Educated Woman, Chapter 54: Phoenix Rising

Credit: Longhorn Dave

Well folks, this Ph.D. journey is almost over. Although my dissertation defense didn’t rank number one on my list of favorite days, it got pretty close. D-day 2006 will be one for my personal record book. Let's recap.

The format for the final defense in my department is more open than it is at other places: It is very, very public. The mission--should you choose to accept it--is to summarize your work in a talk lasting no more than 45 minutes for the benefit of anyone who decides to show up. It is a perfect opportunity to strut and preen like a peacock--or a very public place to crash and burn.

University-wide announcements are sent out electronically, and a flyer with your scheduled date, time, and title is posted in the building 2 weeks prior. All the publicity gives your colleagues lots of opportunities to harass you with "Are you ready yet? Are you excited? Are you crazy? How many slides do you have? Am I getting on your nerves?" To keep the Grinch from rearing her ugly head again (see Chapter 52), during those 2 weeks I avoided my building as though it were plague-infested.

Family and friends are welcome to attend the final defense, and that's a good thing. It’s always nice when people from other pieces of your life--outside of graduate school--show up. Even when you’ve told them nothing but horror stories about your adviser and group mates, and even though they have no idea what you’re talking about, it’s comforting to have friendly faces in the audience. I was happy to have Mr. and Mrs. DeWhyse, the parental unit, in the audience, along with a few other family members and some close friends--people who loved me enough to make a long drive/flight/walk for a 45-minute talk. My own personal rooting section. Although there were no signs, waving, raucous cheering, or whistling, they beamed and warmly greeted my work colleagues and adviser. Most importantly, they didn't ask me questions such as, "Why did this project work as opposed to that other thing you spent 2 years on that went nowhere?" This is a true horror story from another D-day I heard about.

Food is a major requirement. You are expected to feed and caffeinate the hungry masses out of your own pocket; too little food and the audience will grumble even more than their empty stomachs. In my mind, more food is better because it keeps people chewing, which prevents the audience from asking questions. The key is to minimize the potential for chaos brought on by cranky audience members. Feed them well, keep 'em busy, placate them early. Works great for committee members, too.

Speaking of food, I have a food analogy that helps explain the intricacies of the defense. If you sit and ponder, it's kind of ridiculous, really, to shove that many years of hard, precise labor into 45 minutes. It’s like serving your dinner guest an exquisite gourmet meal and him not having the slightest idea of what it took to create that meal (unless he's a foodie): the aging of the wine and the cheese, care of the vegetable garden and livestock, seasoning, and preparation.

The introduction is the appetizer, preparing them for the meal ahead. A good introduction, like a good appetizer, makes you expect a well-prepared and delicious meal. The highlights showing the important portions of your work are the main course, even if one slide represents 2 years of work. They’ll never know. You select side dishes carefully, eliminating the questionable data and plausible-but-far-fetched interpretations. For dessert, you tell them why your work is important, and where the project is going without you if it continues.

I won’t lie and say that I was perfectly prepared to execute my talk, that I had had 8 hours of sleep the night before, that my slides were completed a week before my talk, that I had practiced 10 times, that I was as calm as a lake at dawn, or even that my adviser had finished reading my thesis. That would have made things much too easy and predictable. What's the fun in that? Into every Ph.D.'s life a little drama--or comedy--must fall (especially at the end).

I think I slept 3 to 4 hours per night the week before. I couldn’t eat, which was funny after all the emotional eating I did while writing my thesis. I had nightmares about my talk, in which the slides kept shape-shifting and rearranging themselves, the projector went on the fritz, my computer locked up and died, my committee started asking questions before I could get through my title slide, I froze in front of my audience, and in the middle of my dream, someone stood up and said, "That’s wrong! Why didn’t you do that? What’s the point of all this work? Why are you wasting our time?" So maybe you can understand why I only got 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night the week before--any more and I would have been exhausted.

About a week before my scheduled defense date, I did a run-through with some colleagues while my adviser was out of town. That went well, but 2 days before the big day, my adviser told me he wanted me to change my slides. All the while he kept saying, "It’s your talk, do what you want," which I translate to mean "It’s your talk, but you’re my student, so what I want is what you want. If you don’t do it the way I want you to, I won’t help you out of any jams you get into with your audience. I'll also eat all the cookies." Thanks, great. Fear and loathing in Las-defense. So there I was, waiting for D-day to begin.

On that fateful day, Murphy's Law reigned supreme. It kicked in at the beginning: As I scanned the room as people were filing in, I realized that two very important people sitting in the front were not on the acknowledgements slide--so I added them. Ack!

Standing there, I went over the first few slides a few more times in my head, so I could get over the feeling that my tongue was made of lead.

Then, all of a sudden, it sunk in: This is my work. No one else can talk about it, no one else knows it like I do. I am the expert. The lights dim, the equipment works, all of my slides are in order, and my talk begins. This is my time to twinkle and shine, to show the world all of the work that I’ve done and how I have contributed my little piece to the vast body of scientific knowledge.

Before the talk, my mentors and friends kept telling me to calm down and enjoy my talk, that my committee wouldn’t let me get this far and then pull the rug out from under me. But I kept thinking, What if my committee changes its collective mind? What if they decide they hate it, that I’m not worthy, and that I have to go back and do it again? What if they think it’s all a fraud? What if, what if, what if ...

Somewhere after the intro, when I got to the good portions of my data, the excitement broke through and I realized that once the talk is over and I meet with my committee privately to discuss particular points in my thesis, I’m basically done, except for correcting the thesis and submitting some manuscripts. I actually did enjoy giving my talk, even if it seemed like a long and arduous road. To top it off, my adviser actually complimented me once it was over. Shock and awe!

Dr. DeWhyse--I’m still getting used to it--the congratulatory calls and e-mails are still trickling in, and a new part of my life is set to start in the next month or so, moving to postdoc land, where I hope to begin another series.

Thank you all for joining me on this journey. It has been a privilege to share with you. Next month, out of the tunnel and into the light, reflections on a graduate career. ... Dr. DeWhyse, over and out.

Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym.

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