The last 6 months of my PhD: what does it mean?

I will be defending my PhD thesis in May to graduate with a doctoral degree in Biology in August, which means this is my final semester/6 months as a PhD student. This last stretch has a lot of significance to me, but most people (even those in academia) don’t have a good idea of what I’m actually doing during these last few months. So I thought I would write a post to make it clear.

**DISCLAIMER: This post is about my own experiences and is not necessarily true of all PhD students**

First, let me tell you what a dissertation can look like. In some disciplines (e.g. psychology or philosophy), it is one long research document where the chapters truly are chapters, just like in a textbook or a novel. Alternatively, in many science fields, including biology, the thesis is often a collection of several research studies that are all generally on the same theme but are not necessarily directly related to each other. In my thesis, I’ll be including three ‘chapters’, each of which will be in the format of a scientific paper (one of them will be my simulation study paper), plus an introduction and a conclusion. The three chapters are all somewhat related, but they don’t *necessarily* tell a single cohesive story. Each is a publishable unit.

So based on that description of a PhD thesis, you might think my final stretch will just be me sitting in front of a computer writing all day long. You’d be half correct. I’m definitely sitting in front of a computer all day long, but I’m generally not doing a whole lot of writing–I’m analyzing data.


Borrowed from PhD Comics

I already have two of my chapters written (one is already published and the other is under review at a scientific journal), so I have one chapter plus the introduction and conclusion remaining. Before I can get around to actually writing the final chapter (and the introduction and conclusion to tie everything together) I have to have results from the experiment for my third chapter. And this is no easy task–my project involves a new type of analysis of next-generation sequencing data, so I’m dealing with data for ~300,000 genetic loci in over 400 individuals. So not only am I trying to implement a brand-new analytical technique, I’m also dealing with huge amounts of data. Therefore, progress in analyzing my data is slow and painstaking. However, I am making progress and I should be on-track to finish the analysis and write it all up with plenty of time to get my thesis to my committee.

Of course, finishing my thesis is not the end of the work towards my PhD. I have four additional side-projects that will not be part of my thesis but which I would like to have at least mostly done before I leave for my post-doc. So I’m busy analyzing data for those projects as well and will be writing those papers as the data analysis gets wrapped up.

What this means is that even though I’m done taking classes and all I’m doing is “working on my thesis”, I’m mostly analyzing data, reading papers to be able to place my work in a broader context, and writing up the results of several projects. It’s going to be a busy 6 months, but I embrace the challenge and am glad to see the light at the end of the tunnel!