The unnecessary reign of ‘the thesis’

As momentous as it will be, I do not think that the submission and approval of my final thesis is the only focus of my PhD – or even the most valuable outcome.  Ultimately, how many people will read your full thesis? Probably your supervisors, the examiners, your mum and a handful of interested academics and students.  If completed by publication, then bits and pieces (the different publications) will likely get a wider readership, but still probably fairly limited. Even if you’re one of those geniuses curing cancer or discovering a new planet I would contend that your headline results will get much more attention than your actual thesis.

In this blog post I’ll share some of my experiences and insights (aka opinions) to approach a PhD as an offering of unique opportunities – both on a personal and professional level – rather than an end-goal of that stress-inducing monster document: the thesis.

Although 3-4 years sometimes seems like a lifetime when working on your thesis, we all know it will be over before you know it and you’ll be back out in the big bad world looking for a real paying job!  If you’ve spent night and day behind your computer, smashing out that thesis (which is certainly tempting when you’re overwhelmed with a never-ending list of things to get done), you may find yourself with a nice piece of work at the end of it but perhaps also you’ll be a shell of a person with no connections for the next step of your career.

Good relationships are everything out in the job-world.  We like to think that we live in a world where merit-based selection reigns supreme (at least in Australia), but in reality people like the familiar.  We remember a friendly face.  We like to work with people we know – someone who we know will do the job well and/or fit in with the organizational culture. (A pleasant workplace with colleagues who make our work easier and more enjoyable is generally ideal).  And a good personal recommendation goes a long way.  So networks are key.

There are many ways that you can step away from your thesis and build not only those essential networks, but other skills and experiences that will make you just that little bit more attractive to an employer.  I was lucky enough to be accepted into UQ’s Global Change Scholars Program, a cohort of about 30 PhD students from diverse disciplines across the university.  As part of this program I have heard a lot of inspiring stuff on a range of topics from climate change and the bleaching of coral reefs to global shifts in economic activity from some pretty impressive people.  The whole group of us were also treated to a week away on Lady Elliott Island, off the coast of Queensland, to learn about sustainability and coral reef management (I wrote a previous blog post you can read here).

And to top it all off, as part of the program, we had the option of doing an internship, which is what I am doing right now, in GENEVA, at the WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION (yep still pinching myself).  I have three months to gain work experience and meet all the right people at the organization leading the way in climate change and health globally.  This experience will be invaluable to broadening my understanding of my own PhD topic and better setting myself up for a job in this (very small) sector.  I am also meeting a bunch of super interesting people who work at a range of other UN organizations, and beyond, who may become useful connections for the future – or just really good friends! And along the way I get to enjoy a European white Christmas, eat a lot of cheese and French pastries, dance in the snow and sing karaoke at the United Nations Christmas party!



But you don’t necessarily have to seek out formal programs to build relationships and get out of the thesis-zone.  I also regularly have coffee with academics in other schools or universities that are working on similar topics of interest, I co-organize Friday drinks with other PhD students in my school (when I’m there), I often catch-up with old work colleagues and, of course, have a social life. (Stay tuned for a future blog post on tips to get out of that PhD-bubble and create space in your life for other things).   These events are not all coldly strategic and solely to serve my future career (often that can seem forced anyway) –  I also find that meeting new people intellectually-stimulating, broadens my thinking and may even help direct some part of my thesis I’m stuck on, but more importantly – it’s also fun!

So while I will (and have) put in a lot of hours behind a computer writing that 80,000 word monster I will keep my focus on the big picture and take advantage of those amazing opportunities that I wouldn’t be able to in other, more constrained circumstances; I’ll take the time to nurture relationships both strategically with professionals and academics in my industry but also with other students and people I meet along the way; and also actually enjoy having this time to pursue a ‘passion project’ and all that it entails. So, I encourage you to step away from your computer, let your eyes unblur (I’m sure that’s a word!) and see YOUR bigger picture.

Like most things in life – it’s the journey rather than the destination that counts!

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