Ask a Scientist: How it really feels having submitted your thesis
A couple of days ago, I received an email informing me that my manuscript is now in examination. That means the two examiners (who I do not know at this stage) are in possession of my research I have worked really hard on over the last four years.
Do I jump for joy? No. I don’t.
When PhD students are submitting their theses, non-academics or even students who are heading in the same direction but are not quite there yet have a limited sense of comprehension how it must feel like to reach such a significant milestone. They expect people to grin from ear to ear or to party for two weeks straight. But funny enough, this is not what most of us PhD candidates are doing.
Pop culture and social media are portraying the PhD journey rather grim. That people struggle (emotionally and financially), that you do not have a life and that you have become a slave to academia. While there are cases like those, it is not an accurate stereotype. Many of us love their work, had limited roadblocks, were financially secure because of a scholarship and had a good relationship with their supervisors. We did not experience our doctoral journey as lengthy or daunting. And maybe that is why we do not feel this relief when we hand our work over to be rated by other experts in the field (I deliberately wrote ‘other’ here, because by now, whether we realise it or not, we have become experts ourselves. And this can be pretty scary, too).
The examination process is one reason why you are not completely letting go. Other scholars will put your work to the acid test to see how you measure up to other academics in the field. It is not so much about your topic; it is more about how you have executed your research.
Are you a good researcher? (And who likes to be judged, am I right?)
And if you are in the lucky position as I am, you will have a ‘chat’ with those who read your thesis in an oral ‘defence’- if that does not sound like fun! No, seriously, people are telling me it is actually quite fun. Given you know your shit. I know every single step of my research and why I have it done it like this and not any different. But still, being in an examination situation is giving me the creeps. So no, it is far from being over yet.
And still, I do not really feel as happy or as proud as I should. This may have several reasons which involve the outlook of 2020 or my mom being in the hospital, far away in Germany. But mainly, it is because I am grieving a time that is now past me. Developing your own topic has been challenging but, oh boy, so rewarding. Reading all the literature, identifying the gaps and where you can come in, making a profound contribution, getting your hands dirty in the field, meeting and exchanging with people about their experiences and perceptions and eventually making sense out of it…It is all written down now. You have developed your model and gave implications for future management and research.
I loved my topic. And that is why it often did not feel like work. That is why I was able to submit earlier than expected. So I feel lots of gratitude - but grief as well. It is like leaving your toddler for daycare for the first time…
Many of us have dedicated a grant proportion of their lives into their research by making minor or significant sacrifices. A long-term project also means long-term commitment and occupation, and if we are lucky, this is in a field we love and thrive. Understandably, it may then not be easy to let go, which many of my fellow candidates have experienced in a similar way.
So it is time to rethink the stereotypical image of the struggling PhD student who comes to life again once they have submitted their thesis. For many of us, it is the other way round, who feel something went missing.
I am in a fortunate position to have made my hobby my career. I paint a lot at the moment as my body signals me to slow down a bit which will result in rather artistic but related outcomes in the future I am already very excited about. Plus, I do need to publish so whether I like it or not, I will have more to do with my research anyway because as we say: Publish, or it did not happen.
So next time if you are meeting someone who has just handed in their work that has taken up half of a decade to develop, simply say ‘congrats, way to go!’. Because they have just completed a marathon.