Is Your Thesis Worthy of a PhD?
A few years ago Karen emailed me the week before her thesis defense. “I am so worried that my committee will think that my work is not worthy of a Ph.D.”
I replied to her: “Karen, your committee agreed to schedule your defense, because they think your thesis is ready.”
She wrote back: “Yes, but I feel like I should have been able to do more during my Ph.D.”
After I assured her one more time that she was “worthy” of a PhD, Karen passed her thesis defense with only minor revisions.
Karen is not alone in wondering whether she is “worthy” of a Ph.D.
The feeling of your thesis “not being good enough” can haunt you throughout graduate school, and in your career even afterwards, unless you recognize that this feeling is part of your training to become a Ph.D.
The process of getting a Ph.D. is shrouded in so much mystery that one cannot to help to wonder: “How did they do it? They must be super-smart or really disciplined.”
And then, self-doubt kicks in: “Am I good enough? I mean, I am not a genius and I always feel like I should have gotten more done.”
After a few years of watching others defend their thesis and publish papers, it is no wonder that most students question whether they are “smart enough” to finish their thesis.
The reason for the self-doubt is that we only hear and see the success stories.
We celebrate when one of our peers defends their thesis. We read journal articles by the amazing researcher who became a thought-leader in their field before they even got their Ph.D.
What we don’t see are the rejection letters that well-established professors receive from journals when their papers aren’t accepted.
We also don’t know that the professor who just got tenure wanted to quit graduate school six months before they defended their thesis.
We don’t hear stories from Ph.Ds who wrote their thesis “on the side” while they worked full-time and stayed up all night to soothe their babies back to sleep.
Yet, every year hundreds of thousands of students around the world are awarded a Ph.D. for an imperfect thesis that is not ground-breaking.
These students earned their Ph.Ds not because they astonished the world with the results of their thesis, but because they had the courage to keep moving forward, to pull the pieces of their research into a coherent story, and to defend it in front of their committees.
The road to a PhD is never perfect, nor should you expect it to be.
All you can do is to take action, and expect that you will be course-correcting along the way.
If you have a thesis proposal due, expect that you will be asked to make revisions.
If you are collecting data, expect that it will not turn out exactly the way you want it and you will either need to collect more data or be creative and work with what you have.
In my 5th year of graduate school I found out that my friend who had just defended her thesis wanted to quit just 6 months earlier.
For the first time, the possibility that I could get a Ph.D. (despite all the “mistakes” I had made) became real.
While I couldn’t have predicted exactly how I would get there, less than a year later I passed my thesis defense too.
Just between the two of us, I had hoped that my thesis would have more exciting data than it did.
Until the minute my committee chair shook my hand and said: “Congratulations, Dr. Farkas” I wasn’t sure that I would actually pass.
Self-doubt doesn’t mean that your thesis isn’t “worthy” of a Ph.D.
Rather, self-doubt is a sign that you are moving outside of your comfort zone – and for most of us a PhD thesis defense is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.