It’s time to talk about the phenomenon of thesis limbo-land. That’s the unknown number of days between handing in and the examination.
Handing in the thesis is both a triumph and exhausting. It’s no surprise that many people think of it as finishing a marathon. Perhaps an ultra-marathon. The uber marathon. The marathon to beat all marathons – it’s taken several years of your life to get done. A marathon where, regardless of how well you’ve paced yourself, you still have to summon up every last ounce of focus and energy to get past the post, to make sure the final text is handed in.
And handing in is a great moment. Whether you hold that bound copy in your hand and take it in to the relevant office yourself, or you upload a PDF, this is a moment for real celebration. And celebrate you probably do. And so you should. It’s a real achievement.
But then. And then. And more then.
Your results can never come quite quickly enough. No matter if your exam is a viva, a set of written reports or a public defence, the waiting time drags on.
So what’s happening during this time? Perhaps your supervisor has to fill in some forms and contact examiners – although generally this has happened before you hand in. The office has to send out your thesis to examiners. The examiners of course need time to read. And this may take many days. Examiners are likely to be busy people. Despite their best efforts, you are probably going to be waiting longer than you want.
And you can’t really hurry the process up. In a viva or defence there’s a point when the examiners find a time when they can meet with you. And it’s at this moment that you know how much longer you have to hang around. But with reports… just becalmed in the great sea of waiting.
And this waiting time can be pretty awful. You may be running short of energy, but also short of money. Many of us well and truly max out our credit cards by the time we get to hand-in stage; the prospect of even more time without work and income can be pretty scary. If you don’t have work, then finding it is a priority. Some people of course are lucky enough to have a permanent or new job at the end of the doctorate; they still experience limbo-land but it’s a lot less painful than not knowing what you are going to be doing, where and when.
Of course, job applications take up some of your time, but they don’t change having to wait around. Both the thesis and job applications actually depend on other people – taken together they mutually reinforce the sneaky feeling that your future now depends on decisions that other people are going to make about, and for you.
It’s the lack of control combined with exhaustion and the stress of not knowing what the result will be that is so difficult. But there are things that you can do and you can plan to do if you are close to handing in.
You can occupy a little of your time preparing for your viva or defence. You can also get cracking on some publishing, or at least making a plan about what you might write. Your supervisor may help with thinking about publication, as well as support your viva/defence preparation.
And you can go to seminars, write blog posts and you may even get a little money from your institution to present a paper at a conference. You can of course read some of those things that you spotted while you were finishing off but, with great resolve, put to one side. You could get back to making – I know of one person who crocheted several thesis blankets. Or you might decide to do some volunteering.
You will certainly find a sympathetic ear from everyone who has been through the limbo process. But be careful. You don’t want to hear all the war stories. Some of us do have horror experiences that we hardly ever share – my wait was far more lengthy than I like to remember and I almost never talk about it. It did involve, at one point, someone who was set up to be an examiner saying to me at a conference “Your university forgot to send me your thesis.” I won’t say more and university systems have got much better since then – my experience won’t be yours, I promise.
It’s important when you’re in hand-in limbo that you don’t lose sight of your wellbeing. If you were eating badly during the last stages of the PhD, had become very sedentary and/or had stopped getting out and about, then now is the time to change these patterns. If you can take a cheap holiday, then do it now. Sitting on a beach or hiking up a mountain can do much to restore both your sense of self and Your connection with the wider world around you. You do have me-time and it is possible to convert some of that anxiety and restlessness into re-establishing life patterns that are more nurturing.
But this all takes energy, will power and mental strength. Who better then than your nearest and dearest? Your friends and family are very important at the limbo point to provide non-thesis focused re-energising activities.
And above all, do know that hand-in limbo is a thing. You are not alone. And if you see, now you’ve stopped the thesis marathon, that you are really not well, then do seek professional help from your university or local health service.