The Sprint Towards the Finish Line

The last few entries in this series have been about how difficult graduate school is. The recent piece by 

“But with all of this attention paid to the “being miserable” part of grad school experience, we stopped talking about the things we need to talk about more. So here goes. Grad students, you are extremely worthy and accomplished. Getting into grad school demands hard work, dedication, stubbornness, and sheer skill. You’re here because someone saw something in you, and decided to help you nurture it. You may not know what this someone saw in you; this someone may not know it either. But it’s here. Your mental health matters.”

This week’s advice is about the hardest part of graduate school, the final sprint. In the American PhD, the last year, and especially, the last few months, are by far the hardest*. So here are some tips/things to think about to get through:

  1. The main thing is keeping “the main thing” the MAIN thing. This is catchy and easy to remember. It is also a nice way to say, “stop procrastinating”. Do you really think that alphabetizing your students’ test scores is a good use of your time? Or writing four different versions of that quiz for your students? I hate to tell you this, but you’re avoiding writing/finishing your dissertation. Those things seem important, but that’s because you are blinded by your need to do anything except the main thing. Keep that main thing the main thing.
  2. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be finished. This is the biggest misconception, as graduate students tend to be perfectionists.  The belief is that the submitted thesis/dissertation is the height of perfection. NO. Perfect is for Michaelangelo and the Sistene Chapel (and x-rays tell us a lot about the layers underneath the final paintings of a lot of masters). What the thesis/dissertation needs to be is finished. Stop spending your time crafting perfect sentences and perfect figures. Make sure they are good enough, and then move on. As much as you think it’s critical to make sure that last little bit of the figure looks so perfect your advisor will cry, that extra time you are spending is actually procrastinating.
  3. Communicate with your committee as much as they are willing. Yes, they are super busy with important jobs. Spoiler alert: one of those jobs is helping you finish. The last thing you want when you walk into your defense is a surprise. SURPRISE that one of your committee members doesn’t like any of your analyses. SURPRISE that another one thinks the entire dissertation needs to be rewritten. SURPRISE that one of your committee members is going to grill you during your defense. Each of these are real situations that people I know have experienced.  Each of these likely could have been alleviated by talking to their committee members ahead of time. Make sure you and your advisors are all on the same page, and address any concerns they have with your dissertation BEFORE you are in the room.
  4. Just keep swimming. I must have said this a million times towards the end. Yes, it’s a saying from Finding Nemo (an excellent movie for any biologist) and yes, it’s a kids movie (my previous statement stands). But it really does help; you just have to keep your head down and keep going. It’s tiring and exhausting but you’ll get there!
  5. Support each other. This one seems obvious, but it’s worth saying. This may be the final sprint, but remember you wouldn’t have gotten here without support, and you’re unlikely to finish without it. Make dinner for someone who’s close to the end, or take care of laundry, or be a shoulder to lean on. And when you’re close, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Team effort all the way.

So good luck, and remember, it gets better. No, but seriously, after you finish tipping the celebratory drink and sleep a lot (this was the best part  -. I left my “congratulations you finished” party early so I could sleep soundly for the first time in months), the “post PhD” life is way better than the “pre PhD” life. It really does get better!

*One of the interesting thing about living abroad is noticing the difference between earning a PhD in America and earning one in Europe.  I’ve recently talked my colleague here to describe the difference, and here I’m explicitly talking about the end of the American PhD (the European one has a different and more drawn out ending).