getting to grips with PSA – Pre Submission Angst

Not everyone feels the same way about getting their thesis done.

Some people can’t wait to submit. They are sick of it. They’re over it. The sooner they can get the text to something that their supervisor says is OK, it’s going in. Click send. But those references, and the missing page numbers from quotations and the typos that mysteriously multiply between proof reads… GAH. Just let it end. Begone damn thesis.

Then there are some people who just can’t let go. The research and then the thesis has consumed life for so long you’d think it’s over, but there is still so much more to do. So much that could be done. That should be done. Just let me do a bit more on this bit. There is this bit of literature which might make a real difference to the way I understand things. Just a bit longer I promise.

And finally, there are those who have what I call PSA. Pre Submission Angst. PSA can strike you at any time but it is often most acute during the final drafts of the doctoral text.

PSA goes like this. I’ve spent all this time doing this research, reading the literature and analysing the stuff. I’ve been working away at the writing, in fact I’ve got a full draft. But even though my supervisors are pretty happy and tell me it’s nearly ready, I don’t believe that. I can’t accept that what I’ve done is any good. I read what I’ve written and it just seems so obvious. I can’t see that I have done anything. Trying to claim a contribution is almost impossible. I’ve spent all this time and have come up with nothing. The examiners will see right through me.

Maybe that sounds familiar to some of you. If so, here’s a few things to remember. The key things about PSA are really these:

You are not being silly.

The PhD is high stakes. It’s cost you money and time, it’s been a significant part of your life. So its really perfectly rational to fret about whether the work is going to be good enough. PSA is not a silly response to the important judgments to be made about your work.

Understand that this is not just you, but a shared experience. Believe it.

It’s true. Lots of people get PSA. Why? Well it’s not hard to understand. By the end of the thesis, you’ve forgotten how far you’ve come. What you had to learn along the way to get to this point. Those leaps in understanding that you made now seem minuscule. Once you know the new thing, it just becomes part of your thinking and you use it as the foundation to get to the next thing. Unless you’ve kept a journal in which you’ve documented all of these shifts – and if you have one and PSA it’s a good idea to take a bit of time to read through it – you often have to stop and consciously recreate the effort it took to get where you are now.

Know that what you are worrying about may actually be an asset 

If you have the feeling that this research is all No Shi*t Sherlock, you’re probably at that stage where you can talk with confidence about what you’ve done. That’s good. Much better than being unable to say what your research is about. And if in fact you have largely confirmed something that is already out there and you’ve done it at a different time, than that’s generally all OK too. The doctorate is as much about showing you know how to do research and present it well as it is about coming up with something startling. But the odds are that you have done and thought something just a bit different – or maybe a lot different. And you just can’t see it because you are now so close to it and so deeply in it that you’ve temporarily lost sight of what you’ve achieved so far. Trust the process. Trust yourself.

And importantly … Don’t stay anxious for too long if you can help it. Don’t let PSA bring you to a grinding halt.

You can take charge of your PSA. Show it who is boss.

PSA is talked about on the socials a lot. And the advice that comes back is usually sensible. Trust your supervisors. The thesis only has to be good enough, not earth shattering. Take a little break. Go for a walk. Do something else – write a blog post, a conference paper, develop your publication plan, do the abstract and the table of contents, find someone to talk to about your research and see what they find informative and interesting, do a three minute thesis presentation.

Above all don’t despair. Get together with some colleagues who are in the same boat, or better still, people who have recently become Doctors. Collegial support and cake and a good laugh are part of getting the PSA under control.

You can do it.

Photo by Franz Hajak on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in completing, handing in, Pre Submission Angst, stuck points and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to getting to grips with PSA – Pre Submission Angst

  1. Bethany E says:

    Exactly what I needed to read this morning!


  2. Karol says:

    As a recent doctoral graduate, it’s as if you have been reading my mind. All those worries about “contribution” got me down for ages and I was never content that I had put in as much as I knew was needed to satisfy the examiners. I was lucky that my supervisors recognised what was good and how it moved perceptions of my study area on a bit, even though it isn’t particularly “earth-shattering”. I’m glad to have found someone who offers advice of this nature outside of my immediate academic contacts. Your blog has always been full of wise comments, and long may that continue.


  3. Wal Slaven says:

    You could have been writing about me with PSA. That is precisely how I felt when submitting last November. At best I imagined a pass with major revisions but more likely a resubmit. I felt demoralised. Long story short – my thesis was well received by the examiners. The moral of the story – don’t let these feelings overtake you. If you have done the work, you will pass.


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