By Sophie Balmer, PhD
2016 is already knocking at the door and with it comes new resolutions. If one of yours is to defend your PhD in 2016, then you are reaching your goal and that is great! But do you know the various challenges you will face during the process?
I started planning the end of my PhD roughly a year before I defended. I needed to know exactly how things would go and I had a whole plan for it. However, as for the rest of my PhD, not everything went according to the plan… On the other hand, it taught me very valuable lessons that could be useful to others. Here are 10 short advices to help you succeed!
Know what you need to prepare for the submission of your thesis
The first thing to do is to read and understand the guidelines established by your graduate school. Research which paperwork you have to fill in, how many signatures you will need and most importantly the deadlines to respect. It is always better to prepare everything in advance instead of running from one office to the other on the last day before submission.
To write your thesis, inform yourself on the format required and try to get an idea of approximately how many pages each section is. It is also useful to know if you have to include everything you have done or if should you just include your published work. And if you are still confused, ask your advisor for the thesis of his/her previous graduate student and read them. You will find all the information you might need there.
Schedule your thesis defense as soon as possible
Some graduate schools will ask you to have one last committee meeting to get the authorization of your committee members to defend. From there, you will have several months to focus your energy on preparing for the D-day.
Plan everything in advance
Got the date? Great, it allows you to plan these few months accordingly. You should set aside a significant amount of time to write your thesis, including the time needed to get corrections from your peers or advisors. The best would be to plan on finishing everything about 1-2 weeks before the deadline dictated by your graduate school. These weeks will be very useful if you need to finish figures, make a few last-minute corrections or read everything one last time.
Don’t be too ambitious!
One thing about planning ahead is that sometimes we tend to overbook ourselves. Be realistic, start with small goals and then the bulk of your writing time can be more intense. Also, if you know you do not work well in the morning or at night, plan something easier for those hours. Moreover, I would advocate for days off where you really take some time to think about other things and do something not related to your work. You will come back refreshed and less frustrated of spending all day writing.
Improve your efficiency
There are many ways to improve efficiency. From taking a nap in the middle of the day to going for a short walk, it is clear that taking breaks is really important to be efficient. In the world of technologies, there are now apps to help our effectiveness. I was recently advised to use the “pomodoro technique”: focus for 25 minutes on one task only and take a 5-minutes break. Then repeat this cycle 3 times and take a 15-minutes break. As always, there is an app for that! At first, 25 minutes feels quite short but the more cycles you accomplish, you start realizing that it is a great way to concentrate on each task. I had achieved so much by the end of the day that it is now part of my routine. The key is to do absolutely nothing else during these 25 minutes. Your friend’s messages can probably wait until your timer goes off!
Get other people’s opinion on your work!
Do not forget to give your thesis to read to other people to get their advices on how to improve your thesis, especially your advisor (who should read it entirely if possible). However, make sure you give your reviewers enough time to go through everything you gave them. It is better to give different parts of your thesis to several people to split the work among them and then to your advisor at the end, who will also have less work to do.
Don’t wait until the last minute!
Once your thesis is submitted, start preparing your thesis presentation in advance and allow others to look at it or rehearse with them! It seems scary and some of us do not like to hear criticisms but other people will ultimately see your defense presentation on the D-day so better to be prepared. Maybe you could ask your colleagues and then have someone that doesn’t know your work (or at least not in details) look at it with you, they will spot all the information that is missing for a broader audience.
Stick to your plan!
You spent some time planning the end of your PhD for a reason. Do not delay everything to finish that last experiment because research projects truly never end…
Think ahead of your next move!
Transitioning to your next career step is not easy, so start exploring early the various post-docs opportunities in academia or industry as well as other career paths. There are many for PhDs and if you doubt it, there are several articles on this blog that can help ease the transition from your PhD laboratory to your next venture.
One last thing…
Enjoy it as much as you can! I know it sounds silly, but once you get started, your brain will generate tons of ideas, this is the time you can take to reflect on everything you have done and what the next steps would be if you were to continue on this project! And despite the amount of stress it generated, this is by far the most fun I have had during my PhD!