The most important thing a PhD will teach you is how and when to stop.
By Atma Ivancevic
I submitted my PhD thesis on the evolution of jumping genes in December 2016, four days before Christmas. It wasn’t perfect — in many ways, it wasn’t even good. By the end of my graduate studies, I had hoped to be a proficient programmer and an established scientist with multiple high impact papers. At the bare minimum, I expected to find evidence to support my hypothesis. Instead, my thesis was largely unpublished, my coding was preliminary, and my results were inconclusive. In my eyes, it was a failure.
I submitted my thesis purely because I wanted to enjoy a stress-free Christmas, for the first time in years.
Since then, I’ve learned a thing or two about post-PhD life. Turns out, nothing is ever perfect. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that perfection is just around the corner, and if you keep trying for another six weeks (or months, or years), you’ll solve everything. We all want to change the world — but realistically, that’s not going to happen during a graduate degree. It’s probably not going to happen during a postdoc, either. Major discoveries are characterized by many small stepping stones of success and failure. Knowing when to close each chapter and move on is a crucial part of the process.
Completing a PhD within the specified time frame shows that you can set realistic goals and meet deadlines. This opens up your options to many post-PhD careers. Industry leaders will not care about whether or not you’ve published a paper as much as they care about your ability to take action and produce timely results. Academic labs are usually more lenient, but even they will notice the warning signs of a perfectionist. Academia requires regular publications, which means that at some point you have to let go. Seeking perfection will only result in endless delays and constant guilt, or worse, complete burnout from too much self-imposed pressure.
It’s also important to remember that science is a rapidly changing field. Every day, we gain knowledge that builds upon or contradicts previous ideas. The purpose of your thesis is to demonstrate that you can conduct independent research and think like a scientist. You need to ensure that you present an accurate summary of current knowledge and new ideas. But you cannot ensure that your theories won’t be refuted sometime in the future. Your PhD is still valid and well-deserved, regardless of whether it holds true for the next hundred years.
Moreover, there’s always time to make changes afterwards. The end of your PhD is just that: the end of your PhD. It’s not the end of your scientific journey. It’s taken almost two years for my unpublished thesis chapters to become published manuscripts. I could have continued my PhD: obsessing over details, waiting for reviewer responses, fretting over typos. My thesis would look a lot better (though I definitely would not). Instead, I’ve been able to use that time to start a postdoc in a new field, gain experience and develop new skills. There’s always time to learn and improve – you don’t have to do it all during your degree.
So if you’re at your wits end, over-stressed and over-tired, trying to complete one last analysis, just remember: nobody ever feels ready. Your PhD will only get finished when you make a conscious decision to stop. It may not be perfect, or even complete; but there’s nothing better than a submitted thesis.
Atma Ivancevic is an aspiring writer and perspiring scientist. She works at the Adelaide Medical School in South Australia, using bioinformatics to investigate junk DNA and neurological disorders. You can connect with her on Twitter, LinkedIn, GitHub, or her new blog Jumpin’ Genes.