Terra Sigillata

Do you remember your defense?

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 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?

Comments

  1. #1 Arlenna
    November 13, 2008

    Mine was totally anticlimactic. In the UK, it’s just you and two other people (your external examiner, someone from outside your Uni, and your internal examiner, someone from your dept who was not involved in your project) sitting down for a discussion–no public presentation. We talked about all kinds of random things, the only chemistry I really went through was the ninhydrin reaction with primary amines…

    The public presentation we had was a grad student symposium a few weeks prior. My talk was very, very bad. It was just so boring, I was not a very good speaker. I also had several things totally dead wrong, like, opposite of the correct interpretation, and NOBODY SAID ANYTHING ABOUT IT. I didn’t find out until I got my manuscript referee comments, and they said “Hey this paper is pretty cool but umm… you’re wrong about that. It should be the other way around.”

    That’s why you want a difficult audience: I’d rather be told that by people in my dept than my reviewers.

  2. #2 leigh
    November 13, 2008

    i have the master of difficult audience members on my thesis committee. (and my PI is no softie, either.) this does not look good for me in my mind. in real life, it’s made me sharper because i have learned to put together my arguments to insulate myself from the committee’s criticism at my progress meetings.

    thanks for remembering the anguish and self-doubt. i wonder sometimes how many profs actually do.

  3. #3 anjou
    November 13, 2008

    Mine was 21 years ago…they also laughed while I was out in the hall and took FOREVER….turns out..they’d passed me and were talking about….the baseball game… only got two off of mine to… egads…21 years… now you’re making me depressed…

  4. #4 juniorprof
    November 13, 2008

    Mine sounds fairly similar to yours APB. I thought I completely botched it. I was so nervous at the beginning that I remember thinking that I was going to pass out. After about 5 minutes I got into the groove and actually remember speaking coherently but not thinking that i did a good job. However, afterwards, a scientist that I also had a huge amount of respect for came up to me and told me that I spoke as he imagine Socrates would have spoken. Those words changed my life forever. I still don’t think I gave a good talk that day but now I am always able to speak confidently and without any sense of nervousness. It’s amazing how one comment from an important person in your life can forever change the way you approach certain things. I gave a very important talk for my career development today and I said to myself before the talk, “just be like Socrates”. While that is an impossible aspiration (for so many reasons) I saw the look in the face of the audience today and knew that I was nailing it. I’m gonna see the guy that told me that all those years ago tomorrow in DC for SFN. I’ll have to thank him one more time.

  5. #5 ndp
    November 14, 2008

    Thanks for this — academia can be a lonely place where no one tells you that they share your insecurities. Being on the job market for assistant professor jobs, it’s a good reminder that my perceptions are not necessarily reality.

  6. #6 Joseph j7uy5
    November 14, 2008

    When I worked at a counseling service for a reasonably well-known University, I noticed that there seemed to be a pattern among dissertation topics and deep-seated psychological issues. People would choose topics that were related to core conflicts, or past trauma, in subtle, symbolic ways.

    That was merely an hypothesis of mine. I never researched it. In fact, I don’t think I’d want to: it would be too distressing for the participants. Some things are better left alone.

  7. #7 csrster
    November 14, 2008

    I had my UK-university defense actually held in the USA because I’d already started my first post-doc (I wasn’t going to hang around for weeks in the UK after submitting my thesis when I had an exciting job awaiting me in the Land of the Free). One of my examiners was also my employer so it would have been a bit embarrassing if she’d had to fail me.

  8. #8 P
    November 14, 2008

    Argh! Mine is 4 weeks away and I STILL have a chapter and a half to write. The amount of stress I am under is so overwhelming I am surprised that my body hasn’t shut down under the pressure of the chronic stress. And I still have so much to do that it feels like my life will end the day after my defense; I have no ability to look beyond that moment when I stand in front of a room full of peers to tell them what I have been doing for the past 5 years (but mostly the last 4 months). Yet logically, I know that the pressure I am currently under will soon be a faded memory. I look forward to that time.

  9. #9 Dr. Kate
    November 14, 2008

    I really have very little memory of my actual defense. I remember that my mom was there, but my husband wasn’t (he was working in another city at the time…the joys of graduating a year apart!), and there were some other folks there, too. I don’t remember being more nervous than I typically am giving any talk, but I had practiced the thing so many times I probably could have given it in my sleep.

    The only real feedback I remember getting from my committee was that they thought I needed to include more of my data in my dissertation (that request was single-handedly responsible for doubling the size of my dissertation).

    I still (nearly 4 years later) have no publications out of it (a combination of foot dragging on my part and that of my advisor). But they haven’t yet called me and said, “Sorry, we were totally nuts that day, we should never have given you your degree; please mail us back your diploma and stop using “Ph.D.” after your name”–so I guess I did actually pass.

  10. #10 Julie Stahlhut
    November 14, 2008

    I really enjoyed my defense (6 years ago last month). The department was pretty close-knit, and the presentation got scheduled as part of our weekly seminar series. We usually had coffee and store-bought cookies at these seminars, but two of my fellow students surprised me by baking cookies and brownies for the attendees. I’d already fired up the espresso machine in the lab, so I didn’t need any more caffeine or sugar. I got a great introduction from my advisor, and then got up and gave the best talk of my life. The committee meeting afterwards got a bit weird, mostly because one member who was not an entomologist asked some very strange questions, but for the most part it went smoothly.

    The only downer: The date was 25 October 2002, which meant that when the whole post-defense party staggered out of the microbrewery and regrouped at a restaurant that had TVs at the bar, I found out that Paul Wellstone had been killed in a plane crash a few hours earlier. My husband had heard this from a friend during my seminar prep, but no one told me because they didn’t want to wreck the buzz.

  11. #11 scicurious
    November 14, 2008

    The grad students in our department are required to give an hour-long talk on their research every year. I think this helps a lot in making sure we’re relatively coherant (though it certainly doesn’t seem to have an effect on some students…). But now you’ve made me really nervous! My yearly seminar and committee meeting are coming up in two weeks, hopefully they will be the last before my graduation. I’m already completely flattened in the stress, don’t add depression, too. :) Still, it’s nice to know that profs remember this stuff, they are often far more understanding about it than I would have expected.

    And juniorprof, I’ll see you at SFN!!

  12. #12 Abel Pharmboy
    November 14, 2008

    For all of y’all who are working toward your defense in the near future, just take a deep breath – much of the stress for me came from sitting with all of my data and thinking and overthinking it from every angle and seeing every flaw that I questioned its quality. In truth, it was best that I did that and was ultimately prepared and, as Arlenna said, it’s better to get hammered on the home turf instead of with ms reviewers. And just as leigh said, she will be much better prepared for her defense. But I do not underestimate that it is a fine line between being ultraprepared and critical of one’s work and getting really depressed or drifting into impostor syndrome.

    anjou, you are still a youngster.

    JP, I read your post on that talk and it sounds like you had a fabulous experience – readers, go over and see JP’s reflections on his important career development experience.

    ndp, all of your profs have insecurities. It’s just not everyone is secure enough to admit them.

    Julie, I don’t think I’ve often heard, “I really enjoyed my defense.” Let that hope stand for the other commenters who have theirs coming up. Regarding history, I had been completely unaware that East Germany opened checkpoints at the Berlin Wall and it began being torn down in the days around my defense. In fact, I hadn’t even realized that Hurricane Hugo devastated South Carolina late that September until I drove home for Christmas and saw all the downed trees on I-95 at least 30 miles inland.

    scicurious, the yearly talks are really important. My main point was that you probably actually will do better than you think or even perceive at the time. Re SfN, I’m hoping to be able to get there for a day just to meet everyone (and at least to get fashion tips from JP) but we’ll see if family issues will permit.

  13. #13 cowgirl
    November 14, 2008

    I also recall a lot of laughter while I was kicking my heels against the door after my thesis defense. How could they be so jolly? I was dissolving in a pool of sweat. And I remember one of the examiners saying that we would just ‘agree to disagree’ because my explanation of a point obviously didn’t convince him. I was sure that I should start looking for Pharma sales-rep job opportunities. But, I did get the degree, and learned subsequently as a professor sitting on defense committees that failing a student at this point is indeed a rare event. And yep, we laugh sometimes after the defense – not at the student – it’s just that we get tense too and we want you to make it. You become our research colleague after the defense, and we’re proud to have you.

  14. #14 Joe
    November 14, 2008

    I went to grad school after ten years in industry, so I had plenty of public presentations under my belt and no concerns about that. At my public seminar, I wore jeans and a sweatshirt, and I sat on the desk to answer questions from the public, and for my committee (after the public left). After all, I had spent four years with these people, who should I try to impress?

    Well, at the defense part, the outside member (Charlie) of the committee started questioning me closely about mass spectrometry (MS); even though that was irrelevant to my dissertation. I had to admit that I was not well-informed on the technical details of processing the samples that I submitted for MS.

    After a little while, my adviser came up to the lab and told me that I passed, and that Charlie had been annoyed that I did not seem to take the defense seriously. Then, he said Charlie wanted to sign the signature page right-away so he could go skiing for the weekend. So, I called Charlie and said that I would have the sign-page for him the when he returned; I did not have one ready because I took the defense seriously and I did not want the embarrassment of having a sign-page for a committee who were not going to sign it (based on the dissertation, not the presentation).

  15. #15 Betsy
    November 14, 2008

    As others mentioned, mine was also anti-climactic. After all the celebrating was done, I went home late that night and burst into tears, thinking, “Is that it?”. I think the fatigue and stress all caught up to me in that moment.

    I also remember one of the members of my committee actually suggesting additional experiments for me to try–AT THE DEFENSE. There had been several pre-defense meetings where we had laid out what I needed to have done to finish, yet he didn’t bring any of this up until the defense. I was FURIOUS. Luckily my committee chair put a stop to it, and the rest of the defense went very smoothly.

    Somehow I always had the feeling that my committee WANTED me to succeed, and that made all the difference in the world. I never really thought I would fail my defense (If that’s even a remote possibility, those issues should come up long before the defense, IMO).

  16. #16 lylebot
    November 14, 2008

    Mine was totally anti-climactic. I already had a bunch of publications from my dissertation. The presentation was essentially the job talk that I had given several times already and that had netted me a few offers. Everyone present knew the result; it was just a matter of going through the motions so they could get back to more important stuff. I’m not sure anyone but my advisor actually even read the thing.

  17. #17 Joe
    November 14, 2008

    @Betsy,

    I was thinking along those lines; but you articulated it better than I could.

  18. #18 SDBrit
    November 14, 2008

    Mine didn’t start out well. On the way to the University I got stuck behind a rolling police road-block so the cops could roll out the ‘stinger’ and bust some criminal speeding up the road in a car behind us. When I got to the Univeristy my external examiner was late, then he fell asleep during my defence. When my internal examiner asked why I had stopped talking I replied ‘Because I’m waiting for Professor X to wake up..’ Now I don’t know if I got my PhD based on what I actually said or on what the examiner dreamed I’d said!

  19. #19 ambivalent academic
    November 14, 2008

    Oh God – I only hope that it will be like you describe. I’m hopefully less than a year from finishing, and while the data are (finally) coming in at a reasonable slip, I still anticipate an anticlimax. Finishing will be enough.

  20. #20 msphd
    November 15, 2008

    Great post. I hope your day gets better.

    My defense was very memorable, but mostly un-bloggable. I have good memories of my talk being great, I practiced it a lot and I was very calm and confident. I am for the most part happy with how that went.

    I am trying to stop reading blogs and go to lab! Ugh.

  21. #21 NM
    November 19, 2008

    I really enjoyed my defense.

    Absolutely no celebration of it though. Just went home and sat and watch TV for a week before getting bored and going back to the lab to work on something else.

  22. #22 drdrA
    November 21, 2008

    I remember only three things from my thesis defense.

    1. That my advisor said some lovely things about me during the introduction to my seminar that I never knew he thought about me. They have stayed with me to this day.

    2. That my advisor was horrified when I couldn’t remember the words ‘suppressor analysis’ during my oral defense.

    2. That when I was done and came out of the seminar room, my daughter- then just 13 months- said ‘mommy’s a doctor!’ with terrific delight when she saw me.

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