Transitioning into the last leg of your PhD journey

Pranav S. Kulkarni
16 nov ’23

If you are a final year PhD candidate like me, this blog is for you. One of the most interesting phases of your PhD life is transitioning into the last phase. This phase is a rollercoaster of deadlines, opportunities, future career and administrative bureaucracy all rolled into one. To prepare for this ride, here are a few key points to remember:

1. Compiling your papers into a PhD thesis

Your PhD thesis is the report of all your remarkable work over the span of four or five years and it needs to be remarkable too. I feel that preparations for the final thesis book should start as soon as you are working on your last study/ paper. You can think of rewriting and editing manuscripts to make them into chapters as well as deciding on the font, format and the general appearance of the thesis. In some cases, you might want to rearrange the chapters to make the story of your thesis coherent. Compiling your papers earlier also aids you in writing the general introduction and discussion of your thesis.

2. Strategize your first and last chapters

The first and the last chapters of your thesis book represent the general introduction and the overall discussion of your PhD project. Both these chapters offer an overarching theme that binds all your PhD work into a coherent story. Because you have worked in the weeds of each of your papers, you might lose the perspective to think of the broader message of your thesis. In the final phase, you have to sit back and think deeply about this and come up with an overarching narrative that is vital to your project.

3. Strategize the implications of your thesis

This is a good time to focus on what your PhD has actually contributed to the field and how it will facilitate further research. Think of what your work signifies in academia, in society and even globally. This strategizing not only helps you convey your message but also makes you a well-developed researcher with a solid perspective. Consequently, it will help you choose a direction for your future career.

4. Prepare to delimit your work

One of the hardest parts of PhD research is knowing when to stop. You need to be clear on what is feasible before you are ready to submit your thesis for approval. This will clarify when you have done enough to warrant a PhD degree. Prepare to finish your research work by focusing on what you have done so far and what is still in scope of being done and also by having deep conversations with your supervisors and the promoter. You might also get a chance to use some of the ideas that you did not get a chance to tackle in your next job.

5. Go through the checklist

Most Dutch universities have a checklist for formalizing a PhD thesis. This might be a good time to go through it and see what needs to be completed and what is already done. Think of this as an audit of your contract and what you have delivered. You might spot something that would have been too late to change later on. For example, completing credits for academic skills, securing a certificate that you forgot to ask for, etc. You certainly don’t want to face problems formalizing your PhD based on simple technicalities in the last few months.

6. Organize your clutter

By this phase you have worked for several years on various topics. In the final phase, it is important to organize all the documents, raw data and metadata that has been generated. For example, get your data management plan into order, get your backups and files sorted, get your computer code onto repositories, etc. Do what you can to make your work as reproducible as possible. Imagine someone else taking your position after you leave and having to deal with a lot of unorganized work.

7. Prepare for the next career move

It is a no-brainer to realize that now you will be completing the PhD work and will move on to other things. Therefore, it might be worthwhile to dust off your CV and brush up your profile. Think for yourself and also consult with career advisors on what you can do next. You might also want to start looking at job vacancies in academia as well as the private sector. In my own experience, it is a source of relief to know that you will land on your feet once you finish your PhD.

8. Mentoring

It might be interesting to you to let other PhDs know what you are doing to finalize your PhD. Your experience and decisions will facilitate their own PhD journey. If you feel like it, you can mentor junior PhDs on what they can expect in their final phases and how to be ready for it. This not only helps others but also cements your own strategies on how to successfully complete your work.

Based on these tips, I think you set yourself up for a smooth transition into the final leg of your PhD and successfully defending your PhD thesis.

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