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finding an endpoint for your phd – part 2

So you have decided–mind and body–that it is time to finish your PhD but you have to get your advisor onboard.  What to do?  Before I go on, I make the disclaimer that I am not giving out advice on how to trick or bamboozle your advisor into handing a PhD over before you actually deserve it.  First of all, if you haven’t done enough work to have earned a PhD, it will be painfully obvious to both you and your advisor.  And in the off chance you manage to slip one by your advisor, it’ll never fly with your thesis committee–so don’t even try it because it’ll make you look really bad.

With the disclaimer out of the way now, I will say that it is a fact that your advisor will never come up to you and say, “You know, I think it’s time for you to graduate.”  It’ll never happen so the responsibility is left to you to approach your advisor when it is the time, which naturally works out against you because you will think long and hard before getting into that discussion.  In some cases, the thesis committee meetings are helpful because a committee member may throw the idea out there.  However, this isn’t always effective because after the thesis committee meeting ends, it will be back to just you and your advisor, which means that it will be up to you to follow up on the “graduation” discussions.

So it’s always great if you have a “reason” to bring up graduation.  For example, family/spousal reasons/circumstance or funding reasons.  In my case, I had a number of first author publications with some more on the horizon and it was generally accepted by all that I was done except the conversation had never come up, when I received an email from the registrar’s office telling me that either I had to register for clinical rotations or put off going back to the wards for another year.  That was a perfect opportunity for me.

Next, how do you make the approach?  I lucked out in that I had a very shrewd friend who went through this process many years ago.  He said, that the key to this conversation–and again all founded on the assumption that you have, in fact, done enough work to graduate–is to not give any opportunity for your advisor to say no.  The key is that no one likes to start a conflict.  Which is why when you present the idea of graduating, you do it more as a statement than a question.  Resist the urge to ask “what do you think?”  I know you respect your advisor–so do I–and it is natural to ask your advisor’s opinion but asking “what do you think” could be the kiss of death.  If your advisor says, “Well, I think you need another year” or “I’m not really sure about that right now”, then what are you going to do?  Disagree?  Of course not because no one likes to start a conflict.  On the flip side, if you present a compelling case for why you should graduate, then your advisor will be unlikely to disagree.  Why?  You know it by now… 

But how do you make a compelling case for graduating.  This consists of two parts, (1) what you already done and (2) what you will do.  You need to very clearly state what is the body of work you have already finished and contributed to your field.  This should be easy.  The second part requires some planning on your part.  You need to outline what you have left to do in order to wrap up open projects/experiments and show that it is feasible to do so (in addition to some other little things…like your dissertation) within your time frame.  The plan is critical to how this plays out because it shows that you are serious and committed to finishing (i.e. you have actually thought out the logistics).  Having a really good plan also lends a sense of inevitability–like the wheels have already started rolling–to the whole discussion.

Finally, how do you deliver the first strike?  Two choices: face to face or email (the coward’s way out).  After much discussion with many comrades, I think email is actually the best way to drop this bomb because you can take your time to write a very well thought out and eloquent statement in contrast to a face to face meeting where the uncomfortable nature of the conversation could have serious impact on your eloquence or even ability to get everything out.  An email with a request to have a sit down and then it’s all you after that. 

So I take this opportunity to again reiterate that all of the above should be considered only in the situation where you have actually done enough to have earned a PhD–actually, probably more like more than enough work so it is obvious to all parties that you have done enough for a PhD.  Insisting that you have done enough for PhD (remember–you are becoming a “doctor”) when you in fact have not will only make you look like a complete slacker with no understanding or appreciation for what the PhD is all about.

Anyway, I hope this two-part post, based on my experiences and others I have known, has been a little helpful to you all in figuring out how to wrap things up at the end of your PhD.  It is a tricky time and so much of it rides on uncomfortable situations that most graduate students are not used to.  Relax, think it through, and go to it with a rock-solid plan.


One Response to “finding an endpoint for your phd – part 2”

  1. 1

    Huh. This is some great food for thought here – I’m an M.S. student thinking about graduating soon. I’ll come back around to reread this when it’s time to “pop the question”.

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