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In pursuit of the elusive doctorate: Managing the last half-mile and getting home

Frustration and confusion can dominate the doctoral writing experience, and never more so than during the last half-mile.

Dave Morris David Cudworth, De Montfort University

This blog is part of the series ‘From Zero to Hero: Anecdotal Tales in Pursuit of the Elusive Doctorate’. Click on the links to read part 1 (the introduction), part 2 (‘Having a critical friend’), part 3 (‘Adopting a MasterChef approach to studies’), part 4 (‘Having a handle on time, sacrifice and resilience’), and part 5 (‘Having a secure and safe place to conduct the fieldwork: Further anecdotal tales in pursuit of the elusive doctorate’.


This blog considers the challenges faced during the closing stages of completing a PhD, when the whole thesis finally falls into place. This ‘last half-mile’ is widely regarded as perhaps the most demanding part of doing a doctorate (Aitchison, 2015; Bloomberg & Volpe, 2019; Sverdlik, Hall, McAlpine, & Hubbard, 2018) and knowing that it is should provide some comfort – because at this point, Dave and I were tearing our hair out and we were both sick of looking at yet another draft while still wondering how we were going to bring it all together.

In the closing stages, Dave and I found that it was useful to step back and review what had changed in our fields since we started our doctorates. This might include, for example, the impact of any changes in government, the publication of any new or revised policy documents, as well as scouring for and slotting in the most recent research. This should be seen as further cementing your authority and contribution to knowledge, and should be distinguished from any new writing (which should be avoided at this stage) (Aitchison, 2015).

At this point, in order to help tie up the thesis, it is useful to write a brief synopsis of each chapter in order to guide and structure the simultaneous writing of both the introduction and conclusion, which can only become viable at this stage (Thomas, 2014) and is essential to achieving cohesion. Careful consideration of the conclusion should also include revisiting the aims of your research, identifying the contributions it makes to knowledge and recognising its limitations, as well as signposting future post-doctoral work.

Beyond responding to final supervisor feedback, there’s still a lot to do – tweaking, checking, cross-referencing, revisiting arguments and proof-reading – all of which can be stressful (Aitchison, 2015; Koprowski, 2016). One thing that Dave found useful was a workshop on ‘structuring your thesis’, where he was given a diagram that showed mapping between chapters. Another worthwhile check I employed was using the find-and-replace function in the word processor to identify any overkill of certain words or phrases – I was appalled to discover that I had used the word ‘important’ over a thousand times! Also, a search for ‘?’ marks should only reveal those that follow your research questions – otherwise your writing may be overly rhetorical.

‘Although there is a lot of tinkering and tweaking to do, it is important to know when to stop, and to have the confidence to recognise and communicate this your supervisor.’

Frustration and confusion can dominate the doctoral writing experience (Sverdlik, Hall, McAlpine, & Hubbard, 2018), and never more so than during the last half-mile (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2018). Some strategies we found useful were reading our work aloud and proof-reading separately for specific issues – and, as long as you’re sure to recycle, don’t underestimate the power of hard copy even in this day and age, as it allows you to annotate and engage with each page. Although there is a lot of tinkering and tweaking to do, it is important to know when to stop, and Dave and I found that we needed the confidence to recognise and communicate this to our supervisors once we felt we were done.

Logistics and practicalities aside, there are, however, some deeper emotional, physical and psychological hurdles to overcome during the last half-mile to the extent that:

‘There should be a warning to family and friends about what happens in the final stages of the PhD and it should read something like this: WARNING: Do not try to communicate or interfere with this person. Advance at your peril. If possible, for your safety, STAY AWAY’. (Aitchison, 2015)

This maybe a melodramatic way of putting it, and although Dave and I both recognise only too well the wisdom and pathos here, there is a need to emphasise the need to celebrate what is being achieved: yes it is hard, but in whatever way is seen to be fit, celebration is in order. Even if it celebrates endurance alone, that is a massive achievement.

This is the last blog in our series ‘In Pursuit of the Elusive Doctorate’, and details of our previous posts can be found above. However, these leave out perhaps the most crucial stage in getting a doctorate – the viva. Although never planned, and with everything hanging on this, we hope that the editors at the BERA Blog will permit us to provide an epilogue to this series.


References

Aitchison, C. (2015, June 18). Finishing the PhD – or What happens to otherwise normal people in the last few months of the PhD? [blog post]. Retrieved from https://doctoralwriting.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/finishing-the-phd-or-what-happens-to-otherwise-normal-people-in-the-last-few-months-of-the-phd/

Bloomberg, L. D. & Volpe, M. (2019). Completing Your Qualitative Dissertation: A Road Map From Beginning to End (4th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Koprowski, E. (2016, March 7). Six Tips for Finishing Your PhD Thesis [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.phdstudies.com/article/Six-Tips-for-Finishing-Your-PhD-Thesis/

Sverdlik, A., Hall, N. C., McAlpine, L., & Hubbard, K. (2018). The PhD Experience: A Review of the Factors Influencing Doctoral Students’ Completion, Achievement, and Well-Being. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 13, 361–388.

Thomas, K. (2014, August 27). Finishing your PhD thesis: 15 top tips from those in the know. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/aug/27/finishing-phd-thesis-top-tips-experts-advice