plans for after you finish your PhD?

Competition for academic posts is fierce, which is a massive understatement!  As an international student I am well aware of the hurdles I face when trying to find an academic post in the UK, so this question is very much at the forefront of my thinking.  Having a deadline on my student visa is a hell of a motivator, so, thesis aside, I’ve been looking up academic job postings and seeing if and how I meet the essential criteria for the posts.  Due to my visa restrictions it’s too early to be applying for jobs.  However by looking at different types of academic posts I can see how I do meet the essential criteria and think about what I need to do in order to meet the ones I don’t.  Planning for a further beyond the PhD is very much a part of what I’m doing during this final year.

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