9 Tips for a fuss free (i.e. survivable) PhD submission

A friend of mine asked me for some advice about what to do in the lead up to the PhD submission. While I’m sure every experience is different, I think it’s reasonably safe to say that the following points would be useful for a majority of PhD candidates.

  1. Know the administrative requirements for submitting

I’m putting this right at the beginning because it REALLY IS the most important of these tips. Have a look at your University’s submission process and get some idea of how long each step is supposed to take and how far in advance they might need particular pieces of information. For instance, while it might be tempting to deal with all the paperwork once your thesis has been written you don’t want to get to submission day and find out that you needed to nominate your examiners at least two weeks prior to submission! Become aware of the administrative requirements at the university, faculty and school level (if applicable).  Oh, and make sure that you don’t have any outstanding debts with the university.  The Guild fees that you were avoiding could become quite important when you can’t submit until they’ve been paid.

As a part of this, know what you have to do on your submission day.  You’ll be so tired and confused by this point it pays to have a list of instructions written out, even if they say: (1) turn thesis into a PDF; (2) put thesis on USB; (3) get signatures for submission form; (4) take purse (and relevant forms) with you to printers.  After all, if you end up getting to the printers and realise you don’t have your thesis on a USB and your purse is in your supervisors office (who has just gone home for the weekend) you may cry.  (Side note: accept that it’s ok to cry).

  1. Present your research

Presenting your research isn’t (yet) a formal requirement for submitting a thesis at most Australian universities. However, presenting your research to a general audience is a great opportunity to get some idea of the salient points you might put in your abstract and receive feedback from people on issues or strengths of the research. Book your presentation well in advance of your thesis submission date – this will give you an opportunity to make changes based on the comments provided and also give you a sense of accomplishment (TICK! That’s done!) in the miserable period leading up to your submission.

  1. Have a submission plan

While it might not be necessary for everyone to have a specific date that they intend on handing their thesis in by, it will be necessary to map out the process for completing chapters/papers, submitting them to supervisors and dates for expecting feedback.  Even if you don’t like deadlines it’s useful to be able to have some idea about how complete each part of your thesis is and who is responsible for the next stage in its completion. As part of your submission plan decide whether you’ll be submitting a bunch of papers with a brief intro/conclusion, a formal thesis with all traditional chapters, or something in between. Have a think about how each of the chapters fits together, so that you can finish chapter Y after you’ve written chapter X without having to revise section A.

  1. Leave a lot of time for those things you think won’t take any time at all

That includes getting signatures from supervisors, checking the formatting of your referencing and doing the layout for the thesis.  Let’s face it, when the past 4-8 years of your life are hanging in the balance there’s a good chance that your supervisor will suddenly go on sick leave, your EndNote library will disappear and your copy of Word will decide it’s incompatible with Excel. Set up a Dropbox folder for your thesis and give everyone who is important access to it in advance of your ‘special day’. You don’t want to be trying to email a 43MB thesis through the university’s 5MB-limited email the day before it’s due.  Be aware that printing of your thesis will take some time.  Know how many copies are needed, the quality of the binding, who has to receive copies via USB. Find out whether your university has a preferred printer. And use them. I know my university printer is a little bit more expensive, but when I went in the woman knew EXACTLY how a thesis should look and so rejigged my PDF to have wider margins at the bottom and smaller ones at the top.  And while we’re on the subject of cost, find out in advance if your School pays for printing and how this will work. There may be some planning involved.

  1. Have a sanity plan

You’ve probably heard this from almost everyone who has ever submitted a PhD thesis, but the final stages of writing are like a turbo-charged exaggeration of the entire PhD process – you’ll feel stressed, over-worked, confused, lacking in direction and have a serious case of the imposter syndrome.  Make sure you tell people around you what you’re about to go through and what your approach is. If you have serious FOMO tell your friends you’re unplugging for a bit and ask them to give you some space. If you are someone who gets overly stressed and physically fatigued try to make time for exercise in your day. And be reasonable with yourself if your sanity plan falls through. Don’t worry if a small drink turns into a massive night out or if those well-intentioned gym sessions turn into more hours at the computer. My sanity plan included socialising at least once each weekend, however about a month out from submission I was a crying mess on the couch so I just watched Gilmore Girls instead. And that’s ok too.

  1. Have food hidden everywhere (and accept the consequences)

The final weeks of your PhD are a time for deep reflection (panic) and contemplation (stress).  The final weeks of your PhD are not a time to be worried about whether or not you are going to be able to fit into a bikini.  Comfort food is not only acceptable, it may save your life.

  1. Get used to weird dreams

You wouldn’t believe the number of people who told me about their weird dreams and/or insomnia prior to submitting. It was a lot. I normally suffer from weird dreams and/or insomnia, but this was a whole new level. And, consistent with what other people had told me, they didn’t stop after I had submitted my PhD. This is why it’s so important to…

  1. Plan something nice for once you’ve submitted

Whether it’s a party, a holiday or a solid week of crafternoons it’s advisable to take some time off after you’ve submitted.  I had planned to take a three day weekend after submitting (which included a pretty sensational party) and come back to work to finish submitting my papers. I made it back on the Tuesday and then collapsed into a heap on the couch for two days after that, incapable of doing anything besides pressing ‘Enter’ when Netflix came up with the judey-wudgey ‘Are you STILL watching Gilmore Girls’ screen. Give yourself a break, you’ll need it.

  1. Tell people that they’re awesome

You probably only made it through your PhD because you had someone to cook you dinners, or someone to bring you coffees, or someone to do your laundry, or someone to format your work, or someone to proof read, or just someone to tell you that you could do it. Thank them and tell them how amazing they are.

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