I have a lot of postgraduate students among my friends, and among this august group one reaction has been fairly prominent since I handed in and subsequently passed my doctoral thesis. Students, who are still embedded in the higher degree process, often think that there’s something special about me and/or my work, and that some aspect of this exceptionalism is what has carried me over the line at both submission and passing stages, whereas for them everything will naturally be much more difficult. This is rot. As Research Degree Voodoo recently reminded us:
A doctoral thesis is about 80,000 words (or your discipline’s equivalent) of academic writing that describes a research project that should take about 3 years and can be carried out by someone just starting out as a researcher.
Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s (probably) not a nobel prize. It’s (probably) not the best work you’ll ever do.
If there is one thing about me in particular that helped me achieve completing this PhD, it is the fact that I have done it before. I already held a PhD in neuroscience, and although the content and the quotidian processes of producing it were utterly different, the intellectual and emotional processes were very closely related. If you just plod through your candidature, keeping fairly abreast of what is required and doing ‘stuff’ regularly, completing actually boils down to a fairly simple matter. It’s about knowing when enough is enough; about keeping in perspective the fact that this is ‘just a PhD’ and not your Life’s Work; keeping the panicked voice of your inner perfectionist at bay while being able to say: ‘yes, of course I could go on and do about 100 more experiments, or rush off to a new archive and translate a bunch more charters, or whatever, but what I’ve got here is a respectable, original contribution, albeit not particularly earth-shattering in its importance. It is enough.’
The other piece of wisdom that two rounds of doctoral study have taught me is that by the time you get to the end, nothing you’ve worked on feels new any more. It’s very easy to give way to a sense of despair and, throwing up your hands, cry out ‘it’s all a waste, because nothing I’ve done is actually new or interesting! Surely everybody already knows all of this by now, and I’ll fail for not having contributed anything to knowledge. Therefore, I must now… [return to point 1, above].’ Resist this impulse. Your work feels old to you because you’ve been thinking about it fairly constantly for three or more years; but nobody else has. That’s the point. That’s why your work is yours, and original.
None of these things is easy to realise or tell yourself when you’re within the process (even if you have done it before!), but they’re all true. So if you’re nearing the end of your candidature, next time you get in a panic don’t try and reinvent the wheel, or assume you need three extra chapters, or another six months. Just stop and ask yourself – is it enough? and is it mine? Or if you can’t figure it out for yourself, ask a trusted friend. The answers are probably yes and yes. You’re probably nearly finished.