Donders Wonders Blog

How do young scientists experience finishing their PhDs?

We explored what factors improve the final stage of a PhD by interviewing recent graduates about what it was like to finish their doctorates.

This post is also available in Dutch.

In a recent blog post, we covered the dilemma many young scientists face: Should I work without getting paid? The majority of PhD candidates in the Netherlands don’t finish their doctorates on time, and, after that, many of them work unpaid to complete their degrees.

To explore how this affects PhD candidates, we interviewed 8 people who recently received (or will soon receive) their doctorates from the Donders Institute. We asked them what it was like to finish their PhD and whether they felt tension when their contract was coming to an end. In case they experienced tension, we asked what they thought the cause was, whether they identified any solutions, and what they’d recommend to other PhD candidates.

Everyone had to work longer

All 8 interviewees said they had to work extra after their contract was finished, which means they were unpaid for a while. The shortest additional duration was 3 months working full-time, while the longest was 2.5 years working 1 day per week. This time does not include preparation of the thesis booklet, defense, etc., so some additional time was still needed on top of that.

Interestingly, some people were okay with the fact that they had to work after their contract was over. They felt relatively calm about it and didn’t see it as a big problem. Others felt overwhelmed and demotivated by the fact that they had to work extra after their contract was done.

Clarity and realistic planning reduced stress

Half of the interviewees said they experienced finishing their PhD negatively, while the other half reported feeling okay during the process even though they felt under pressure.

What distinguishes those who had a negative experience from those who had a neutral experience? The main difference was whether people had a clear, realistic plan for tackling the work that remained.

On the one hand, those who felt overwhelmed, stressed, and/or demotivated (i.e., those with a negative experience) reported not having clarity about the rest of their work. They had vague and unspecific impressions of what they still had to do, which made it difficult to be efficient and to be motivated to complete tasks.

On the other hand, those who felt okay finishing their PhDs (i.e., those with a neutral experience) had a clear, realistic plan for how to complete the necessary work. They said they felt in control and knew how to approach the situation.

Other contributing factors were how much work the person still had to do and how much time pressure the person experienced. Personality also probably plays a role.

Not a good idea to finish a doctorate alongside another job

Many young scientists start a new job when their PhD contract ends and try to finish their doctorate in their free time. This makes sense given that people need a steady income.

Nevertheless, many of our interviewees did not recommend this approach, especially the people who actually did it. They said it was difficult to switch between their new job and their thesis and that this made them much less productive than if they had taken a couple of months to work solely on their PhD. Unfortunately, taking a few months to finish up may not be financially feasible.

Supervisors are (usually) not the bad guys/gals

One common concern is that supervisors are pushing their PhD candidates too hard and asking for unrealistic amounts of work. While this may certainly be true in some cases, the majority of our interviewees didn’t have this experience.

Almost everybody said that their supervisors were understanding, supportive, and helpful. It was particularly useful when the supervisor helped in making the plan more clear and specific.

So, what influences one’s experience of finishing a PhD?

These interviews show that some people progress through this experience more harshly than others. How much work still needs to be done, under how much time pressure the person is, and whether they have a realistic and clear plan on how to tackle the remaining work are all factors that affect how the person feels. Apparently, completing a doctorate while also having a new job is not a great idea, but realistically it may not be feasible to do so otherwise. And it’s good to remember that supervisors are usually helpful and try to support the PhD candidate in this final stage.


Original language: English

Author: Marisha Manahova

Buddy: Jeroen Uleman

Editor: Christienne Gonzales Damatac

Translator: Wessel Hieselaar

Editor Translation: Floortje Bouwkamp

Photo by Matthew T Rader from Pexels

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