The project finishing mindset


To generalise ridiculously, there are three types of people:

  1. People who start a research project intending to finish it on time.
  2. People who start a project not really caring when they finish it.
  3. People who don’t care about finishing a project on time until they fly past the deadline.

If you are doing a PhD and identify with number two in this list, God Speed! Some people have the time and resources to treat the PhD as a passion project and complete it according to their own schedule. The rest of us are not so lucky and need to finish in a timely fashion for a variety of reasons, not the least of them being financial.

Last year I wrote a post called While you scream inside your heart, please keep working about how to deal with different kinds of project uncertainty. But getting a research project done before the money runs out takes more than clever strategies. You also need what I’ll call, for lack of a better term a ‘project finishing mind-set’.

You might have noticed this mind-set in some successful, experienced academics. You know the sort: the ones that take a ruthlessly pragmatic approach to their work. They can kill a line of inquiry without a second thought if it’s not going somewhere productive. They get published because they do what journals want; no more and no less. They are not precious about their ‘voice’ or point of view, which makes them brutal (but effective) editors. The defining quality of these people is they get the job done efficiently and move on to the next thing. And they make sure ‘the next thing’ is something that will get funded.

I found these battle hardened academics confronting people when I was a student. I don’t think I understood them very well and, if I’m honest, I was pretty judgy. I secretly thought one the more successful researchers in my department cut corners and didn’t care that much about quality. He certainly seemed more concerned with winning grants than doing the work. Most of the actual work was carried out by an army of research assistants who were over worked and grumpy. But, after more than a decade of running research projects with many stakeholders, tight budgets and research assistants, I understand this academic a bit more. I don’t have quite the same level of cynicism as he did, but I’m definitely more dispassionate about the work and I am a brutally effective editor.

As Julius Ceasar is reputed to have said: experience is the best teacher. Lately I have been working on a ‘5 Years +’ project where I’m talking to students who are creeping past the deadline for their PhD. They’ve faced all kinds of problems – but they are now determined to finish. It was inspiring spending a week talking to them, one after the other. I think they gave me a lot of insight into the ‘finishing’ mind set. Here are some of the things I learned:

Get comfortable with never finishing anything ‘properly’

Any area of academic inquiry will likely open up as many new problems as it solves. We work on the spectacularly hard problems; the ones no one else will pay to try to solve. This means it’s unlikely any data gathering exercise or analysis will be ‘enough’. At the same time, academia valourises the truth and holds itself to an insanely high standard for polish and completeness.

All of us have to find a way to walk the narrow goat track to a conclusion that feels meaningful and useful. Recognise academia’s high standards are a mirage. Every project could benefit from more time and money. Develop the ability to draw a line under it and call it done, even if it’s uncomfortable.

Other people’s opinions can be unhelpful

Many of the students I spoke to spent a lot of time consulting with recognised experts about their work – too much time. Some of them told me how, past a certain point, other people’s opinions – even expert opinions – can just be unhelpful noise. All academics have their pet theories and methods. Their advice is often a thinly veiled attempt to say: here’s how I would have done it.

Sadly, they are not doing the project – you are.

When you are past the scoping part of a research project, hearing how someone else would do it is largely pointless and can just create anxiety. Learn to listen politely and take on only what is genuinely useful.

Mistakes are not always a good learning opportunity

Research is a difficult activity and it’s easy to make mistakes. We’ve all had the experience of having to throw out a data set or piece of writing and start again. We often frame mistakes as a learning opportunity and a pathway to perfection. But here’s the truth – sometimes the you can make the same kind of mistake over and over again.

For instance, I’m terrible at reading long strings of numbers. I make all kinds of basic arithmitic mistakes and consistently write the wrong time date and time on diary entries. This tendency gets me into trouble SO OFTEN. I always have someone check my work, which is time consuming, but necessary. No one is more annoyed about this number fumbling tendency than me. But if you spend too much time dwelling on your mistakes and limitations you can end up learning the wrong lesson. You can start thinking you are stupid and don’t belong here.

Once you have identified what went wrong, and done what you can to fix it, move on. If you make that mistake again, put some guard rails around yourself. It might be a process of checking, or you might need to get someone else to do that bit with you, or for you (within limits of course – for instance, most universities will kick you out if they catch you hiring someone to do the writing for you).

Keep your friends close

What impressed me most about my ‘5 years+’ students was how they talked about their peers. They all had close friendships with other students in their department and depended on each other for help and support. They set up Shut up and Write groups, read each other’s drafts and held space to debrief and have all the feelings. I made more close friends during my PhD than at any other point in my life, so I can relate. That pressure makes beautiful, lasting bonds.

We often talk about networking instrumentally; framing socialising with other academics as a form of career capital. But those sideways connections are the most valuable and enduring you will make while you are a student. When all the other experts have aged out and retired, your peers will still be there, standing with you.

I hope these insights are useful to share and reflect on, whatever stage of your PhD you might be at right now.