The most important lesson I learnt from my postdoc career up until now is that there is no best lab nor best mentor…
My heart was pounding out of my chest when I was ready to press the send button to proceed to the initial deposit of my PhD thesis. A long, emotional, tiring, and rewarding journey had come to an end, leaving behind a bittersweet feeling.
Although I started my PhD studies six years ago, it still felt like yesterday. After countless hours of experiments, analysis, presentations, conferences, rejections, laughter, and aha-moments, I was finally ready for the last and most important judgment of my graduate studies; the one of my PhD thesis. The last year was the final stretch, a period with lots of ups and downs not only due to the pandemic, but also because it was my last year as a PhD candidate.
Submitting a PhD thesis under the current circumstances might be even more challenging and stressful. The fear of uncertainty coupled with the decreased amount of tenure positions, strict travel restrictions, online interviews, and a constant worry about the future, might even add more pressure to PhDs submitting their thesis. There is no blueprint or one way for handling situations like these, but I would like to share some main takeaways I learnt from my PhD submission during the COVID-19 pandemic:
Lesson 1: Be patient
I was so eager to submit my thesis that I made this my top priority for almost a whole year. All my actions were unraveling around my initial submission, and what would come next. However, I soon realised that submitting my thesis was only a priority for me; it is not the case for the rest of the world. I was getting frustrated when university administration staff did not respond to my requests immediately and when my supervisor was too silent. I was becoming obsessive with refreshing my emails and I still remember the feeling of disappointment when I had no news.
In an ideal world, I would have finished my PhD three years ago and signed a work contract with my dream company a month before my thesis defense. Then, I would have taken two weeks of much needed holiday, and after that I would start nailing my new job! But nothing is perfect to rephrase the famous idiom!
Looking back, I am overwhelmed with the amount of stress I put myself through for no good reason. I had high expectations of people whose responsibilities cover a huge spectrum and who have to consider numerous requests from many students, that might be even more urgent considering the current situation. I am not suggesting to not take control of your thesis submission and have a well-structured plan (see lesson 2 below). Your PhD thesis is the fruit of your own work and effort, but keep in mind that you cannot control everything.
Lesson 2: Expect delays
Had I known a year ago what I know now, I would have listed four dates for each task leading to the submission of my PhD dissertation: an early start, an early finish, a late start, and late finish. This way I would have been prepared to expect delays and not get devastated when issues were popping up here and there.
Delays could be because of that last experiment you expected to finalize within a week, but because of COVID-19 there was an interruption in shipping of the necessary reagents. Or the form you submitted last week at your university’s administrator might take longer to be processed, now since your email is buried under thousand of other emails. Maybe your colleague with whom you were planning to go through your analysis must stay at home since their child’s school is suddenly closed after several COVID-19 cases.
These are all scenarios that might happen. As long as you have clearly set the tasks you need to complete, write down which can be done in parallel, which are connected, and for which you must wait for the previous task to be finalized, you will be able to count for delays and be better prepared. There are several online project management tools that you could download and use for free. With some colleagues we used Miro which provides a very interactive platform that looks like a virtual whiteboard. An online search about project management tools will provide a lot of results so you can choose what is the best for you and the type of project you want to track.
Lesson 3: Double and triple check paperwork
Like any other important process, a PhD thesis submission is related with a huge amount of paperwork and painful bureaucracy. Now that I have submitted and faced several delays related to missing forms and signatures that I had to obtain ahead of time, I can guarantee that it is never too early to start gathering all necessary paperwork and make sure your personal university student file is up to date.
Another tricky part is to make sure that your thesis follows the strict guidelines your university has set for a PhD thesis structure. Pay attention to the spacing required, the font, the numbering of the chapters since any tiny mistake might cost you from a few days to a couple of weeks.
To make sure I have not forgotten anything, I asked for help from my colleagues who have recently been through the same process to identify key elements that might need further consideration and special attention. A lot of universities also have an alumni network and/or organize online workshops to ensure that students are up to date with any changes in the process of the thesis submission and, as the new norm is, the online thesis defense. Here is a nice article about how to do the latter successfully!
Lesson 4: Set deadlines
While the last lesson is not directly related with the PhD deposit, I have now realised how much I underestimated its importance for a successful and timely thesis submission. Science never ends, and there are always more experiments to do, innovative techniques to try, and new collaborations to form to answer challenging questions. Having clear deadlines, not only about the final PhD submission, but also for all projects you are involved in, and properly communicate your expectations with your supervisor and collaborators will assist you schedule your time and tasks better throughout the whole duration of you graduate studies.
Relevant deadlines can be set as early as the beginning of your PhD program and should be revised every year to ensure that you are on track. More and more universities implement a form of contract between students and supervisors which states expectations from both parties, number of meetings per week/month/year, time off, and any other aspects falling under the umbrella of the PI-student mentorship. Use similar forms to yearly check on your progress and adjust accordingly.
It is a transition period and anxiety levels due to uncertainty and concern about the next steps, can be higher than usual. As an important part of PhD candidates’ lives comes to an end, priorities are shifting, and dreams are reshaping. The navigation of the post-PhD world might be challenging since many of us, especially female PhD candidates, are not ready nor properly informed about several opportunities inside and outside academia. Do not hesitate to ask your family, friends, and partner for support and take care of your physical and mental health.