how to answer - why haven't you finished yet?


Bit off topic this, but am feeling awful today, and thought I would raise this question as perhaps others have dealt with it. I am a (very) mature student, with a big family celebration coming up (a month away), which I will be quite prominent in. I just feel such a mess at the moment, I am in my 4th and hopefully last year, I should have completed last year. The going is tough at the moment. On top of that, I have really piled on the weight - have been reading JoJo's post which prompted me to post this. I have found a lot of the PhD experience quite lonely and a bit dispiriting, and I guess that hasn't helped with me looking after myself. So, when the big family celebration comes I have a feeling people are going to look at me and think, gosh she's let herself go and also.....shouldn't she have finished her PhD. What do I say? They probably won't say anything about my looks to my face, but I'm sure they will comment on why haven't I finished. I know some may think I'm judging myself too harshly, but I know a lot of these people will think this way. Worrying about this, is getting me down and affecting my work, as I can't concentrate fully. Has anyone had to deal with anything similar? What should I say when they ask why I haven't finished?


Hi Sunflower,

No I haven't had to deal with this specifically but I do find that a lot of the extended family don't really understand what a PhD is and exactly what it is that I'm doing, so I do have to explain myself to them a lot! They just think I'm an undergrad student and I'm sure they wonder why I'm doing a PhD and not producing a string of babies!

I think if they ask why you've not finished, just tell them you had more work to do on your project than initially planned and you want to make sure it's perfect before you submit. At the end of the day they shouldn't really ask!


======= Date Modified 10 May 2012 21:20:46 =======
I took four years to complete, and submitted on the absolute last day that I could have! I found people did ask how my course was going, and when I would be finished, but they didn't really know what exactly a PhD meant or that it should be finished in 3 years.

When people asked when it would be finished I just said I was aiming for September. don't think anyone asked why I hadn't finished yet, and if they had I'd have gone with an answer like the last person (sorry forgot to check name before posting!) and say there turned out to be more to do on the project than originally planned. Or that most people take more than three years in reality (certainly true in the people I know).

Hope the family thing goes well, and try not to worry too much about it (easier said than done I know)


Quote From Sunflower12:

Worrying about this, is getting me down and affecting my work, as I can't concentrate fully. Has anyone had to deal with anything similar? What should I say when they ask why I haven't finished?

Is it really worth worrying so much about what people may or may not say? At the end of the day it's your life and what extended family members think about it probably doesn't affect your day to day life.

If people ask when you'll be finished, it's not necessarily a question loaded in judgement. It's just a conversational device for talking to someone who is engaged in a finite activity. And as not many people really know what a PhD involves so will have no idea about how long it will take.

I'd suggest just answering with confidence an estimate of when you hope to be done, and fill them in a little bit on what you've been doing. Take pride in your work and share it. :)


I have been asked this many, many times.
The instinctive response is polite, short, but also defensive, and this often has the added bonus of leaving you feeling hurt and/or embarrassed. It may be that this is, nonetheless, the best approach as you won't need to go into too much detail.
However, there are a couple of other options which I would suggest:
(1) Be honest - tell whoever it is that it's taken however long, that it's bloody hard work, and that it hasn't done you any favours healthwise. Thank them for asking and for their support during this difficult time. You might be surprised by their reaction.
(2) If you are still enthused about your topic then plunge into that. Never mind how long it has taken - ask them if they know how 'x' relates to 'y'? You don't? Well, it's fascinating actually because... This tends to stop any follow-up questions from the person who was just asking for the sake of having something to say, and engages the person who is genuinely curious.


======= Date Modified 11 May 2012 07:29:52 =======
I agree with previous posters, I more often receive the question " what is this di di di you are doing? Why don't you have a baby?". At that point you can hear a silent " spinster alert, cat lady standing" as I am already over 30 and no family plans in the horizon. Wait give me these googles... Nope, still no family plan in the horizon :)

You can come with more interesting excuses of why you haven't finished yet " my computer keeps getting a virus and so do all my pens and pencils too ..." I think more people use the question as a conversation ice breaker or to express interest in your life rather than an accusation. "so, when is your viva?" I would ask a friend at a party, and he would go crying straight into the bathroom leaving me clueless "what did I say?"

@florence : at any circumstances don't follow Florence's advice and start talking about your phd! This would end up with you being a social pariahs. The rumour of boredom will follow you around in all interactions and act like a human repellent. I only start talking about my phd in the following situations:
1) genuinely interested chap that specifically asked and participates actively in the conversation
2) annoying male with sexual urges. I start from the part that I collect mucous from people's noses
3) less often, in conferences and supervisory meetings

Just focus on your work! Who cares what other people think?


thanks for all your interesting and helpful replies....I like the idea of coming up with a more "interesting" reason for why I haven't finished :) I also like Florence's idea of actually telling them about it, they certainly wouldn't ask again would they! I can cope with those who are only asking to be polite, I guess it's the few who unfortunately might be trying to put me on the spot I worry about. I guess that is related to the fact that I myself am wondering why it's taking me so long. I started out full of enthusiasm for this and now, well, let's just say I will be so pleased to finish. Anyway, once again thank you, today I will force myself to forget all that, and get on with the actual PhD. Hope everyone's work goes well today!


If you want more interesting reactions, you can always ask them a similarly pointed question.

I have asked, in reply, why they haven't retired yet? They usually get the point. You could be more rude, but it is family you are talking about. So, I guess I don't really bother answering that question.

I save the "my research" speech for border crossing guards and other trapped audiences that I don't want to waste too much time with. I have found that this really inspires a border police officer to stamp the passport and move you along ASAP.


Quote From DrJeckyll:

I only start talking about my phd in the following situations:
2) annoying male with sexual urges. I start from the part that I collect mucous from people's noses


You could also consider printing out a few copies of this to hand out:


I never get asked 'why' but I am always asked 'have you finished yet?'. The fact that I am now doing year 5 and I have to revise and resubmit the thesis doesn't help. It means that my PhD trip may take another year. Saying that, I am very rarely asked this question. However, sometimes in family gatherings people ask me why I have no children yet (I have been married since 2007 and I am now 33). When this happens, I always smile and change the subject.


I like Lindalou's "more work than originally planned" response for relatives who are asking either just to make small talk, or are asking because they're genuinely excited for you (and have no idea about the amount of work involved).

For relatives who are just being snarky, I like Wanderingsage's turn-the-tables strategy. In addition to "When are you retiring?" perhaps "When are you getting hair plugs?" or "I thought you were on a diet!" will probably end the conversation quickly! ((:

But seriously, enjoy the time with the people you came there to see. If you need to recover after the celebration, make a lunch date with your most supportive friends. Don't let other people's negativity interfere with your focus on finishing!