'Dr': two tiny letters, 12 long steps away

Colin Storey

I am amazed at the number of my contemporaries who have decided to travel on the long road to a doctorate. In listening to my 'doctored' friends, it seems their many weird individual experiences are a normal part of the process. So here, in all humility, is a 12-step survival guide to starting and finishing that thesis, and getting the degree.

1 The 'original' idea Whatever your IQ, you need to be interested in one original idea deeply enough to sustain you. Do not compromise on this. A university ought to recognise your passion and accommodate it, as long as your subject matter is of scholarly value. If you are not interested in your subject, be it pink dolphins or yellow literature, you will not finish.

2 Family and friends Even with a brilliant idea, before you do anything, forewarn those nearest you. They need to be totally supportive of the time and money you are going to spend. Tell people it will take years; do not tell them you are going to do it in 18 months, because this almost never happens, even for full-time students.

3 The proposal Registration at a university will involve extensive form-filling and probably a 'research proposal' on what you are interested in doing and its inherent originality. There will be an interview, when academics from a department associated with your chosen subject will test your knowledge and depth of resolve. An alternative is to find a supervisor first.

By this whole initial process, you will learn the first contradiction in thesis writing: writing up the details of how you propose to do research before you actually do it.

4 The 'bronze moment' - acceptance You are now formally accepted on a course and your friends now know you are 'doing a doctorate'. You meet your supervisor, full of optimism about your intended work schedule and how soon you can complete ... Elation rules!

5 Supervision Supervisors are absolutely crucial to your success. These professors will guide you, coax you, maybe even threaten you to meet deadlines. You should know three important things about their working lives: they are very busy, with many students to look after; your timely completion of a degree adds to their own academic advancement; they sometimes change jobs and leave the university, meaning you have to get a new supervisor.

6 The 'phoney war' OK, you are registered and you have your supervisor. Now you have to do the research. Nowadays, there are formal structured courses to get you going. Nevertheless, the initial excitement soon wears off. You are expected to drive along your own work independently for your own doctorate. No one seems to care except you, your family and (hopefully) your supervisor. It can all go a bit quiet while you actually do the research and the reading ... or do nothing.

7 The monkey on the back You have been doing this doctorate thing for ages. Weeks go by without any work being done. You keep going back on what you have done just to get your thoughts back into gear. Every hour, you know you should be working on the thesis but normal life keeps intervening. You have postponed meetings with the supervisor. Or the supervisor has cancelled on you. Meanwhile, your friends stop asking. Well, you will never get it, will you?

8 The loneliness of the long-distance runner Be prepared to miss out on the experiences the university has on offer to full-time students. Will you know anyone when you walk through the department to meet your supervisor? By the same token, you need to go to the university as much as possible, not only to stay socially involved, but also to keep your degree candidacy alive by paying bills, filling in progress reports and meeting deadlines. Years of work could go under if you do not keep the bureaucracy happy.

9 The 'unoriginal' idea It is time to write up your research. The more re-drafts you do, the more you believe your own precious research to be startlingly unoriginal. Here are some common pitfalls which may make you fall at the last hurdle:

No solid block of time left to write up;

No longer writing when it gets too difficult and not starting again (all writers will tell you to pause only when things are going well);

No consistent recording of referencing standards right from the start (for example, what was the publication date of that book you quoted from that you borrowed from the library years ago?);

No secured copies of your work. Losses have occurred of laptops loaded with the only copies of a thesis.

You do not need to be an original genius to finish a doctorate, but you do need the dumb persistence of a dog with a bone. As you write furiously, you may ask: 'How long should this be?' You should know the answer: 'This is not a novel, neither is this ever meant to be the last word on the subject. This is actually a specialised piece of technical writing. So, my thesis should be only as long as it need be.'

Your supervisor sends back drafts of your now fluent writing with whole sections deleted. Given the supervisor's stake in your success, you must trust him or her to know the game. One fellow-sufferer was succinctly told by her supervisor (one of four, because they kept leaving), 'There are only two things to remember about a doctorate: it should be good enough and it should be finished!'

Here's how I suggest you get to the finish. To sustain your main line of argument, remain focused on the central theme reflected in your thesis title. Strive for a certain roundness, with every possible byway explored (and sometimes neatly closed off). You are travelling with the reader on your own intellectual highway, and signposting thesis, antithesis and synthesis along the way.

10 The 'silver moment' - submission The thesis has indeed been written. Your supervisor says: 'Go ahead and submit.' So it must have some value because the supervisor's reputation is riding on this too. You have your thesis copied, bound and submitted to the university in the correct format. Elated? Probably not. You are so tired with it that you will probably feel a sense of anti-climax. Expect delays now. External examiners have to be found conversant with your research specialism. Meanwhile, you drift in a new strange world of anti-climax, as you realise that the monkey is off your back and your weekends are free.

11 Viva By the time the viva voce oral defence takes place (most universities still follow this practice), it may be three to six months hence. Your thesis sits there on the desk between you and the viva panel. It seems to possess a life of its own. Let's hope that in re-reading it the night before its coruscating insights truly impressed you. You will certainly need to project this kind of confidence in your defence. The panel members (including your supervisor) are going to test the validity and originality of your theories, make sure that they are indeed your own, and confirm that you actually wrote the thesis yourself. In the final analysis, it seems they are really only there to assure themselves that you have been through what they went through, and have suffered enough. They will give you a straight pass, or minor corrections, or a major re-write, or a fail. Let's assume a pass.

12 The 'golden moment' - doctor! Your friends say: 'Oh, I thought it would never happen.' Your mother says: 'Are you really a doctor?' In gown and floppy hat, you stand at graduation trying not to look smug. Suddenly, it is all worth it. Now, and only now, are you qualified to criticise the whole weird process because you have prevailed. If you went through this rigmarole just to be called 'Dr' (a most powerful motivation), don't be shy about it. Your general sense of fulfilment is immense.