Saturday, 27 August 2016

Defending my PhD

As promised in the last post, here comes an account of what inevitably follows after 4-5 years of working as a PhD student: The defense! In a Canadian defense the student gets to present the main results from their thesis, the examination committee can ask questions about thesis and the research, and everything is witnessed by anybody who would like to be there. The audience can even ask questions, too! So let's see how mine went:

In Germany, colleagues traditionally make a doctoral hat ("Doktorhut") and decorate it with lots of items that reflect the person, or the research, in some way or another. James got everyone in my office to pitch and make one - don't I look cool?! ;) © James Hickey
After submitting my thesis at the end of April, I scheduled my defense for early July. The time frame was dictated partly by the university in order to give the external examiner enough time to work through the thesis, and partly by time constraints of my supervisor and committee members. I spent most of the time in between relaxing and regaining some of my mojo, which had - not surprisingly - gotten lost a bit during the last frantic weeks of writing. 

Around two weeks before the defense my German-ness kicked in, and I decided it was time to start my preparations. I started out by re-reading my thesis - it's impressive how much stuff you can forget, even if it's your own work, in just a matter of a few weeks! 

The next step was to prepare my presentation. My aim was that the talk itself should be interesting to somebody who doesn't know anything about what I did for my PhD, so I included some background slides that would explain to my mum or my grandma what the basic terms and concepts are. I then spent most of the presentation showing some results from the last chapter of my thesis. That part hadn't gotten as much attention in previous talks, simply because it was the newest addition to my research. This also meant that I was still excited to talk about it - something that wasn't necessarily the case with the previous chapters. It's not that they aren't interesting, it's just a bit tiring to keep talking about the same thing over and over again, and I wanted to make sure that the presentation was exciting to the audience, which is easiest if I - the presenter - was excited about it myself.

I did two practice presentations in front of an audience, one in the actual room where my defense was going to be held. It was nice to get a feel for what the room was going to look and feel like on the day, and to be aware of any peculiarities of the setting (for example, which light switches turn on/off which lights, the fact that the projector cuts of a tiny slice of the left-hand side of the slides, ...). I felt two practice rounds were just about right, anything less than that and I might have not been comfortable with the presentation, anything more and it might have sounded too rehearsed on the day.

The last part of my preparations was supposed to include thinking of questions that people might ask me after the talk, refreshing some of the background knowledge that went into my research, and brushing up on some basic concepts that I may have forgotten about since I applied them for my work. It turned out my motivation for this kind of preparation was fairly low, and with various other things going on there wasn't actually that much time anyways.

So finally, the big day was here! Of course I was super nervous, and showed up half an hour early just to get my bearings, set up my laptop for the presentation, and have some time to breathe. My supervisor, committee, and audience started to dribble in, and the 30 minutes build-up felt like half an eternity. The actual defense, in contrast, went surprisingly quickly. My talk went well and I managed to stay within the allotted time frame. The three rounds of questions that followed (one from the committee, one from the audience, and another one from the committee) were all about parts of my research that I could easily answer - after all I had done the work and thought about everything that went into the thesis for years! That also meant that it wasn't a huge deal that I hadn't been able to "study" or revise much beforehand. After a couple of hours that felt like much less than that, the whole thing was over. The committee sent everyone for a closed discussion, and after only a short while brought me back in to say that I had passed with only minor revisions - yay!

The rest of the day was dominated by lots of cheers, toasts, drinking, eating, and celebrating. My supervisor had put out an invite to everyone in our research group and some other friends to gather at his house for a party, and needless to say after all that I collapsed into bed and slept for a loooong time!

In retrospect, I think my preparations (or lack thereof) worked out quite well. Lots of people said to me beforehand, "Enjoy the process, this day is all about you", but that's much easier said than done. I did find that nobody really wanted to trip me up, and most questions I got reflected that, so the only "prep" that was really needed was to be confident about what I did, and to be open to some potential different approaches or to new perspectives on my research. 

Last but not least, I woke up the next morning, not really feeling any different. With all this build-up over the years, the ups and downs of the research and grad student life, the stress of writing up the thesis, and the tension before the big day, it's almost an expectation that things should be new, and different, somehow, when you're through. And yet - there was nothing! It still hasn't fully sunk in yet, despite having submitted my corrections and officially having finished my programme in the meantime. I do, however, now appreciate much more why people want to use those two letters in front of their name. It's not to say that a PhD, or being a Dr., means you're better than anyone else. It simply means that you've gone through a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears (almost literally) to get to this point, and it feels nice when people acknowledge that. And after all, Dr. K sounds pretty awesome, don't you think? :)