Sunday, 10 March 2013

Thinking about the end game: the last year of the PhD

At its heart, the key to success for many PhD students is their relationship with their supervisor or supervisors, which is of course a human relationship, just like any other.  Also like any other relationship, this one can have its ups and downs, and navigating these at key times, like the final stages of the PhD, is hugely important.  This is just one of the things which have to be managed just right to make sure the best thesis is submitted, on time, and with the least stress possible.

The relationship between a PhD student and their supervisor (or supervisors) goes through a number of phases over the course of the years during which they work closely together. At the start, the classical and stereotypical master-apprentice relationship probably applies to a significant extent, as the new student needs guidance and advice to get them started on their chosen thesis topic.  During this phase, they are settling down and starting to think about how to tackle their project, and learning about the relevant background and methods, and their supervisors’ experience and advice are hugely important.

Then, as confidence grows and the student becomes more comfortable about their work, the student does and indeed should ‘wean’ off the supervisor, taking more independent ownership of their work and being less dependent on their supervisor(s) on as frequent a basis for pointers and questions.  Indeed, one of the key objectives of the viva will be for the examiners to determine that the student had exactly this ownership of their work, and wasn’t merely following the explicit directions of their supervisor(s) throughout the work, but rather bringing their own ideas and independent creative thinking to how to manage the project.

Of course, it is critical for success that the student and supervisor do not become too distant at this stage, and finding the right balance between ‘keeping in touch’ and ‘drifting apart’ is a key element of a successful student-supervisor relationship (and perhaps many more human relationships besides!).

However, if we define Phase 1 of the PhD as the ‘high-dependence stage’ and Phase 2 as the mid-stream phase where the bulk of the research is probably conducted, Phase 3 will inevitably dawn for all PhD students, where the thesis starts to loom into view like the dim light at the end of the tunnel, and gradually the student finds themselves re-engaging more and more with their supervisor(s), through planning the thesis, reviewing drafts, receiving feedback and perhaps discussing plans and activities around publication and dissemination.

Critically, this phase is very different from Phase 1, and the balance of power has shifted subtly but very significantly; the student is no longer the callow neophyte to research, but is embedded in their topic and probably knows far more about the detail than their erstwhile supervisor(s).  Master and apprentice have become more like peers and collaborators.

Nonetheless, managing this phase is a key element of successful completion of the thesis, and it has sometimes been this stage where the most significant problems for students are encountered.  To avoid this, ground-rules need to be established, such as the ideal way of submitting material for review (lots of small chunks or one or a small number of major chunks, up to a draft of the whole thesis?), reasonable expectations for time to return comments, the nature of such feedback (tracked changes on a document or red pen scrawls?), and overall timing (why do so many university submission dates for theses follow so closely after summer holidays?).

There are a number of key steps that can be taken to make this as painless as possible, including advance planning (many students find that tools like GANNT charts come in very handy for scheduling this phase in detail), open and early discussion with supervisors (to avoid the occasional scenario of stalking students lurking in car parks to ambush their supervisors and demand feedback), and of course not leaving the writing up of the work until the last stages, which will inevitably be much more time-pressed than expected or wished.
Tools for tackling this stage will be the subject of a number of future posts on this blog.

Useful resources
A nice article on how to create a GANNT chart can be found at:
and a practical guide to creating one in Microsoft Excel can be seen at:

PhD skill: time management is a key transferable skill which employers will expect from PhD graduates, and a perfect opportunity to hone such skills is in planning and structuring the completion of the thesis itself.  Learn about GANNT charts and how they could help you.

Alan Kelly


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