If you were given a pound for every time someone asked you how long it would take to finish your PhD, you would be able to pay off your Late Submission Fee.
It is probably the single most disturbing, irritatingly persistent yet witheringly damning question you will face in your time as a PhD student. Unlike a taught course, which most normal students do, the PhD does not have a fixed date of completion.
After a few years,‘When will you finish?’ will hover over you permanently. It will become implicit in every conversation with your supervisor, your academic colleagues, your university administrator, maybe even your bank manager. It is a favourite of friends and family, although for them it is really an entrée into the second most dreaded PhD question, ‘What are you going to do when you finish?’.
For your friends, perhaps this means ‘when you will get a proper job?’ so you can afford to join them for a decent meal out once in a while; perhaps for your family it’s a case of wondering if they will have to make contingencies for an extended period of being sponged off, during your final year(s). It is precisely the uncertainty of (not) knowing when you will finish your PhD that heaps ignominy on your predicament. Not only will you inevitably take longer than originally planned; you don’t even know how much longer, which reinforces the point that, though you are sacrificing your career and much of your spare time on some kind of labour of love, you are quite possibly not very good at it, and certainly not in control of it.
Answering the question
The key to a skilful answer, therefore, is to be brazenly confident. This can be achieved by (a) sticking to the known facts (i.e., avoiding answering the question) and (b) being brazenly confident that the PhD will take longer than anyone thought it would.
(a) Avoid prediction
A good technique for handling the future, in general, is to talk only about the past. Never refer to what you might do or achieve; only refer to what you have actually done. For example, refer to progress made (things that are satisfying and life-affirming, like books read or conferences attended) rather than things still to do (things you dread and fear, like results to be written up, or methodologies to be retrofitted). Say how long the last chapter took: don’t estimate how long the next one will take. People can draw their own conclusions; if they turn out to be wrong, it is a failure of their imagination, not your inaction.
(b) Aim to be late
The question of when you will finish is painful because you always get it wrong. You always underestimate it. The only solution, then, is to overestimate it. A good trick is not to kid yourself how short a time you will take to complete your thesis: but to impress everyone else how long it will take. By putting an outrageously distant time horizon on your PhD, people will almost inevitably ask you how it can possibly take that long.
You will then have to justify why it should take so long – a less disagreeable prospect than spending great time and effort trying to justify why you haven’t finished yet.
In fact, explaining why your thesis will take so long is a useful (if sobering) exercise in its own right, forcing you as it does to face up to the magnitude of the task ahead. Your inquisitor will then start to wonder how on earth you are going to make ends meet for the four year over-run that your analysis implies. You too should ask yourself this question, and before the money runs out. On the whole, it is better to appear to have a herculean struggle on your hands, an exotic dragon, the slaying of which will consume the next half-decade, rather than appearing to be afflicted by a mundane but unmentionable personal demon, a debilitating Achilles heel that plagues your every waking hour.
So think of a number, double it, and add a bit more. Arranging for a heroic over-run means that any deviation from this will be an ‘ahead of schedule’ adjustment. Aim to be late, so that when you come in late, you are on time. (Alternatively, manage your time better in the first place).