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PhD journeys at Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health

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Finished is better than perfect!

Emma J Butcher23 August 2018

Authored by Victoria Garfield, a postdoctoral researcher in genetic epidemiology (UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science). Victoria did her PhD in the Department of Behavioural Science & Health and her current research involves using genetic and epidemiological methods to understand the relationship between diabetes and the brain. In her spare time, she likes to swim and work her way around London (and the world!) eating delicious food.  

“A PhD is a bunch of projects that you work on for a few years and then you write them up in one big document.” Truth. That’s what that quote is, the truth. It was said by a good friend of mine with a PhD. A PhD is a collection of related projects that you work on for a few years (usually three to four in the UK), then write up in what is essentially, a book. However, to get to that point, one must endure…drumroll… THE FINAL YEAR. Yikes. I remember in my first and second year, I was completely in awe of final-year PhD students, not to mention the new postdocs. How had they done it?!

Well, the final year is a wee bit different for each of us. Some of the major factors are:

  • How much analysis or data collection is left;
  • How much of your upgrade report you can use in the final thesis;
  • Availability of your supervisor(s) (who are generally extremely busy);
  • When funding ends (and thus, when you’ll need a job so you don’t starve);
  • And crucially, your personal life, including both mental and physical health.

My final year was an overall positive experience, but naturally, I felt overwhelmed at times. I know I’m not alone here, as friends with PhDs confirm having similar feelings. Some of the most important things on your final year to-do list are:

  • Knowing when you’ve done enough data collection and/or analysis to discuss starting to write with your supervisor(s);
  • Having clear timelines for sending chapters to your supervisor(s) (if they agreed to read these before a full draft);
  • Establishing with your supervisor(s) who will read which chapters;
  • Deciding when you will send a full draft to your supervisor(s) (exact date);
  • Choosing good examiners with plenty of time before the planned viva;
  • Agreeing your submission date with your supervisor(s);
  • Knowing when your supervisor(s) are away.

I turned 30 in my final year, which is obviously a big deal, so naturally, I celebrated my birthday with my family on HOLIDAY in Spain – yep, that’s right, in my final year!

 

A VERY important point that deserves its own paragraph is that you MUST plan a break for yourself (no, you do NOT have to spend 24/7 writing and obsessing). We all need breaks. I took a few holidays in my final year and…I STILL GOT MY PHD ON TIME! Given that all PhD students love research, let’s not forget that evidence shows that time away from work (I mean really taking time off, without checking emails), means we feel refreshed and are more productive when we return.

 

Me admiring the amazingness that is Northern Norway (just outside of Tromsø) – also in my final year.

 

Now, I want to briefly come back to the other most important points. Knowing when to stop analysis is often a difficult one. For me, this happened via a Skype call with my supervisor when we almost organically both said, “that’s probably enough analyses now, time to focus on writing”. At this point, I had four studies to write up into results chapters, two of which were quite substantial and two slightly smaller. I emailed my other supervisors to let them know and everyone agreed that I had plenty of work for the thesis. This was in May and my funding was until the end of December, so plenty of time to focus on writing. I had some of my thesis written up already, but did the bulk of writing between June and late September, when I sent a full draft to my supervisors. Then, as I started working full-time as a (impostor!) postdoc, it took a little longer than I wanted to make amendments before sending my supervisors another draft then preparing for submission.

My fiancée and I in Norway – on holiday (no email or thesis!) in my final year (you get the point now, right?!)

 

Another crucial point for me was choosing examiners. I did this with plenty of time before the viva – so had lots of time to complete the paperwork and wait for central UCL to confirm that they approved the examiner choice (which usually takes a few weeks). This then leads me swiftly to…another drumroll…THE VIVA. The viva is a rather surreal experience in mine and others’ opinions. My viva was incredibly positive, but also long (four hours) and I only realised about a week after how exhausted I was. So, I obviously then took two days off to be a couch potato and order pizza in the middle of the day. My examiners were very positive about my thesis and wanted to discuss it at length. It was a professional but friendly atmosphere and I was appreciative that two esteemed academics had taken the time to read my research in depth. I passed with minor corrections (you get three months to do these) and although it can feel difficult to go back to your thesis and do the corrections, you know then that you have done it. YOU HAVE PRETTY MUCH GOT YOUR PHD. Now, go and celebrate, AGAIN (you will celebrate as soon as you finish your viva, obviously). My final recommendation is to have a mock viva – I had one with one of my PhD mentors (a mid-career researcher) and the head of our group, which I found invaluable.

Viva present I got from two amazing UCL friends – although you may not get a Garfield toy that says Dr Garfield on his badge (unless your surname is also Garfield), at least one person you know will get you something that says ‘Dr’ on it, so get that #PhDone!