The final year of your PhD is all about pushing towards submission of your thesis.
So in order to reach that point, you need to go through a process of consolidating and finalising the various aspects of your work.
Complexity vs time
Throughout the course of your PhD, most of the things you do will create more work. The more data you gather, the more analysis you have to do. The more reading you do, the references you find to read. Every question you answer raises many more, and so the complexity of your research will tend to increase over time.
This is a perfectly natural aspect of research, and it can take you to places you never could have planned for, but it also increases the uncertainty involved as more options present themselves for further research.
If you want to finish your PhD then this upward trend has to stop. At some point, you have to stop gathering data, stop investigating new ideas, and you have to start finishing things.
Aiming for submission
Once you submit your thesis, there is nothing more you can do to change it. You can’t add anything, you can’t take anything away. If you have a brilliant new idea, it’s simply too late to include it.
If we work backwards in time from that point; the day before you submit you only have time to make a few small changes. All the central ideas and conclusions need to be in place.
One week before you submit, you might be editing, and there might be a few sections you want to tweak, or maybe you are wrapping up the conclusion, but nothing fundamental is going to change.
So the general trend is that the closer you get to submission, the smaller the changes become. You are no longer exploring new ideas, but consolidating and finalising what you already have. This means that the uncertainty over what you are going to present has to decrease (until it reaches zero)
The tipping point
So the general trend is for research to become more complex and uncertain over time, but in order to finish you need to reduce the complexity.
Therefore, there must be a tipping-point somewhere. A point where you stop creating new work and put what you have into a submissible form.
This means you have to be decisive about what you are going to include and what you are going to leave out. You need to be absolutely certain what your research questions are, what theories your work relies upon, what kind of analysis you are doing, what your main arguments are, and so on.
Only once you have made those clear decisions can you start the process of finishing. It is about reducing the uncertainty about what you are going to say.
When does the tipping point occur?
The amount of stress in the final months is determined by how close the tipping point is to the submission date.
If you are 2 weeks from submission, and you are uncertain about your analysis, then there is a high degree of uncertainty very late. Since your discussion and conclusions depend upon the analysis, then you won’t be able to commit to anything!
So the earlier you get some certainty about what you want to say and how, the better.
How to apply this practically
- Analyse data as early as possible, don’t leave it until you have to write about it
- Present and discuss your work early, get feedback
- Decide on your strongest material
- Decide what not to pursue
- Have a rough thesis structure in mind; focus on gathering what you need
- Set a date to stop gathering new material/ data
- Set a submission date if you don’t already have one
- When you write, try to finish each section so that it looks submissible
- Stick to what you know best!
How do you know you have enough?
After several years working in the field, you should know what other researchers around the world have done.
Is your work comparable to the average published work in the field? Is it competitive? Does it add something of interest to other academics?
You have to believe it is good enough in order to convince anyone else, and the only way to do this is to look at the published literature.
Submitting a thesis means facing the judgement of the examiners. This can be a terrifying thought, but it’s unavoidable.
I dealt with this fear by telling myself that I didn’t care what the examiners thought, and that if I failed then it wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen and that I would be OK.
Trust in your ability to cope with whatever happens. It will be OK!