I was chatting with a friend last week about the last couple of months of her PhD in an interdisciplinary STEM field, and found myself musing on my own philosophy about this unique time period of finishing your PhD story. If you’re somewhere along the way to your PhD, or know someone who is on this path, give this a read and I invite you to discuss – with them, or here.
PhD students and candidates who I met (and myself included) are by nature, curious. Explorations can go on and on without an end in sight. While trying to answer a question I had, I’d often find myself on PubMed clicking through articles and suggested articles and references until the tabs on my browser resembled a stream of tiny ants, marching along. Sometimes, this is exciting.
Other times, this pattern can be a hallmark of fatigue and frustration where the scholar wants to continue exploring, but also wants to move on to a new challenge that may be just far enough away from present pursuits to merit a new chapter, and a new beginning to her career. For some,”knowing thyself” and one’s tendencies is pitted against “to thine own self be true” an inner sense of what is best. Rather than give in to frustration of this dichotomy, of a strong work ethic and curiosity with listening to a stirring of something new on the horizon, here are a few considerations that have helped me to come to terms with finishing the PhD story.
Thought: What story should I tell?
A thesis is a story. It is one rendition of a complete work.
Think of the last time you read magazine or news article, or listened to an effective presentation or podcast on an unfamiliar topic. Envision how the authors may have planned to tell their story: the first rendition was probably not the final product. You may have started out thinking that your research would look one way, and find that story doesn’t work as well anymore. That’s fine.
Here’s a metaphor:
Think of a trip or vacation you took, or a major life event. Imagine yourself sharing this account to different audiences: a friend you know well, someone at the gym, your grandmother, your advisor, a colleague – and then, imagine how you would tell it in different settings: at Thanksgiving, at a networking event, in your living room, at the work water cooler, or in an elevator. Your story may vary by length and also in details. You may choose to leave out a funny anecdote, exclude certain characters, or include the details of a particularly memorable meal or sight you saw.
Go from what stories CAN I tell and narrow it down to what story from your PhD that you most WANT to tell.
Along the same lines, your research also tells a story of an academic “trip” you took or are taking now. There may be many experiments, or lines of thought and analysis that you could include. But, the story that ends up in your final PhD dissertation and presentation does not have to include everything. It has to make sense and be backed by thoughtful consideration as to why you (under advisement) chose to include various “details” along the way.
Additionally, telling your story to the types of varied audiences mentioned above may help you decide when your story is complete enough to head towards the finish line with a cohesive story.
Thought: I haven’t done enough.
Is this what you truly believe? Frequent check-ins to reevaluate progress are key.
If your advisors and committee are on board and think you have done enough, give yourself permission to go towards the goal of finishing.
Thought: I don’t know what is coming next.
This can for sure be a stressful place to be. But, that is temporary. If you tend to worry about the future more than most, do what you can now to explore your skills and interests and keep a running list of opportunities or ideas that you can refer back to when the time is right. Your interests can change over the course of a PhD, as you do, but it is insightful to look back on it and see if you can make new connections and generate fresh ideas for next steps.
You are enough, you have been trained, and you are resourceful. Also, you’re not alone!
Looking for more about PhD life? Check out these posts:
Until next time,