A PhD in wildlife ecology – Part III: How to finish it

By Stuart Dawson

The premiership quarter! Its not uncommon for people to feel that they wrote 80% of their thesis in the last 10% of the time. This is not a bad thing, often the penny only drops in these later stages, and you finally have the understanding to smash out the writing. But its also where lots of PhDs fall apart.

An acceptable PhD now is better than a perfect PhD later (or near enough is good enough)

There is an old saying that a PhD is never finished, its just stopped. You will never feel like you are done, there is always more data collect, analysis to be perfected, or more literature to include, but that misses the point. You could spend a lifetime perfecting it, but no one would ever see it. Get it done, get it marked, and move on, rather than dragging it out months beyond your funding. This is easier said than done, but important nonetheless.

Another way to look at it is this, science is an evolving discussion, it’s OK to be wrong, even publicly, if your inaccuracy provokes a discussion that bring the community closer to the truth. This is the reason we have a peer review process, stringent referencing, and international, online journals. Don’t keep your work a secret, and don’t keep your ideas to yourself.

Set a hard deadline

Having a clear, hard, and realistic deadline is a great help when trying to plan out the finish. Make a celebratory booking at an expensive restaurant or book an international flight; its both something to look forward to, and something you will be very reluctant to postpone. I used my wedding as a deadline, unfortunately I had to submit my thesis 1 week after the actual ceremony, but it achieved what I needed it to.

Don’t give up, but don’t flog a dead horse

Your research will probably have false starts, chapters that you spend lots of time collecting data for, which go nowhere. While it feels like you must turn this work into something polished since you have put all this effort it, it’s important to realise that not everything needs to make it into the final project. Some chapters may be better to be left out. Consider the concept of triage; don’t take six months to get one chapter done, if it comes at the expense of finishing three other chapters in that time. Of course, you never realise how long a chapter will take until it’s done, so it’s not really top notch advice…

Unfortunately, it’s still not done.

This is a kick in the shin that we see coming, but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. You hand it in, you go on a holiday to celebrate, and then you get it back with a whole lot of corrections to make. This is one reason why spending months and months perfecting a thesis can be a waste of time, a reviewer may want you to totally change it all anyway. So, you make your corrections, the university accepts them, and you get the golden handshake and funny hat and enthusiastically tell strangers ‘yeah, I’m a doctor… No not that kind of doctor’. But you’re still not done.

Now you have to get these chapters published, if you haven’t already. Many people are still revising and publishing work from their PhDs five years after finishing them. This is one of the common areas where graduates give up, because the idea of revisiting this topic to publish the papers is too much. To add insult to injury, most people will have gone onto a job and be forced to make revisions on their weekends.

If you don’t publish, its really hard for people to find out about what you have done. A vast percentage of the basic ecological studies conducted in Australia is by PhD students, and this is the nut-and-bolts science on which the big sexy review papers rely. If PhD candidates factor this time into their planning, hopefully it will be less of a rude shock when the time comes.

So that’s it, my advice for prospective and current PhD candidates. I hope there is something in the last three blogs that is useful. If not, that’s fine. I am not really expecting people to finish reading it….  a bit like my PhD.



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