Your final PhD year: moving towards submission

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

  1. Analyse data as early as possible, don’t leave it until you have to write about it
  2. Present and discuss your work early, get feedback
  3. Decide on your strongest material
  4. Decide what not to pursue
  5. Have a rough thesis structure in mind; focus on gathering what you need
  6. Set a date to stop gathering new material/ data
  7. Set a submission date if you don’t already have one
  8. When you write, try to finish each section so that it looks submissible
  9. 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.

The risk…

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!



10 thoughts on “Your final PhD year: moving towards submission”

  1. Thank you very much for your post. I am 5 to 6 weeks ahead submission and I still have plenty of doubts. I think I haven’t reached yet the tipping point, I hope I’m close. What I’ve enjoyed the most in your article is the relationship between decisions and uncetainty. I use to feel a complete incompetent, as I still have to analyze some data, I’ve an argument, but not so strong, and the more I read the more the whole thesis seems to me a *shit. But probably it’s just normal, isn’t it?

    • With 5-6 weeks left, you must start finishing those chapters. Get one chapter done, then the next, then the next. Don’t try to work on them all at the same time. Be decisive and then move on!

      Whether it’s normal or not, you don’t have time to worry about whether it’s shit. Let the examiners decide that, but at least make sure you submit on time as its the only thing in your control.

  2. Thanks for the further insightful tips James. They will certainly help in my future PhD work.

    I’m yet to embark on my PhD as I’m at the early stage of applying for a studentship, when I manage to finally painstakingly decide what area interests me the most from a few areas of interest.

    Any funding tips or on the front of deciding what area to finally focus on as a thesis?

    • funding will depend on what is available- it’s best to speak to people at the universities you are applying to. As for finding a subject area or topic, there’s a chapter in the book on exactly that (going into more detail than I can here). If you read that first then I can answer any questions if anything is unclear.

  3. Hi James,

    Thanks so much for the article. I am in my fourth year and I already published paper at a good conference. I want to submit my thesis as my scholarship is ending and I have other commitments. But it seems like my supervisor wants me to publish journals from my work. However, it would cost more months and at the same time it will be difficult to manage financial aspects. What is your advice for me ? Have you heard similar stories ?

    • It’s usually good to have a couple of publications before you defend, but not always essential.

      If the research is done and you’ve already written it up in your thesis, it shouldn’t take too long to convert into a journal format for submission, but the peer-review process can take a long time. Perhaps the best compromise is to submit to journals and then submit your thesis while the peer-review process is ongoing.

  4. Great article James.

    I’m due to submit my PhD thesis in 4 months’ time. Thankfully (or rather mercifully), I reached my tipping point late last year, and it’s been relatively smooth journal down the Y-axis of uncertainty. I’m actually enjoying the final write-up stage – bringing something to completion after so many years, and having confidence that I’ve made a worthwhile contribution to my field.

    Keep up the great work here.

  5. Hi James. Thanks for helping me form a clear mental image – the tipping point.

    I was wondering if you had any thoughts or advice on the sandwich PhD – when you publish articles as you go along and then wrap them up into a PhD with a kappa text. I’m struggling to get my head straight on the pro’s and con’s of how often/early to publish and the best strategy in this case. It’s obviously good practice to have to analyse, write and publish and, of course, it’s good to get feedback from the community. However, I’m a bit worried about having so many small peaks (tipping points for each publication) that the height of the peak isn’t tall enough – i.e. I don’t dig into anything enough. How can I get the best out of this approach?

    • Early in the PhD, it’s harder to get published because you have less experience and knowledge in the field- you don’t yet know what the standard is. That doesn’t mean you can’t publish, but you’ll need some guidance from your supervisor.

      Basically you need to be able to asses the quality of the work relative to what is being published in the field. There is no hard rule with regards to how early or often to publish, but you think you have some good results, then publish!

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