Is 2021 the year you finish your thesis?

Look, the true answer is ‘probably not’. I’m not being discouraging here, I’m talking about cold hard maths. Here are 10 reasons why 2021 is unlikely to be the year your thesis gets finished.

  1. All PhD programs officially take multiple years—3 years (Full Time Equivalent) at the shorter end, 7+ years at the longer end.
    If you are currently enrolled in a PhD, more than two thirds of you are not going to be finishing this year. 
  2. If you are studying part time, each FTE year needs to be split across 2 calendar years. So even if you are in your official ‘last year’, you may not be in your ‘last 12 months’.
  3. Full time Equivalent (FTE) does not equal 24/7/365. 40-50 hours a week, and 5-6 days a week is the max you can do productively, even if you are ‘full time’ (and that’s counting everything you do for the thesis, like travel, admin, meetings, emails, not just research work).
    Many education systems include ~4 weeks annual leave and ~2 weeks of sick leave (per annum and pro rata). Even full-time students are expected to take time off each day, time off each week, and time off each year.
    If your project doesn’t have room for sleep, being sick, life admin or refreshment… let alone teaching, commuting or tech issues… your unrealistic project won’t be finished when your plan says it will, and you should expect significant time slippage. 
  4. Nearly everyone gets an extension. Like really everyone.
    I personally only know 4 people who finished in exactly 3 years, it’s so ridiculously rare. I wish I had known this before I finished my PhD—I only found out because my uni was was so surprised I was handing it in exactly on the 3 year mark! I would have liked that information earlier, and I bet you are glad I’m giving it to you!
  5. As Inger Mewburn recently pointed out: “most PhD candidates take around 5 years, not 3.5 years, to finish their degree. In fact: Only about 20% of people finish ‘on time’ at ANU – and our students are not unusually tardy.” (This tracks with my experience in similar roles at other unit.) Taking up to five years is normal, and you are statistically likely to be normal. 
  6. Adjust ‘5 years’ way upwards if you are in an education system that includes significant coursework etc, like in the US or Germany. 
  7. Universities and funding bodies only count ‘enrolment’ as from when you matriculate to when you submit your thesis for examination. (What?!?!!!)
    The time spent doing your proposal is not counted. Once your thesis is submitted to examiners, the clock stops. Waiting for examination, and any revisions, and waiting for graduation is not counted. So the time it takes to get to your hat and be called ‘Dr’ always takes a lot longer than ‘3’ or ‘7’ calendar years.
  8. Also, this shows that what you think of as when you ‘start’ or ‘finish’ your PhD is probably not what is counted by your uni in your enrolment timeline.
    Talk to someone in your uni admin (not just your supervisor), and get them to explain what is and isn’t included. Most people are amazed by what they discover!
  9. Enrolment time does not include any extended leave. Any time on maternity leave, extended sick leave, or other leave of absence is not counted—your enrolment clock is stopped.
    It’s very common to have a few months or semester off at some point in your candidature, so your calendar year and your enrolment years are likely to get further disconnected. 
  10. Coronavirus / Higher Ed in crisis / etc. 2020 was a mess for many people. It’s a new year, but the crises aren’t over yet.
    Lack of access to collections, libraries, labs, or field work probably put you behind last year. Your life probably got consumed pivoting to emergency online teaching, or your kids were doing school at your house, you may have been sick yourself or caring for others. etc etc etc. Expect those disruptions to continue and to make 2021 a difficult year to finish your PhD in. 

I mean, you might be finishing this year! You may be one chapter revision away from submission, or already have a viva date set, or be working through your revisions right now, or waiting for your graduation certificate in the mail. Congratulations! 

All in all, though, it’s less likely that you will be reading this and finishing in 2021. This is not a bad thing, it’s normal and expected and means you are exactly where you need to be to be making progress! Keep it up, and don’t waste any energy on pointless guilt about a deadline you aren’t expected to be meeting yet. (Feel free to send this post to your mum/partner/other person who is making you feel bad about doing a multi-year degree if it helps!) 

(Some long-graduated people are likely to be reading this and feeling relieved. Yes, your PhD journey was statistically normal too!)

Just because this isn’t the year you are likely to finish your PhD doesn’t mean you won’t make meaningful progress. And blogs like these are here to give you a hand and cheer you along the way! 

When you are in the last 6-12 months, or getting close, you might like our new book. No hurry though, the book will be around whenever you are ready for it 🙂

The paperback and ebook of Your PhD Survival Guide is currently 20% off at in their super sale.
When the sale finishes, use the code X018 to keep the discount!


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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