How not to run off the end of the PhD cliff



It’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.

Author Bio: 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.