Oh to be done!

When are you going to graduate? That is what I’ll miss least about graduate school, dealing with that awkward question. As any grad student will tell you, it is the most annoying question ever. A mildly more tolerable version of the aforementioned cringe inducing monstrosity is, “How is research going?” But only mildly. Like the impending doom of a terminal illness, our never-ending PhDs loom large in our minds, ALL THE TIME. And making small talk about when we’ll graduate feels exactly like making small talk about a terminal illness. Trust me on this, avoid asking grad students those questions at all costs. Or go ahead and ask at your own peril.

But back to my celebration. Oh to be done with a PhD! It’s heaven-sent! It is also the explanation to my long blog hiatus. Had to finally stop procrastinating, hunker down in my fallout shelter, and just finish up. I’m officially Mrs PhD!!! And now begins the long road to earning that MD. Hence the damped enthusiasm for the hooray to be done. No seriously, I am ecstatic about being done with the PhD. But to the fellow dual degree seekers out there, isn’t the “one graduation down, one more to go” the weirdest mixed emotion ever? And to those trying to get their PhD to the finish line, do you feel like you are sooooo ready to be done? It may have felt like that for a while. Maybe even since the day you started (though if that’s the case, you really shouldn’t have been in grad school in the first place). There’s a special threshold for that level of desperation, you’ll know when you get there. Do you feel so frustrated because you can’t figure out why you are not done yet? Finishing a science or engineering PhD is a combination of having good data and packaging it up into papers and the dissertation. Take a step back, re-evaluate, what’s holding you back?

  1. Data: You feel like you don’t have enough data. Or the data you have just isn’t good enough. Enough data’ and ‘good enough’ data are both subjective. In the context of a science/engineering PhD, it often means if the data is publishable (though not the only criteria by any means). Talk to your PI (that’s Principal Investigator for you non-PhD types, aka your thesis advisor), your committee members, and other lab members. This next thing may sound very un-sciency, but what matters most is what your committee thinks about whether or not you have enough quality data to defend your thesis. Maybe what you have is enough. Maybe you don’t need that much more than what you already have. Keep your thesis committee in the loop. You have the wonderful resource of five (or how many ever) expert perspectives. Use that resource.
  2. Writing: Maybe you have all (or most) of the data, you just can’t seem to put it all together into manuscripts and the dissertation. Often scientists and engineers aren’t writing enthusiasts. They’d rather be writing code, testing prototypes, growing cell cultures, analyzing western blots. Anything but writing! Remind yourself that there’s just no way around it. Suck it up and just DO IT! Easier said that done? Try to make it easier on yourself by doing it in tiny chunks. A page a day. A sub-section a day. Two hours of solid writing a day. You’d be surprised at what you can do in two hours, IF those two hours are completely distraction free. That means no emails, no Facebook.
  3. That ‘one’ committee member: Do you feel you have enough to finish, but that one committee member disagrees? Or maybe that one committee member is your PI, which is definitely stickier. Breathe. Set up an appointment with that person. Collect all your data. Or better yet, make a formal presentation. Usually the professors are busy with writing grants, teaching responsibilities, faculty meetings, doing their own research. They might not have kept up with your project, and their opinions might not be reflective of your updated work. Show them what you got. And ask for feedback. Good feedback is constructive and specific. Ask them what other experiments they’d suggest to tie your work together for the paper or your thesis.
  4. Politics: So maybe even after you made your awesome talk and got all the feedback, you got no resolution. Science is a human endeavor and it comes with all the messy politics. Maybe that one committee member has something against you, your PI, or your department. Maybe your PI likes the cheap labor you provide for his/her lab (unfortunately, that is not unheard of in academia). If that’s the case, find out the official rules. Will the majority vote be sufficient to pass you on your defense, even if that one committee member disagrees? Can this committee member be replaced with someone else? And if it’s your PI exploiting you for cheap labor, seeking support from other committee members and department to put pressure on your PI to let you graduate may be your only choice. (Note: I was very fortunate to not have to deal with this, so I don’t speak from personal experience.)
  5. It’s not them, it’s you: The toughest thing about graduate school, as opposed to any other professional school (medical school, law school, business school), is the uncertainty. In no other professional school does the “when will you graduate?” induce the horror that it does in graduate school. Because the answer in other professional schools is pretty straightforward, after ‘X’ years, when I am done with all the course requirements (including clerkships, internships, or whatever practical experience is required for the degree). A PhD requires a substantial work of original scholarship that advances your field. This doesn’t mean that your PhD must present new groundbreaking laws like general relativity (that wasn’t Einstein’s PhD topic by the way). Your dissertation need not be the next great American novel. Your topic could be something very mundane, but it hasn’t been done before, and is very useful to that one person studying the mating patterns of fireflies in the Amazon in July. I don’t know if that’s real, but you get the gist… Your project asks questions about something very specific, you propose reasonable hypothesis, and you test your hypothesis using the scientific method. That doesn’t mean that a PhD project is trivial. For most people, it can take anywhere from three to ten+ years finishing their PhD project. Are you so bored with your project that you can’t stand to look at it anymore? Remind yourself that you don’t have to work on this project for the rest of your career. Can you hunker down for another few months/year(s) and get this done? People do leave graduate school without a PhD, some after one year, or two years, or seven years. The dilemma of sunk cost very much applies to a PhD every step of the way. When do you know if it’s time to walk away, from your project or your degree? That topic is too big and unwieldy, I’ll address it in a separate, future post. But you might need to have that tough talk with yourself.

A PhD is very very long. Or at least it feels that way. Even when you are frantically writing up your dissertation or racing to a submission deadline, take some time off. Hang out with friends and family. Commiserate with your fellow grad students. Find humor in your situation or get your funnies from the interwebs. Anything that gets your mind off your project. And then get your mind back on the project before your procrastinate too long. So was this advice helpful? Trust me on all this, I am a doctor. Haha, no, just my $0.02. Did something else stand in your way of finishing your degree? Is there something that helped you finish up? Sound it out in the comments.

One Response to “Oh to be done!”
  1. Great post, and congratulations on the phd 🙂 I am still on that “need more data” step of the way.

    I love your blog, btw!

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  • Legalese

    The purpose of this blog is to share interesting bits from around the web and beyond. All opinions expressed on this site are my own, unless credited to someone else. The images and artwork have also been created by me, unless credited to the sources. Oh! And please don't hold me liable for your actions resulting from any information on this site. As with everything else on the internet, read with the requisite amount of skepticism.
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