Perspectives for the Final Year of a PhD: Emily Morra (ESR 6)

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over two and a half years since the start of the BioImplant program. Between moving to Belfast in July 2019, getting into my research, moving to Galway to carry out my industry secondment, and doing all this through a global pandemic, the time has flown by. And now, somehow, I find myself facing down the final stretch of my PhD. The end goal has never been clearer and by the end of this year I hope to have completed my degree. Given the timing, I thought this blog post would be a good opportunity to share some of the things I will keep in mind in the months ahead, with the hope that they could also be useful to other ESRs in the same position.

6 ways to stay on track and get ahead in the final stretch to the finish (and whatever comes next):

1. Refresh yourself on your timeline

By this point I know we’ve all probably seen and made more Gantt charts than we care to think about, but taking some time to start fresh and reexamine everything in a calendar can really help you get a clear view of the timeline needed to finish. It can also be a good exercise to work backwards from your desired graduation date and figure out when various milestones need to occur. Examples of these include transitioning from lab work into thesis write-up, the timing of initial thesis submission, organizing your dissertation, and making any corrections to your final submission relative to the graduation deadline. It’s also a good opportunity to be reminded of funding end dates, changes in university fees, or other requirements for submission. Although all of this may seem daunting when laid out on a page, keeping it in mind can help avoid unpleasant surprises later on.

2. Break down your remaining work

Whether it be lab work, paper writing, or thesis writing, everything is more manageable when broken into smaller sections and tasks. This strategy helps avoid falling into the trap of procrastination and ending up stressed with a task which feels insurmountable. Creating small artificial deadlines for yourself also can be a good strategy for staying on track and even getting ahead. Setting aside a little time every day to work on a task can make an immense difference over time.

3. Start preparing to find your next opportunity

Speaking of setting aside a little time, now is also a good time to do some thinking about what comes next. Do you see yourself transitioning to industry, remaining in academia, or doing something else entirely? Update your CV and have a template cover letter on hand. Tailor each of these to what is expected for an industry candidate versus an academic candidate. If you have an idea of where you want to work, start seeing if there are any ways to make yourself visible. Set job alerts on hiring websites to be notified if something interesting becomes available and refresh your job interview skills. Wherever you envision yourself ending up, some early prep work is always helpful to be ready should an opportunity arise during the year.

4. Avoid perfectionism, the comparison trap, and keep it all in perspective

Sometimes it can become too easy to get caught up in the tiny details and spend time striving to meet self-imposed standards which are unrealistically high and impossible to achieve. This can lead to decreased motivation, difficulty completing tasks, and further procrastination. Instead try to trust that your project is evolving and growing over time, that feedback is a valuable source of insight rather than criticism, and that getting words down on the page, no matter how imperfect, are better than no words at all.

Another phenomenon which can lead to unproductivity and stress is the comparison of yourself and your project to others. It’s important to remember that no two situations are the same, and while a little competition can be healthy, ultimately the only person that matters in your journey to get your degree is yourself. Getting a PhD is an accomplishment you should be proud of and there is no one correct way or timeline to do it in. And ultimately, even though it may not feel like it now, a PhD is an exercise in becoming a better researcher and merely a starting step to your career.

5. Take breaks and look after yourself

Don’t let the pressure of a timeline detract from the importance of looking after your mental and physical health. It’s important to be aware of your physical needs and take breaks every so often; not doing so can culminate in a burnout at the time when you need to be most productive. Listen to your body, know how you need to work to maintain focus and productivity, and don’t feel guilty taking time for yourself (a common symptom of the comparison trap!). Even a short break away from your desk can be greatly beneficial in helping you recharge and clear your mind. Get outside when the weather is nice; some fresh air and vitamin D can also have a transformative effect, and PhD students generally tend to be lacking in these anyway. Another important aspect of taking care of yourself is to try to be regularly active in a way which is sustainable for you while also balancing work. Making the time to move your body has numerous benefits both physical and mental. Aim to supplement this with good food and enough sleep. If you find yourself being unable to switch off from your project when you do take a break, practicing mindfulness or finding some other outlet for winding down could be highly beneficial. Looking after yourself is the ultimate key to success.

6. Talk to others and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it

Doing a PhD can sometimes feel like quite a solitary activity and it’s easy to get immersed in your project and your own head. Socializing with other students and researchers in your school and, and in our case, other ESRs on the project, is a great way to share PhD experiences, get help and advice, improve your research, and maybe even make some friends along the way. It’s also important to maintain a life outside of work and make time for social activities unrelated to your job. Another key part of looking after your mental health is asking for help when you need it, and knowing that no one can do everything by themselves. Be honest with your supervisor if you don’t understand something and remember that you’re surrounded by people who are currently or have already gone through the same thing as you.

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