The relief of the doctorate

It’s done! Finally! I have finished my PhD thesis – or dissertation in the American academic lingo – and have received my doctoral degree. After years of toiling in uncertainty I can finally move on with my life. Up, up, and away!

Relief. Image by Katia Romanova @ Flickr
Image by Katia Romanova @ Flickr.

If you’ve visited my site this spring you might have noticed that I made the thesis available as a pdf already a couple of months ago. But as I have been busy with teaching and other things, I haven’t had the time to stop to reflect and write anything about it. As I just sent off copies to the university library I now have an excuse to bring the topic up.

What makes a doctorate very different from other degrees is that it is kind of a gamble. You invest years of your life, your future career, and possibly also lot of money into a very difficult and uncertain process. While everyone hopes you will graduate successfully, there really are no guarantees. So many things can happen during your studies: changes in your personal life, changes at your university, in your field, and so on.

For example, I ran into quite a lot of trouble after my first year because my supervisors changed. They simply had important changes in their private life which took precedence over other things. I just had really bad luck as both my supervisors left within a relatively short time.

No one was to blame, but the end result for me was a rather chaotic situation. The collaboration between research students and supervisors often depends on the personal chemistry as well as compatibility in academic specialities and interests. My research topic had been quite well suited for my first supervisors. Now, there was the problem that the remaining staff at my relatively small department simply didn’t have that kind of connection to my topic.

In the end, everything did get sorted out. But I went through a whole year which, now in hindsight, seems mostly wasted. I was quite depressed with all the mess and without a clear direction spent an unhealthy amount of time watching bad science fiction TV series and reading philosophy. Some of that philosophy actually ended up in my thesis but I don’t think those 17 seasons of Stargate contributed much!

Because of the trouble along the way, when I finally was informed that I had been awarded my doctorate, the dominant feeling was not one of triumph. Just relief. The weight of the knowledge that I would never have to go through anything like that again was just indescribable.

The final years of the doctorate are also a really weird limbo. Because at that point you have spent so many months and years as a researcher, you feel like a proper academic already. But without that little rubber stamp saying PhD, you are trapped in a truly horrible form of impostor syndrome. So getting the degree also relieves you of that feeling. It’s almost like you’ve been ‘closeted’ without being able to be openly what you are inside.

And not just that. Actually it’s weirder. (I know I am overusing the word weird, but that is exactly what getting a PhD is.) You kind of go from a loser impostor to an expert overnight. After all, that is what PhDs are supposedly about. You produce new knowledge and prove to your peers that you are capable of doing work in the front lines of your field.

Of course, the PhD is usually just the beginning. Although this is slightly less true in a field like design, where many people, like myself, have already had industry careers and teaching experience before doing the doctorate. But the principle is the same as in hard sciences. You need the doctorate in order to build a proper full-time academic career.

From the perspective that all of this has been for the future, even the troubles I had can be turned into an advantage. If my project would have been completely smooth sailing I would not have gained the experience and knowledge on how to deal with unexpected complications. As I am moving to full-time teaching and research, I will most likely be supervising other PhD students at some point. I think my experiences will help me to guide future research students under my supervision.

But all of that can wait. For now I can simply enjoy living without the burden of the thesis for a little while.

Or I could concentrate on something that really matters, like coming up with my evil supervillain name. After all, what’s the point of having a doctorate if you are not going to be an eeeevil doctor. Hmm…

I always wanted to be Doctor Strange, but now I need a new plan because with the upcoming film everyone would think I mean the boring Marvel-Cumberbatch guy and not the creepy DC villain

The chasm between you and the supervisor

All that distance between them

Ever been frustrated at a supervision meeting? Do you feel that they never really read the stuff you send them? Is your supervisor asking questions in the meeting which you have already answered before or in written form? Are you anxious as the precious little time you have with your supervisor is squandered like this? Is there anything you could do to change it?

I’m in a good position to see both sides of the fence. I’m discussing my own PhD project with my supervisors and an advisory group. At the same time I am supervising two MA students in their dissertation/thesis writing.1 So the mechanics behind the frustration is becoming clear. The main issue is the communication breakdown which stems from the asymmetry in the situation which affects on several levels.

Total time

The student devotes most of his time (and often life) to her/his thesis for a long period. The supervisor allocates (is allowed to allocate by the uni) a few hours to this one student every couple of months. For example, I’m allowed to spend 10 hours on each MA thesis.

Thougth resources

The student’s mind is employed full-time on the topic. He eats, breathes, sleeps the topic. This goes so far that usually no-one can stand the student because the thesis topic is all he talks about. The supervisor divides her time between this student, other students, her own research, administrative tasks, lectures, preparing for lectures, evaluating student essays etc.


For the student the dissertation might be the most important thing in life just then. Perhaps almost more important than life. (Just think about how many relationships are ruined by dissertations.) For the supervisor, the student is just another student and the dissertation just another dissertation. Sure, there sometimes are exceptional students and papers, but most of them are routine to the supervisor.

Memory capacity

Because the student is so immersed in the topic she is actually storing most of it in her head. She can think about it, revise it, have detailed discussions about it, at all times. The supervisor probably forgets most things about the topic between the meetings. He probably stores a some kind of general idea, or an outline of it in his head. Therefore the supervisor must remind himself of the topic every time before a meeting.

Time used before a meeting

Usually the supervisor(s) asks for a plan, summary, an outline or something similar before a meeting. The student will spend days or hours doing this. She will evaluate the whole research and then will try to summarise where she currently is at. The supervisor will probably have an hour or two to read this summary and understand the situation.

So often instead of efficient communication, this leads to a communication breakdown. The plan, summary, or the outline is too long for the supervisor to really digest in that hour or two. In the meeting the supervisor will then pose questions that the student has already answered in the summary.

The alternatives?

Is there a solution then? Maybe. Instead of the written situation report, perhaps it would be wiser to communicate with different means.

I’ve personally tried creating pdf-presentations. And it seems to work. The downside is that the presentation is extra work. Usually the summary can be created from the written chapters with copying and pasting. But the presentation is extra work which will not be useful in anything else. But doing the slides is a really really useful exercise in encapsulating the research for oneself. It truly clarifies the topic when one tries to think how to squeeze it into five to ten pages.

Another good way might be using mind maps. They are a nice way of giving a general overview into the research. It is easy to see if there is something crucial missing, or if the topic is threatened by too many sidetracks. Mind maps can be slightly cryptic but they work well as starting points for discussion.

Naturally there is still use for the written reports. Among other things, they prove that the student can express his/her thoughts in prose. And they might help some students suffering from a writer’s block. Forcing oneself to write the report might just help getting through it. I think I’m using this blog in a similar manner. I’m keeping up my writing skills while I’m going through literature and not actually writing my thesis.

The student who cried wolf

I think it is best for the student to try and understand the situation from the supervisor’s perspective. Yes, you are desperate but try to remember that you are not the only thing in your supervisor’s life. Do not call out to your supervisor all the time. Do not swamp them in constant revisions. Try to gauge your problems and contact your supervisor only when it is really necessary. Remember that you’re getting only a limited amount of time from them and it just might run out at some point.

  1. Different countries use these terms differently. For example, master’s paper in the UK is a dissertation and a doctorate paper is a thesis. But in Finland the master’s paper is a thesis and the doctorate paper is a dissertation… So, here i’m going to use them interchangeably. [⇧ back]