Monday, 25 July 2016

The way through my PhD, and how I managed to get to my defense

That moment that I've been working towards for so long, it's finally here! Just over 2 weeks ago, I successfully defended my PhD thesis. I'm only a few minor corrections away from officially being a Dr. - yay! But let's go back and see how I got here. I'll follow up and tell you about the actual defense in the next post, so stay tuned!
After a bunch of applications and preparation, I started my PhD at UBC in Vancouver in September 2011. The anticipated time to do a PhD at UBC is 4 years, but most people that I know have taken a bit more than that, usually 4.5-5 years. Taking into account my 4-months leave last summer, I managed to fall pretty much exactly into that time frame. 

The first couple of years were quite "slow", meaning that I didn't make tons of research progress. This is quite normal, it took some time to get my bearings in a new city and at a new university, I took some classes, my supervisor was on sabbatical for a year, and we spend some time trying to figure out what exactly I would work on. 

Once we had the details of the project narrowed down, I took my "candidacy exam". The main step was to write a proposal for my work, and then have a "mini-defense" in front of my supervisory committee. This exam exists so they can determine whether I would advance from PhD student to PhD candidate - a first stamp of approval that says, "Yes, we think she will be capable of doing the work and successful in her PhD". Around this time, my supervisor and I agreed that I should have at least three publications in order to finish my degree.

The pace picked up a bit in my third year, when we spent quite some time writing my first publication. It was a slower process than I expected, partly because I had only written a publication with my Master's supervisor, and my PhD supervisor and I needed to work out how to align our writing styles, our ways of thinking, etc. It was really good to do this waaaay before I was due to write my actual thesis, I imagine the thesis would have been quite a big effort otherwise.

In my fourth year, I thought I had a plan and was on schedule to finish by summer 2016 without a huge rush. Of course, the way these things go, the plan fell through and I went on leave for an internship, knowing that I would only have two semesters left when getting back to UBC, and still having to do a TON of research, and write up two publications about said research. 

Those last two semesters, the end of my fourth and beginning of my fifth year were a crazy, crazy time. I spent most of my waking hours trying to get the research done as soon as possible, and at least have my second paper accepted, if not published by the time my thesis needed to be submitted. In addition, I had chosen to move to the UK more or less permanently during that time, so I also had to organize my move and all sorts of logistical issues. 

That second paper took its sweet time, but was finally accepted just a couple of weeks before my thesis was due. Because the revisions for this publication had taken so long, there wasn't much time for paper number 3. Within about three weeks in early-mid April of this year, I churned out my last publication, and managed to get it into a submittable state just in time. We submitted the thesis and the paper a day ahead of schedule, set a date for my defense, took care of all the logistics, and the following weeks were amazingly free of worries and work. 

I'll talk more about the actual defense next time, but for now I want to finish with four take-home points, that will hopefully help you, as a PhD or other graduate student, to focus on what's important and stay on schedule. If you're not in grad school and have no intention of every going down that route, then maybe at least with this post you will have gotten a glimpse into my life for the last few months and years, and forgive me for neglecting my blog or friends for a while here and there.
So here's the gist:
  1. Don't worry, if things seem to be progressing quite slowly in the beginning (or almost up to the end). Most people I know did almost all of their really productive work in their last year.
  2. Have clear goals set from the start, and make sure you're on the same page as your supervisor (having 3 publications was the goal in my case). That way it's easy for you to check in on the way and decide when to call it a day.
  3. Have a plan, but be prepared for things to go wrong - because they will. Inevitably.
  4. Try to publish as much as you can on the way, if your university allows it, and use those publications in your thesis. That way you'll have parts of your thesis written way before you're actually thinking about sitting down to write that dissertation.
This last item turned out to be quite important for my defense, as we will see next time...