Researcher Ramblings: When will you get done?

When you start a regular job, no one asks you when you’ll be done learning from this job. Like, haven’t you outgrown your position yet? Still the same company? Same boss? When your job leads to a degree though, its subject to the same questions as any other educational program. But unlike a Bachelors or Masters degree, where you can show absolute progress semester after semester, this may not be the case with a PhD, much less with an unstructured program like the one I’m in.

After years in a PhD program, and years of explaining to people how the process works, what the degree means and why almost nobody in an unstructured PhD program finishes exactly as planned, it is easy to get into a defensive stance. It is easy for grad students to overexplain why they do what they do, and justify the time it is taking them. Repeating this overexplained answer, again and again, for years, just makes grad students doubt themselves more than required. I know it has done for me, and I’m assuming I’m not alone. We are anyways prone to imposter syndrome, let’s not make it worse by the stories we tell others…and in turn, ourselves.

This post is about managing questions better. Over time, I’ve learnt that not everyone asking you ‘are you done yet’ actually cares about the process of your work. Therefore, I have come up with three possible answers that PhD candidates can give people for the 3-5 (or 6, 7, 8…n) years they are doing their PhDs for. These answers, and how to get there are explained in the flowchart below.

When will you finish your PhD?

The above flowchart is something I’ve been trying to follow recently. It gives me three ways of answering the question ‘When will you finish your PhD?’. The first, elaborate, accurate, answer category is reserved for people who can actually do something with this information – help me get closer to my goal, remind me of my timelines, plan and organize things around it. The second answer category lets me refocus from how long I’ve been stuck in what may be perceived at the same place from outside, to how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learnt and grown within my PhD process. The third answer category is just exaggerated balderdash. I needed this category because I sometimes forget that not everyone asking me this question can do something productive with the information.

I hope you can follow this flowchart as easily as I can and is helpful to you as well! If you think of any other categories to add, or situations that don’t fit the current scenarios, do write to me. Maybe we can update this as a community 🙂

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