The Work Isn't Over Once You Submit Your PhD!

Ignorance isn't bliss with this one.



You’ve submitted your thesis. The PhD thesis, that is. Congratulations! You must feel very accomplished, or at least very relieved right now. I know I did. Of course, you have now more than deserved taking a break. A long break. Time to relax, read the books you wanted to still read (preferably not work related). See some friends and family you haven’t seen in a while. Be social. Be merry. Be free. And then get back to it! Back to it?! Yes, my friend, back to it. Although you might be done with the PhD, it remains to be seen whether the PhD is done with you. Let me explain.


 

When it comes to exiting (read: finishing) a PhD, there’s about two roads out of it. You either stay in academia, moving into a postdoc (or an assistant professorship if you’re lucky!) or you leave academia. The latter is known as moving into industry, although arguably, academia is an industry. Now if you stay within academia a large chunk of your worth is determined by the research you do and whether that research is publishable, and, obviously, whether it has been published. So once you submit the dissertation, you’ll still need to convert the chapters into publishable papers. A chapter does not equal a paper ready for peer reviewed publication. It absolutely does not.




 

A PhD dissertation, although it may have chapters in there that have been tailored to fit certain journals, have already received revises and resubmits, or, have already been published, is not often of publishable quality (yet). This does differ per program. Within economics each PhD candidate needs a “job market paper” which is essentially one of their chapters that has been edited to the journal standard already. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the dissertation is of this quality as well (at least, not yet). In programs which are longer than the UK programs, say the US programs, there is more time for this type of editing, so often publishing is much more expected within these programs. Just so you know. Whichever field and program you may have found yourself in, not all of your dissertation will be of publishable quality, yet. As I said, if you want to stay in academia and find yourself in a postdoc (or higher) you have essentially found yourself on a continuation of your PhD, against higher pay. You can continue to edit your chapters until they are of journal quality and submit them for review and hopefully get publications out of them. Depending on your field this can take months to years. So the work isn’t exactly done. The fact that the work isn’t done is not so much of an issue if you stay in academia, as this is essentially a continuation of your research. If you’re leaving academia, however, this may be a much larger problem. Working on your PhD research will very likely not be considered part of your industry job and will fall into the remit of “extracurricular activities”, meaning outside of your 9-5.

Whether you still want to publish having moved into industry, is, as a result, entirely up to you. Some people still see the value in it. Others just suffer the sunk cost fallacy. I know I subscribe to both viewpoints. I’m mainly bringing up this point as turning a chapter into a paper is a very hefty and long process, for which you will require constant input from your supervisors, now essentially colleagues (??) who have more experience doing this. It can take months and months and months. Just letting you know. So if you do want to publish and your PhD has been submitted, well, prepare for a lot more work that is still related to your PhD. Submission may have felt very final, but it really doesn’t have to be. Of course, if you don't find any value in publishing any of your chapters and just want to be done with it, no one can force you to publish!


 

Regardless of which of the two roads you choose, a PhD isn’t finished when you submit. You don’t just submit a PhD and wash your hands of it. There is also the defense of the dissertation. Often referred to as the viva. Keep in mind that this is also work. Although it may not be as much work as it sounds. Depending on your program the viva can take many forms. It can be you giving a presentation on your chapters: motivation, methods, results and contributions. Those four points really need to be hit and you’re essentially good from thereon. After the presentation you’ll very likely have a critical discussion with several examiners and Bob’s your auntie. Obviously the work for this form of viva is to make a great presentation and do a lot of editing on this one as well. It can also be a much more chill affair. The Warwick Business School approach is to have just the discussion of the thesis, as the examiners have read it carefully and very often don’t require a recap. In this case you sit down (often in a room, currently online) and get questions about the work, the work’s context and your contributions to the field. My supervisors recommended that I reread my own thesis about a week before the viva itself and that should do it. Not that much work.




 



Leaving the viva and the publishing aside, there is an often hidden work obligation during and sometimes after the PhD that doesn’t get much of a mention, and that’s the job hunt. Being on the job market is very often not that easy, and in the past year and a bit, thanks to the pandemic, a lot of people have really struggled. When staying in academia, you can start applying to postdocs about one year before the postdoc is supposed to start (and your PhD is supposed to end). That means that from the start of your final year onwards, job applications will become your extracurricular activity. This takes up a lot of time. Don’t underestimate this, it will take up a lot of time. Now this time can be shortened by not just applying “willy-nilly” but doing a much more targeted set of applications to research groups that you know, and know you. This requires a lot of networking during your PhD – another hidden work cost – and a really important one at that! If you haven’t done this type of networking than you’ll be dealing with “cold” applications, and then it becomes a numbers game. The success rate for these is much lower, which means it’ll take more and more time. This can happen both during and after the PhD. When leaving academia and transitioning “into industry”, the turn around is very different. Industry jobs don’t expect to wait 12 months, they expect to wait approximately 3 months (on average, these numbers aren’t gospel). Despite the temporal difference, the same rules apply. If you haven’t networked and found yourself “an in” this will again be a numbers game. Often PhD candidates apply to both types of jobs as the time horizon is so very different. One thing to keep in mind: an academic CV is not the same as an industry CV, so read what the job entails very carefully and edit your documents accordingly. Again, this will cost time.

 

By no means did I write this article to scare people off. I think if you’re reading this you’re probably already in a PhD, so the scare would be a bit too late anyway. I’m just writing this article to highlight the choices you have, and which paths these choices might take you down in terms of work that has to happen after the PhD. Also, I cannot emphasize this enough, but network. Networking, setting up contacts and collaborations at research groups, universities and organisations that do similar work to yours is always a good idea. Trust me.


Behavioural Science