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Finishing a PhD

Finishing your PhD can be quite a daunting process. Completion and dissertation anxiety are extremely common and will often make this period feel a lot scarier than it actually is. However, knowing what to expect is a great way to prepare and keep calm. Finishing should be very exciting as you finally get to reap the rewards of all your hard work.

We’ve laid out the key information you need to know about finishing a PhD so you can get organised early and enjoy the process.

When will I finish my PhD?

In the UK, a standard full-time PhD takes between three and four years to complete. If you are a funded student, then your funding body will outline an expected hand-in period. This will usually be six to twelve months after the completion of your third year. If you are on track to finish your PhD late you will be charged continuation fees.

If you are self-funded then you will start paying continuation fees when you begin your fourth year.

Continuation fees usually cover a set period of three to four months. If it’s likely more time will be needed, the continuation period can be extended at an extra cost. Payment will often be calculated based on your new submission date. If, however, you submit early then some universities will offer a refund for any over-payments.

Writing the dissertation

The average length of a PhD is 75,000 words or 300 pages, depending on the institution.

When you start writing will depend on many variables. It’s often advised to start as early as possible so there’s time for a sufficient editing period. Additionally, writing can help you identify gaps in your research. Commonly, people will begin the write up process in their final year though some will start drafting chapters earlier.

The PhD dissertation

Learn more about the dissertation, including some of our top tips for completion.

Submitting your thesis

When you are ready to hand in, there are a few things that you’ll need in order to move on to the viva.

What do you need?

  • Approval from your supervisor(s) – As your supervisor will be organising the examiners, they need to know when you plan on handing in. Additionally, they will be able to advise you on whether your work is ready or not.
  • Completed dissertation – Universities are increasingly using online submission but, if a physical copy is also required, make sure it’s printed and bound ahead of your hand-in date.
  • Doctoral Development Programme portfolio – More and more universities are focusing on training PhD students for non-academic roles. If your university takes part in the Doctoral Development Programme (DDP), then you will need to have a portfolio demonstrating your activities and training. This does not need to be submitted before the viva but, if incomplete, will delay the receiving of your award.
  • Registration extension (if required) – if your hand-in date will be after the end of your third year, you might need to re-register in the university system and check if you owe any continuation fees.

Some institutions will also ask for an Appointment of Examiners form, though this is usually completed by your supervisor. Additionally, you may also be asked to provide an abstract of your dissertation. Make sure to check with your institution and department about their hand-in process.

The viva

The viva, an oral examination of your work, will take place within three months of your dissertation being dispatched to the examiners. At least one of the examiners will be external and they will be decided upon by your supervisor.

The process can take anywhere between one to four hours. During the meeting you’ll be asked to discuss various elements of your research and dissertation. You will also be provided with feedback before receiving the final report.

The Viva

If you’d like to know more about the viva, we have explained the process in detail, including some helpful tips.

Potential outcomes

As well as receiving direct feedback during the viva, your examiners will produce a report that outlines any corrections. It’s common for students to be given some form of corrections and so you should expect the PhD process to continue at least a few months after the viva. Any recommended revisions should be discussed with your supervisor so you can create a detailed action plan for the final completion.

Pass

If you receive a pass, then you’ll have no corrections and will go on to receive your doctoral qualification.

Corrections

Most students are likely to be given corrections before receiving a pass. These can span from spelling mistakes to major revisions.

  • Minor corrections – Achieving this status means that your work will need tweaking. Often comments will refer to grammatical errors, formatting issues, or will ask you to incorporate a few suggestions of improvement. Usually you’ll have about three months to implement the feedback.
  • Major corrections – If you’re given major corrections then the thesis will need considerable improvement before you can achieve doctoral status. Rewrites and additional research will probably be necessary. Completion will usually be expected within six months.

Resubmission

If the thesis requires major revisions that cannot be completed in a six-month period, then a resubmission may be advised. An extension of 12 months will be given, and you may or may not be asked to undergo another viva.

Downgrade

If your research appears to be too narrow for a doctorate, then you could be downgraded to an MPhil or MSc. Usually your research will still be recognised as good quality, just not fitting for the PhD qualification.

Fail

Receiving a fail is not very common and will only be awarded in instances of plagiarism or if the examiners determine the project to be incompletable.

Life post-PhD

Remember, the PhD process does not end after the viva as it is likely you will have corrections to complete. You’ll need to take this into account when applying for jobs as you could have up to a 12-month resubmission period.

However, once you are awarded a pass status then you’ll have officially finished. Many graduates like to celebrate by treating themselves to a well-deserved holiday or a gift.

PhD careers

For more information on what happens after a PhD, read our guide to career opportunities and life after research.

Last updated 16/12/2020

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