PhD Thesis Countdown: Dealing With Suspense and Waiting

As a mentor for students who write their Bachelor or Master thesis, I have heard many times that students wait for their supervisor to come back to them with feedback. I usually tell them that the thesis is their responsibility and thus that they are allowed to own it and continue working while waiting for them to respond. This is what I also did during my PhD, but I also have to say that my supervisors were always really quick with their feedback and we also often scheduled a meeting the week after I had sent them a draft.

However, during the last weeks and months of my PhD there were times, where there was nothing left to do but wait for things to be checked-off the list which were beyond my control. The suspense associated with this was quite a challenge, because I usually plan way in advance which helps me taking control over a situation. But this time, I had no control and there was nothing left to do. I really enjoyed doing my PhD and I really do love my research, but I have to admit, I really look forward to the suspense being over.

So what were the most significant things I had to wait for and which created an uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty?

Quality assurance

At KTH, PhD students have several seminars at which they present their work and receive feedback from external researchers. My final seminar (also called 80% seminar) was in April 2018. Here, I presented my thesis for 30 minutes and afterwards discussed it with the opponent and also the audience. According to the guidelines at the time, the content of the discussion “should focus as much on what is done and how on this basis can do better within the framework of doctoral studies (normally 6 months)”. I am so happy, that Geraldine Fitzpatrick agreed to do this and the discussion with her and her feedback was really great.

After the final seminar, I worked to improve my thesis and the next major step was then, to send it to the advance reviewer from our department. Communicating with the reviewer in advance about preferred dates and getting the thesis to him as soon as possible was in my control. However, after I submitted the thesis to him as was agreed upon, I had to wait until I got his assessment and comments. Sweden is wonderful in terms of respecting vacation times and thus I totally understood if he would start reading not until the summer break was over. That would mean that the review would be finished probably end of August. I did hope, however, that the comments would come back earlier, so that I could work on and finish my revision before my wedding mid August. So besides not knowing about the outcome of his assessment and how much I would have to change in my thesis, the timing of his review would also affect subsequent planning.

I was not held in suspense for long. I sent my work in the beginning of July and I received the review ten days later; despite holiday season. I cannot tell you how happy this made me!

Opponent, committee, and defence date

Before a thesis goes to print, it needs information like ISBN and TRITA number and the defence date. That date has to be negotiated with the opponent and the committee, and of course, everyone has a busy schedule. In addition, possible opponents and committee members have to be approved by the school because potential conflicts of interest have to be avoided. After that, the main supervisor contacts potential opponent and committee members, whether they are willing and able to do this. Of course, the PhD student is not CCed on these emails, so I really had to learn to let it go and trust that this is taken care off. I hoped to have the defence in the beginning of November, but of course we had to be flexible given their busy schedule. This was really challenging for (control-freaky) me, because unless the external examiners and the date are confirmed, no ISBN / TRITA number is provided, thus, the thesis cannot be printed, the room cannot be booked etc. So, nothing to prepare, but just wait. It all worked out in the end.

Given that I did not want to check my emails during my honeymoon, I had asked my supervisor to text me in case something is wrong (as I said: Sweden is really great appreciating your own private space and time). So while enjoying Bali, my supervisor sent me a text message that opponent, committee, and date is all sorted out: 2nd November it is!

Typesetting and publication of latest article

I wrote a thesis by publication – or compilation thesis – which includes six articles. Four of them were already published, one was in-press, and one was submitted to the prestigious CHI conference. The article that was in-press was waiting to be published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. Given that I had positive experience with them before, I hoped that the article would be published before my thesis goes to print. That way, all three included articles would have the same design. Yes, I may be a perfectionist – but hey, this is my PhD thesis we are talking about.

We submitted the manuscript end of November last year and got the reviews back mid March. On July 20th the article was accepted for publication after which we paid the processing fee and signed the license agreement. I had not heard or seen anything until mid August and the status in the system said “Queued for editing – Paid”. End of August the corresponding author received an email that there were a number of articles accepted and paid for at the same time, which explained the queue of papers awaiting copyediting assignment. The copyeditor was assigned on August 31st and two weeks later, on September 14th, we received the copyedited version with some requests for revision from our part. They asked us to respond within 2-3 working days… of course.

I was on the plane for my honeymoon, so I didn’t see that email. I later saw that quite a bit had to be changed (among other things taking of pie charts and insert tables or plain text instead; changing the title) which was dealt with by the other authors. It took a bit more than 2 days and on September 19th the manuscript was submitted again. A week later the status in the system changed from “In Copyediting – Finalizing (in Step 3)” to “Queued for Typesetting”. So how long would that take?

Given that the journal gave us 2-3 working days, I hoped that this would be as quick as it had been with our previous publications with them. I know, some researchers have waited for years until it is finally published, but this probably depends also on discipline and journal. So far, JMIR was really quick. Take for example our last JMIR article: Decision made November 3rd, copyedited December 8th, proof-reading requested on December 22nd (where everyone was on christmas break, so delay on our part), our comments submitted January 12th, and article finally published on January 15th. So between acceptance and publications were 2 months and 12 days – despite christmas. This time everything seemed to take a bit more time, but also the typesetting?

At one point, I had to let it go and send my thesis and the articles to the printing company.

Printing the thesis and checking the proofs

In Sweden, a PhD thesis is printed as book and usually around 100 copies are produced. So unlike the process in the UK, where you defend your thesis but have to make some revisions after your viva, I will be really finished when passing my defence on November 2nd. At KTH, printing must be done at a specific company and given that I published my licentiate thesis with them, I knew the process and knew how long each step would take. So, between my wedding and honeymoon, I prepared the thesis and the appended articles for print. That way, I’d have the first proof-print waiting for me at home when I return. While preparing the files for print, I found an error where I had updated a table in my thesis but not corrected it in the text. So I felt I had to give my thesis another read through before sending it to the printing company. Åsa Cajander, one of my supervisors, seemed to disagree 😉 .

Yes, I have problems. However, printing the thesis during my honeymoon worked like a charm and it was waiting for me at home when I came back.

Before you approve the print, you have to check the content (e.g.: are all chapters included, is everything in the right order, are index page, pagination, font sizes, and figures correct, is the cover correct with school name, ISBN and TRITA etc.) Given that my defence date was confirmed during my honeymoon, I could now also request the ISBN and TRITA number and update the files.

Did I mention, I have problems letting go? When proof-reading my work, I always print it on paper and read the final version out loud. I did that already before I sent it to print. But now I had my pretty thesis printed on paper book-style. So why not give it another go? I remembered the stupid little mistake from before, which I should have spotted during previous proof-readings. So I just figured, maybe every time I read my thesis, I get tired or are not as attentive when I reach the middle of it? Well, that’s solvable, right? Just start in the middle with the results chapter this time. So I did…

This took the whole day and then I sent my thesis again to the printer. So I waited for the print, but it did not arrive. I called them to ask whether they sent it and according to their records, it was sent to Germany on October 3rd.

Unfortunately it never arrived. I contacted the company again and they were very supportive. They suggested to print another copy but given that time was of the essence, maybe my supervisor could come by their office and check it for me? Great idea! My supervisor did that the next day and unfortunately (or fortunately?) found some issues, which I then fixed immediately. Next day, another print was ready, which was then checked by my friend who is also a PhD student at KTH. Doing all of this from afar is super stressful, but I am so lucky and grateful for the amazing support I have. Finally, I could send the approval of print to the company.

Letting it go!

Guess what happened only four hours after I approved the print? JMIR sent a proofreading request and informed us that they changed our title – again. And of course we are supposed to get back to them “ideally within 2 working days”. Well, what’s done is done – I really had to get the thesis printed and on its way to the committee. Yes, it would have been nice to have the correct title of the article in my thesis. And yes, including the published version of my latest article (i.e., with the same layout as the other included JMIR publications) would have been really nice, too. But this does not affect the quality of my thesis and thus it has to be good enough. So I finally let it go!

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