The tail end of the ‘getting a PhD’ process

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This week, I received notification that I have been awarded a PhD – the first piece of official correspondence I have received to Dr Helen Wilding.  On the one hand this is very exciting, but it also feels a little bit of an anti-climax.  As I was updating various online profiles today with start date of 2013 and end date of 2021, I realised that for a good part of the last 15 months or so I have been ‘waiting’ for my PhD, rather than ‘working’ on it.

I realised that few talk about the tail end of the process and all that needs to happen.  Sure, my tail end was longer than most people’s – partly due to the pandemic and mostly due to the need to do major amendments to the thesis.  But it went something like this…

I had my final draft ready by about February 2020.  There was then a period when I could do very little because of waiting for my supervisors feedback.  Of course this got delayed more than usual because of the start of the pandemic.  I can’t remember when I got their feedback but I am pretty sure it was then only a few weeks for me to make the final changes.  I submitted the thesis in May 2020.

The decision was made to set viva for early September 2020 to ‘increase likelihood it could be face to face’. (Ha!  It was online!).  Given the length of time from submitting to the viva, I had a couple of months off(ish) and then spent the final month of August doing viva preparation.  Probably a lot more than most people do.

The outcome of viva was ‘PhD awarded subject to major amendments’.  At my university the norm is to expect these to be turned around in 6 months, so I was initially given to end Feb 2021.  But, it took a while to get full information from the examiners so my supervisors and I could proceed with a degree of clarity.  This was probably the worst period of my whole PhD journey in terms of stress – for the first time I wasn’t sleeping at night and couldn’t concentrate.  Plus, in anticipation that I would have ‘finished’ the PhD, I had filled my time with other things. As a result of these things combined, by December I had made very little progress.

I sat down to map out – very systematically – what had to be done, how long I thought I needed to do them, and the weeks I would not be doing anything because of other commitments (e.g. work, xmas holidays).  This led me to a finish date of June 2021 but I added on 4 further contingency weeks just in case and asked my uni if it was possible to have an extension up to July 2021.  They agreed.  (It seems at the moment, you only have to say “due to current circumstances…” and deadlines are easily negotiated!)

Once I felt back in charge, I worked through my plan and it went better than expected. I didn’t need the contingency and submitted 22 June.  The next wait started.  But to my suprise the examiners came back pretty quickly so by 6 July I knew they were okay with the amendments.

Then there were two further stages.  I had to upload the electronic version of my thesis to the uni library, they had to process it and tell registry that it was all in order.  This took until 22 July, even though I could see it live well before then.  The next stage was for the award to be signed off by PVC.  Once that was done, I got the letter (4 Aug).  This is the official award, the rest is just nice ‘dressing’.  At some point a certificate will turn up – but that will depend on someone having to go into their office and print it!  And the earliest possible ceremony (if not cancelled) is December.

So between May 2020 and now, I spent August doing viva prep, Sept – Nov/Dec stressing and Jan – June working on it on and off.

When you do your viva, it feels as if it is the tangible end point you have been heading for.  Your family, your friends, all know it is that day.  They hear the words ‘PhD awarded’ when you let them know the outcome.  They celebrate, they say congratulations, but all you are thinking is ‘subject to major amendments’.  You know it isn’t the end.  People then ask – “have you done them yet”.  They advise – “just get them done”.  They speak as if it is a simply task, but it isn’t, it is one of the hardest ones.  You have to re-find the energy to re-engage; to tear apart paragraphs and chapters you cared for; and, write new ones that initially you don’t care about at all.  There is a tension between owning your Thesis, keeping it yours and not turning it into the thesis the examiners would have written.  It is a fine line to navigate.

I was fortunate in that when I reached out again to other PhD students that I knew, they rallied around.  We set up regular chats again, we texted and emailed.  Unknown to me, one of them was going through a similiar process of extensive thesis amendments.  I had been the one who had celebrated for her and said congratulations.  It had never sunk in that she was actually having to do the toughest part of her PhD work.

So, next time you say to someone – have you got your PhD yet?  Remember, there are some parts of the end process that are out of their control.  The times when the bureaucracy churns.  But also, listen carefully to where they are emotionally with the viva outcome – amendments can be quick, easy and quite uncontroversial.  But equally, they can be tough.

It’s like someone deciding to move the finish line of a marathon from where it should be to the top of a really long upward climb with so many bends you don’t know where that new end is.  I have paused to celebrate so many times, no wonder it now feels like an anticlimax.

Just realised how rambling this post is – I just wanted to write something.  To get back into blogging again, rather than mega academic writing.  Perhaps next time I will be more coherent and more upbeat x

2 thoughts on “The tail end of the ‘getting a PhD’ process

  1. Thank you for sharing this Helen. I thought it was just me who struggled with this lonely, somewhat baffling, process of reframe, rewrite and resubmit. By the time I completed the recognition element I had taken up a different career to meet my young family’s needs. It is only later, now they are adults and I am reading your post, that I can reflect that the final PhD stages are unnecessarily administratively byzantine and isolating. Perhaps we can put this learning to good use in identifying system and effective way of nurturing academic inquiry?

    Congratulations for battling through!

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment and share your experiences Lesley. Perhaps the more that we talk openly about amendment experiences, the more that others will reflect on their own experiences and the less isolating it will feel. I wonder if – like passing a driving test second or third time – going through the process actually makes us a better researcher!

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