Sarah Coates: ‘So You Climbed Mount Everest? But, Have You Ever Submitted a PhD Thesis?’

Sarah Coates is a postgraduate member of the Contemporary Histories Research Group and has recently submitted her PhD thesis. Sarah has reflect on the final month of candidature:

“So, you climbed Mount Everest? But, have you ever submitted a PhD thesis?”

Short-term achievements like Colloquium or writing that first chapter are often the focus during your candidature; however, every Ph.D. student is inevitably working towards submission. Amongst the long hours of isolated study, the setbacks, the fatigue of writing, the highs of completing a chapter, and the thrill of presenting at a Conference, it can be difficult to see the finish line. The final month is certainly tough but also incredibly rewarding.

For the last 18 months, I concentrated all my energy on writing my thesis and just “getting it done”. I wanted to complete my Ph.D. and move onto the next phase of my life. I longed to have my weekends free and not constantly have my work in the back of my mind. My supervisors’ constantly reiterated to me that I was “closer than I thought” but in the midst of redrafts and edits; it was not always easy to appreciate that submission was imminent. I found it difficult to think about how far advanced I was on the journey because it seemed like there was still so much work to be done and the toughest and most stressful times were ahead of me. I encountered feelings of concern, exhaustion and apprehension during the final stages, not least because putting my thesis out into the universe was incredibly daunting. At the same time I felt a level of excitement because I was finally seeing my thesis come together.

It will not be surprising to those who know me well, that I set myself a specific date for submission. I was intent on controlling some part of this final process. Of course, even the best-intentioned and thought-out plans can go awry when it comes to a Ph.D. I knew that the last month and the push towards submission would be stressful. In a way it is a cruel irony that the most challenging period comes at the end of your candidature when you are most fatigued. Someone close to me said a week before submission: “You are in the stage of childbirth when you want to give up, but you have no choice but to keep going”. I liked this analogy because in many ways your thesis is your “baby” and as painful as the last days can be you cannot give up.

Among the many tasks, which battled for priority in the final month, was the enormous undertaking of merely proofreading my thesis. I had it professionally proofread and my supervisors also cast a critical eye but any changes, amendments and improvements I made after this point still required proofing. It took me several days to critically read over my thesis and I knew my work so well that I often was reading the text but not really “absorbing” what I had written. Luckily, I have some fantastic friends and family who, only five days before submission collectively read my thesis from start to finish. Having a set of fresh eyes look over my writing was a huge relief and certainly eased my mind. It was also helpful in an unexpected way. Although my friends and family knew my topic and understood the general themes, they had never read my work in depth. To hear their enthusiasm for my research and praise for my writing was, at a time when I was feeling incredibly stressed and isolated, reassuring. It gave me renewed confidence that I had produced a thesis that was worthy.

I expected the pressure and stress of the final month but nothing can really prepare you for it. I have never worked particularly well under pressure, always preferring to be organised well in advance and complete tasks ahead of time. Knowing that I just had to keep going for a little longer helped, as did some well-timed food deliveries from friends.

In early March, one supervisor instructed me to “just enjoy these last couple of weeks” because apparently “they are the best part”. I remember thinking at the time “how could I possibly enjoy this?” So, here is my advice to Ph.D. students wanting to survive the final month and submission with their sanity in tact:

  1. Get organised. Appreciate how much time you have to dedicate to your thesis in the final weeks and prepare to forgo social and work commitments.
  2. Be kind to yourself. Look after yourself emotionally and physically as best you can during this period.
  3. Surround yourself with people who understand the pressure you are under and can offer support and encouragement.
  4. Make sure you understand the submission process. Check guidelines and requirements for submission and presentation.
  5. Things will take longer than expected so allow extra time. Factor in time for formatting and writing additional parts of your thesis such as the acknowledgements, abstract etc.
  6. Take pride in your thesis and resist the temptation to submit prematurely.
  7. Do not leave proof reading to the last minute.
  8. Remember to enjoy seeing your hard work come together.
  9. Expect submission to be an enormous relief but also anti-climactic.
  10. Celebrate with those who have helped you along the way.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned over my Ph.D. is to recognise and celebrate your successes along the way. Submission was my “Mount Everest” and although there are a few more steps to completion, I am relishing this achievement.

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