Do you remember your PhD defense?

A new and already-dear friend is defending her doctoral dissertation tomorrow. I remembered that I had written a post awhile back on my feelings about my own defense, and how my perceptions at the time didn't measure up to reality. The timing of this repost also coincides with the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival just posted at Neurotic Physiology, written by another remarkable woman scientist friend of mine, Scicurious. The theme of that carnival is "imposter syndrome" - the broad pathology of self-doubt that one is somehow not qualified for one's career. I should have submitted this post for that carnival because it falls into that category. So, for what it's worth, I'm reposting my feelings in 2008 from the 19th anniversary of my dissertation defense. (How quaint to see that I was using a Palm Treo back then!)
  This post appeared originally on 13 November 2008 at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata.

For whatever reason, I woke up really depressed and exhausted today - pretty much for no reason, I think. I checked my schedule on my Treo - today marks 19 years since my dissertation defense. I remember being really depressed throughout writing my dissertation thinking, "is this all I have to show for this many years of public support for my training?" My defense was on a Monday so I spent most of Sunday practicing my seminar in the room where I'd give it - it sucked so badly that I couldn't even get through it once. When the time came, it was the most incoherent performance I had ever given or ever would. I was a blithering idiot during my oral exam. There was a great deal of laughter in the room as I stood outside in the hall. How in the hell did they give me a Ph.D.? Several of my friends, and even those who were not exactly friends, said it was the best talk I ever gave. One of my committee members took his turn during the questioning to note this was one of the clearest dissertations he had read in awhile. I picked him specifically because he was outside of my field but was a scientist who I respected greatly and continue to admire. I was the first graduate student of my mentor - he was promoted with tenure six months later. Funny, the difference in my perception and reality. It still wasn't great - I only got two papers out of it. One was in a pretty decent journal, although not Cell, Nature, or Science. I ended up with a few postdoc offers, several in great institutions that were also great places to live. Somehow I got a faculty position. Somehow I mentored a few folks to do the same. I'm still feeling pretty miserable today, still not really knowing why, and I really didn't celebrate or anything. Instead, thinking about today 19 years ago reminded me how much anguish and self-doubt comes with doing a Ph.D. It also reminded me how one's view of oneself is not always how others see you. How was it for you?

Author: David Kroll

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  1. Honestly, I don’t know what my defense talk sounded like. I was so nervous that I was nauseous, and the whole thing felt like a blur. I was incredibly emotional– my PhD years were the hardest of my life, and they were finally over. I choked up as I went through my acknowledgement slide, particularly when I got to the incredibly skilled technician who helped me crank out all the lab work.

    During the oral exam, all I remember was gritting my teeth as I mentally repeated, “Just sign the d$@!*d paper.” They did, but not before one committee member decided to pick on the writing in a couple places within the document. It felt like the one last dig, making sure that the door smacked me on my way out of academia. By that point it was common knowledge that I was hitting the road in the couple of weeks, leaving chemistry behind for science writing.

    When I walked out of the room, a dear old friend who was only in town by coincidence was waiting for me. I hugged her and just started bawling.

    My great regret: hours later as I was driving home, I realized that I forgot to publicly thank my adviser during my acknowledgments. I still cringe at the thought.

    I realize that recap sounds terribly depressing. But honestly I now think of that day as a happy anniversary because it felt like the starting point of all the good things that have happened since.

  2. I recall the total humiliation of my oral defence when my external examiner asked me about the theory of a technique I had used to characterise some of my compounds, electron spin resonance spectroscopy. I was hopeless. However, I had got off on the wrong foot at the beginning. The external asked me about some chemistry that I had mentioned in my introduction, saying ‘Who do you associate with the development of five-coordinate nickel(II) complexes?’ I mentioned the two giants in the field, Venanzi and Harry B. Gray, and then stumbled around trying to think of anyone else who had made additional contributions. My internal examiner then said something like ‘You’re casting your net too wide’, and I realised that he meant my external examiner must have done something in the area…. I couldn’t for the life of me recall what (and subsequent research showed that this wasn’t my fault!). An object lesson in academic egotism. Luckily I had done loads of work and got about a dozen papers from my 3 years, so I wasn’t likely to fail, but it still made me feel about an inch tall by the end…

  3. David,

    Great story! Sounds as though you did a stellar job. Thanks for the walk down memory lane, I think.

    I defended on March 4th, the date that is also an imperative sentence. I listed the date on the fliers using both the Gregorian and the Julian calendars, as I had missed my self-imposed deadline by a few days–but only on the Gregorian calendar. I gave all who attended ribbons that said “I Helped,” because they all did.


  4. I recall the defense being more or less or formality since hardly anyone ever failed it. The research proposal defense leading up to it was the real ego killers. The running jokes was the whole point was to make you feel like an idiot even if they ended up passing you anyway.

  5. Thanks, David. With the upcoming defense of our mutual dear friend tomorrow, I too have been reflecting on my own defense back in December 2007.

    In light of recent online discussions about impostor syndrome, feelings of inadequacy, and the overwhelming anxiety that accompanies dissertating (believe-you-me, I had all of those – but that’s another story for another day), I feel almost embarrassed to admit that my defense itself was actually one of the most gratifying, feel-good parts of my whole dissertation journey.

    I remember at some point during my exit seminar, pausing to take in the auditorium of people before me. It was packed with friends, colleagues, professors, committee members and mentors, administrative staff, family and even my boyfriend’s parents (who drove all the way from Iowa and were meeting my family there for the first time!) I felt so loved, so boosted by everyone’s support. That feeling was close to the awesome feeling my now husband and I later felt standing up in front of so many loved ones and friends at our wedding.

    I don’t remember much in terms of the details of my exit seminar or defense, just a few random flashes.

    I remember finding it funny my dad was using his Blackberry to google big science words I used during the seminar like allochthonous and autochthonous.

    I remember my advisor introducing me at the beginning of the seminar with the obligatory silly pics and anecdotes.

    I remember feeling underwhelmed by the questions my committee tossed at me. Seriously, you guys don’t have ANY questions about how I did those statistical analyses?! I was amped up for a challenge, had worried myself sick the night before, re-read foundational papers I had already read 30 times… I was ready to DE-FEND that dissertation.

    And then it was over. It was over so fast that my boyfriend and family were still up the road at the local liquor store securing quantities of celebratory champagne.

    Perhaps like some are accused of having a “charmed life,” I may have had a “charmed defense.” Reflecting now, nearly 5 years later, I recognize and appreciate how truly lucky I was to have a supportive advisor and mentor, a helpful committee, an amazing team of lab-mates, field assistants, and friends-turned-stats-gurus-and-field-help, and a loving and caring partner. In that it takes a village to raise a child, I think one could also argue that it takes a village to support a dissertating young scientist. And it’s the fond memories of my village during my defense and the 6+ years leading up to it (more than those feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and fear that also accompanied it) that I still carry with me today.

  6. I was eight months pregnant at my defense and coming off of weeks of bedrest, so I didn’t even have to TRY to be dramatic. Those weeks of bedrest meant I didn’t finish the work I promised I would finish before my defense, so I had two committee members that delayed signing until I completed the promised work. Wah wah. I defended on October 10 of last year and got my signatures shortly after. I guess it is significant that I don’t remember the date I actually got my signatures. So even though my defense was anti-climactic (I really wanted that moment when they shook my hand and called me “doctor,” which never happened), I still have the degree all the same. Similarly to Dr. Webb up there, I was exiting academia, so that probably colored my experience significantly.

    My son was born three weeks later to the day.

    -DR. Huffman

  7. Of course, I remember… In retrospect, the most amazing memory is that one of my Committee members insisted that I supply a made-from-scratch Red Velvet Cake for the event. Don’t think he would get away with that now.

  8. Mainly I remember that the Dean’s representative forgot about the defense, and was nearly an hour late. On the plus side, his name was Goodfriend, so I took that as a promising sign. My father, who was a geologist, was a nervous wreck for his defence. One of the examiners thought it would help to start with a joke, so he asked “Where is irium found?” Dad thought this must be some mineral that he’d never heard of. Turns out it was the “miracle ingredient” in Pepsodent tooth powder. They had to take a short recess for him to calm down, then restart.

  9. What I remember most vividly is the acknowledgements, which I spent almost as much time on as the main defense. I was so geeked to use the Newton quote re “standing on the shoulders of giants” and thank everyone. And then I had a special slide for my parents, both there, showing a complicated formula for my gratitude including quantities like letting me move back in with a 130-lb Rottweiler and two cats.

    But if it makes you feel any better, David, I only got two questions after I finished. And one was from my mom (who, in her defense, is a scientist too).

  10. I remember parts of my defense from 10 years ago (has it really been that long?). The first few questions weren’t bad – the examiners knew me, knew my work and had small criticisms. Then the person from the university got started = she had so many Post-Its that she had to change colour! The first question was ‘why do you use salt in a DNA extraction?’ and I wasn’t expecting it. She had picky questions for 40 min before they cut her off. With each one of her questions, I become more convinced that I was going to fail. But the other examiners had questions related to my specific research and I did pass.
    The thing that surprised me the most was how ordinary I felt after the defense. I took the rest of the day off and ate well but was back at the lab the next day. I don’t know what I expected but I wanted to feel different somehow 🙂
    I love the idea for the complicated formula for the acknowledgements!

  11. I suppose I was quite fortunate with my defence; this was under the UK system whereby the examiners can (and will) ask anything they like, and go on as long as they wish with the examination. However, to my undying gratitude the internal examiner carefully arranged for one of my two PhD supervisors to be away on business that day. This fellow was once a good and effective scientist, if a somewhat flawed man. At the time I was writing up, he was being pressured into early retirement and wasn’t liking the process, hence was an irritable curmudgeon.

    What I remember of the actual exam twenty years on (stress and memory don’t play nice with me) I ended up partially or completely rubbishing the work of many peers and predecessors; one chap was apparently counter-suing the USDA for booting him out of his job for scientific fraud at the time I was in the exam; another used methods that nobody in the field trusted, and so it went. Once the contemporaries were out, the predecessors (who were working on two species of nematode before they were separated into the two species) had useful doubt put on their work, and so it went.

    My actual PhD work was not actually all that much to write home about; solid but unimaginative research clarifying a facet of the reproductive behaviour of a pair of plant parasitic nematodes. Unfortunately I am fairly honest, and could not in all honesty spin out a proposal for a post-doc on the premise that characterising the sex pheromones of these nematodes would do anything useful; it wouldn’t or not commercially useful at any rate.

    What I do remember was the absolute crushing stress of the PhD viva. Three years of work and more of write-up concentrated into a few hours in an office next door to the deputy head of department’s office. Luckily once in the room and talking I didn’t freeze up, but oh boy it was nasty leading up to it, and probably even worse when they asked for time to consider the thesis. Acceptance afterwards was such blessed relief, though!

  12. I sat on the couch, clutching my iPhone tightly. I had just completed my oral defense and my heart was still racing a thousand beats per minute. My palms were sweaty, I mused, in an effort to pass the time. At the completion of my presentation and Q&A round, I was asked by my mentor to step off the call. I knew they were discussing my research, my findings, my responses to their questions, my presentation, and were working together to make an informed mutual decision. It would only take objections from one committee member to halt my progress and end my journey towards my end state goal.

    I didn’t realize that the clock on our family room wall ticked so loudly until I sat there on the couch in excruciating silence, waiting for the inevitable call. Each tick was a reminder that time was not standing still, though it felt like an eternal wait. A thousand questions raced through my mind. Did they like my presentation? Was my research good enough? Did my last “So What?” slide hammer home the final message that my findings were valid and reliable? Did I answer their questions to their satisfaction? Did I leave anything important out? Did my mentor remember my phone number? Should I call him back? Could I live up to the title of “Doctor” that I had fought to earn? What would my family say if I failed?

    The ring on my phone was startling. It brought me back from the depths of my darkest fears, thoughts, and concerns. I pressed the answer button and raised the device to my ear. It felt weighted down by the intensity of my emotions, if that were even possible. “Hello, this is Aaron.” I slowly stated. After what seemed like several minutes, though was probably only a split second instance, I heard the most wonderful six words stated back to me by my mentor, “Congratulations Dr. Wester, you earned it.”

    At that moment, I was overwhelmed, happy, elated, excited, shaking, and terribly tense. I had survived one of the most difficult experiences of my 38 years of existence on this earth, 3rd only to asking my wife to marry me, and being told by hospital staff that we could take our newborn first child home without being provided any additional guidance, instructions, or “Parenting Guide for Dummies” book. I had survived almost 5 years of dedicated doctoral level research and statistics, quality reviews, respondent surveying, and more writing than I had ever done previous on a dissertation that spanned over 600 pages of meticulous study, analysis, and intricate synthesis. Such a flood of emotion that no dam could suppress. An intensity of feelings that suddenly caught me off guard. Suddenly, I found myself in tears. Not of pain, but of joy, gladness, and relief. I couldn’t help but think, ‘what a wonderful way to complete this journey after years of intensive study and diligent effort, and a day before my 39th birthday no less’.

    So regardless of where you are in your educational journey, consider this to be proof that a doctoral degree is within your grasp if you but reach with all your effort and your best foot forward. People would tell me there’s light at the end of tunnel when things looked darkest, but I didn’t believe them – I could have sworn they had to be referring to an oncoming train. Not so, I discovered. Instead, I found that the light at the end is an incredibly brilliant and long lasting rainbow of accomplishment beyond description – so work hard, because it’s worth the view. 😉

    After receiving the news, I immediately called my wife who relayed to our youngest 6 year old son. He asked “Does that mean that Daddy gets to go to the Doctor building and help people?”, to which she replied “No honey, he’s the other kind of doctor, the kind that doesn’t help people”. We laughed as we were caught in the moment. She had been through the trials and tears, the pain, and the hardships over the last several years that when combined, were the essential core ingredients of my educational journey. She understood, and she shared in the moment with love and respect. I hadn’t made it, instead we had made it together as a family.

    I immediately posted on Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter after hanging up with her. I Instant Messaged my friends, and called my parents. It was a good day, and a significant accomplishment in my life. Of all my Facebook posts, it received the most number of “likes” I’ve seen yet. This reminded me that I was loved and supported by amazing individuals all over the world.

    I’m now greatly looking forward to publishing my completed and publication ready dissertation entitled “Readers’ Trust, Socio-Demographics, and Acuity Influences in Citizen Journalism Credibility for Disrupted Online Newspapers”

    More importantly, I’m looking forward to tomorrow. I have fond memories of yesterday, and today is the best day so far, but I’m positive that tomorrow will be even better. 🙂

    Dr. Aaron M. Wester, PhD