When to let your thesis go?

The actor/director Sir Kenneth Branagh was asked in an interview: how do you know a movie you’re directing is finished? After a moment’s pause he replied: you don’t, you abandon it to the audience and they let you know if it’s finished. The point he was making was that at some point you have to let go of it even if you know you could re-shoot some scenes, make more edits or add special sound effects.

If we swap the multi-million dollar Hollywood movie for the thesis you have lovingly produced, directed and acted in, how do you know when it’s ready to submit: do you abandon it to your examiners and hope for the best? The analogy of thesis and movie almost holds as you have movie critics (your examiners), the movie’s paying public (your eventual thesis readers) plus studio executives (your supervisors). This post offers two business ideas to help you understand the dilemmas involved in deciding when it’s time to let go of your thesis.

Howard Becker’s Writing for social scientists has a lovely section in which Becker compares the academic writing endeavour to the tension within corporations between the new product development and marketing departments. The designers and engineers in product development want to create the perfect mousetrap, whereas the marketers want to get an already existing (but maybe not perfect) mousetrap out to market before competitors beat them to it. As thesis writers we’re probably more in tune with the designers and engineers, trying to write the perfect copy but the marketing people have a point too. When will it be perfect? What happens if a rival corporation releases a product (thesis) that makes your work obsolete? We all know of Charles Darwin; fewer people know of Alfred Russell Wallace.

Becker’s analogy has been updated for the start-up era. Tim Harford’s Messy discusses the phenomena of the MVP, minimum viable product. Dropbox is a prime example of an MVP technology in Harford’s book; it was released quickly to market and early adopters helped fix its teething problems while larger software companies were perfecting similar technologies but were too late to launch: Dropbox had already cornered the market. Your thesis’ early adopters are your examiners. They can spot any flaws in the thesis, giving you the opportunity to fix any ‘bugs’ before your final thesis copy is lodged with AUT’s repository.

The trick, of course, is to ensure your thesis is a robust MVP. How do you do this? Look at your thesis’ examination criteria. If you and your supervisors can say ‘yes’ to the criteria, then you are ready to abandon to your examiners knowing you have an MVP. In an ideal world, your examiners allow you to deposit a final thesis copy that is a good as it ever could be. My ‘rule of thumb’ is that the thesis submitted for examination should be 90-95% ‘perfect’, allowing your examiners to give it the extra polish before it’s launched to your eventual audience: your thesis readers. If you can fix the thesis’ ‘bugs’, minor corrections, in a day or two then you abandoned your thesis at the right time. Not too early, not too late.

About Ian Brailsford

Dr. Ian Brailsford is a Learning Advisor at the University of Auckland, specialising in postgraduate research skills. He earned his PhD in American History with a thesis about marketing to teenagers during the 'baby boom' era.

One thought on “When to let your thesis go?

  1. This is the most reassuring thing I have read since submitting my thesis 2 months ago. Thank you for this article. My nerves have been calmed a little as I prepare for my viva!

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