Sometimes you can’t write anymore because you are finished. Really, that last chapter is never going to be part of your thesis.
Mid-summer is high thesis completion time here in Australia. It’s the summer holidays, so most people aren’t teaching, there are few meetings, it’s quiet in the lab. There is often a push to be ‘home by Christmas’ (as one friend said to me ‘this war has to be over’). Sometimes it doesn’t quite happen by the end of the year, but a few more weeks after a ‘critical distance break‘ (or an actual Christmas – New Year holiday) is all they need. So I’ve been seeing a lot of people who are very nearly, nearly nearly done.
When you are very nearly, nearly nearly done, there is often one final chapter that you think you really need to include. Sometimes it’s another case study to be comprehensive. Sometimes it’s a foundational chapter. Sometimes it’s a chapter about the next steps that are the really original work that the research allows.
(This is more common in students who are 4 or more years into a candidature, because the project has grown or changed more across the years and supervisors and scholarship, but I’ve seen it across cohorts).
You’ve already got about 75k of shitty first draft words, and you’re tired, but if you could just write this chapter, you could be done. The problem is, you just can’t seem to produce more words, or to unite the fragments and notes into something coherent.
Being a sensible candidate, you come and see me. And I’ll say something that will blow your mind.You will look at me with disbelief and something like shell shock. You’ll probably argue with me, and tell me I’m wrong. You might cry.
Hmmm, I’ll say. I don’t think this chapter belongs in your thesis. I think you are done. It’s time to stop writing.
Of course, there’s a lot of time in your doctoral journey when it is definitely not yet time to stop writing… so how do you know when that time comes?
1. Your supervisor says, ‘You’re about done’.
When you tell them about this extra information that needs to be included, they say that’s only a few paragraphs worth of words.
It’s amazing how many times that I’ve said ‘You’re finished’, we’ve had a long and emotional argument, and then the candidate admits that their supervisor agrees with me. After a while, experienced supervisors get a good sense for what is ‘enough’. You can often trust their judgement, but do get a second opinion. If both agree, then you are done.
2. Are you at 80%?
One your thesis has 80% of the total word count, you need to stop doing generative writing. The rest of the word count will be produced in iterative editing phases. Trying to reach total completeness is a signal of perfectionism, and getting in the way of being complete (‘perfect is the enemy of done’, remember).
Also remember that 80% is excellent, original and scholarly. That’s all you need for your thesis.
3. You’ve forgotten what a doctoral thesis is.
A doctoral thesis is about 80,000 words (or your discipline’s equivalent) of academic writing that describes a research project that should take about 3 years and can be carried out by someone just starting out as a researcher.
Up to 1/3 should be demonstrating knowledge of the field and its methods (engaging with other scholars and research, through literature review, methodology, theoretical foundational research etc), up to 1/3 should be evidence of extensive research (in the lab, archive, library, or field), 1/6 is signposting and structural stuff (like introductions and conclusions) and about 1/6 is original scholarship.
What’s more, there’s no point doing more, it’s a pass/fail thing.
4. You could do so much better now.
I should hope so! Of course you are able to do better work now–that’s the sign that your doctoral apprenticeship is complete, and you are ready to become an independent researcher and an academic peer. Hurrah!
See 3 above for why this doesn’t mean you need to rewrite the whole thesis.
5. You are confusing your doctoral journey with your thesis.
You may have needed to go back and do a huge amount of research to get your head around ‘what is benevolence?’ or ‘how does Foucault see the body?’ or ‘is NVivo the best way to analyse my interviews?’ You might have taken tens of thousands of words of notes. You may have spent a month or two on it. That doesn’t mean it needs to go into your thesis as a chapter. Often it requires less than a page of write up. Sometimes it just needs a sentence or two to define or explain.
6. Your gut says you’re done.
Your head might not have caught up with the realities yet, because it’s over thinking things and got used to ‘must produce more words’… but your gut knows. Your instincts are telling you to stop, and you are feeling trapped and unable to keep writing because you know (recognise, kennen auf Deutsch) it’s time to stop, but don’t yet know (learning in your head, wissen auf Deutsch) that it’s time to stop.
If you are less than 6 months away from submission, you think you need ‘just one more chapter’, but can’t seem to produce it, use this checklist. Maybe you are done with producing words. If that’s where you are, it’s time to move on to editing.
But first, take a holiday, celebrate your achievement, and start to imagine your life after the thesis.