• John
  • Felde
  • University of Maryland
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • USLHC
  • USLHC
  • USA

  • James
  • Doherty
  • Open University
  • United Kingdom

Latest Posts

  • Andrea
  • Signori
  • Nikhef
  • Netherlands

Latest Posts

  • CERN
  • Geneva
  • Switzerland

Latest Posts

  • Aidan
  • Randle-Conde
  • Université Libre de Bruxelles
  • Belgium

Latest Posts

  • TRIUMF
  • Vancouver, BC
  • Canada

Latest Posts

  • Laura
  • Gladstone
  • MIT
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Steven
  • Goldfarb
  • University of Michigan

Latest Posts

  • Fermilab
  • Batavia, IL
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Seth
  • Zenz
  • Imperial College London
  • UK

Latest Posts

  • Nhan
  • Tran
  • Fermilab
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Alex
  • Millar
  • University of Melbourne
  • Australia

Latest Posts

  • Ken
  • Bloom
  • USLHC
  • USA

Latest Posts

Laura Gladstone | MIT | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

Graduating, part 1: The Defense

It’s been a crazy 3 weeks since I officially finished my PhD. I’m in the transition from being a grad student slowly approaching insanity to a postdoc who has everything figured out, and it’s a rocky transition.

DSC_0738The end of the PhD at Wisconsin has two steps. The first is the defense, which is a formal presentation of my research to the professors and committee, our colleagues, and very few friends and family. The second is actually turning the completed dissertation to the grad school, with the accompanying “margin check” appointment with the grad school. In between, the professors can send me comments about the thesis. I’ve heard so many stories of different universities setting up the end of a degree differently, it’s pretty much not worth going into the details. If you or someone you know is going through this process, you don’t need a comparison of how it works at different schools, you just need a lot of support and coping mechanisms. All the coping mechanisms you can think of, you need them. It’s ok, it’s a limited time, don’t feel guilty, just get through it. There is an end, and you will reach it.

The days surrounding the defense were planned out fairly carefully, including a practice talk with my colleagues, again with my parents (who visited for the defense), and delivery burritos. I ordered coffee and doughnuts for the defense from the places where you get those, and I realized why such an important day has such a surprisingly small variety of foods: because deviating from the traditional food is so very far down my list of priorities when there’s the physics to think about, and the committee, and the writing. The doughnuts just aren’t worth messing with. Plus, the traditional place to get doughnuts is already really good.

We even upheld a tradition the night before the defense. It’s not really a tradition per se, but I’ve seen it once and performed it once, so that makes it a tradition. If you find it useful, you can call it an even stronger tradition! We played an entire soundtrack and sung along, with laptops open working on defense slides. When my friend was defending, we watched “Chicago” the musical, and I was a little hoarse the next day. When I was defending, we listened to Leonard Bernstein’s version of Voltaire’s “Candide,” which has some wonderful wordplay and beautiful writing for choruses. The closing message was the comforting thought that it’s not going to be perfect, but life will go on.

“We’re neither wise nor pure nor good, we’ll do the best we know. We’ll build our house, and chop our wood, and make our garden grow.”

Hearing that at the apex of thesis stress, I think it will always make me cry. By contrast, there’s also a scene in Candide depicting the absurd juxtaposition of a fun-filled fair centered around a religious inquisition and hanging. Every time someone said they were looking forward to seeing my defense, I thought of this hanging-festival scene. I wonder if Pangloss had to provide his own doughnuts.

The defense itself went about as I expected it would. The arguments I presented had been polished over the last year, the slides over the last couple weeks, and the wording over a few days. My outfit was chosen well in advance to be comfortable, professional, and otherwise unremarkable (and keep my hair out my way). The seminar itself was scheduled for the time when we usually have lab group meetings, so the audience was the regular lab group albeit with a higher attendance-efficiency factor. The committee members were all present, even though one had to switch to a 6am flight into Madison to avoid impending flight cancellations. The questions from the committee mostly focused on understanding the implications of my results for other IceCube results, which I took to mean that my own work was presented well enough to not need further explanation.

It surprised me, in retrospect, how quickly the whole process went. The preparation took so long, but the defense itself went so quickly. From watching other people’s defenses, I knew to expect a few key moments: an introduction from my advisor, handshakes from many people at the end of the public session, the moment of walking out from the closed session to friends waiting in the hallway, and finally the first committee member coming out smiling to tell me they decided to pass me. I knew to look for these moments, and they went by so much faster in my own defense than I remember from my friends. Even though it went by so quickly, it still makes a difference having friends waiting in the hallway.

People asked me if it was a weight off my shoulders when I finally defended my thesis. It was, in a way, but even more it felt like cement shoes off my feet. Towards the end of the process, for the last year or so, a central part of myself felt professionally qualified, happy, and competent. I tried desperately to make that the main part. But until the PhD was finished, that part wasn’t the exterior truth. When I finished, I felt like the qualifications I had on paper matched how qualified I felt about myself. I’m still not an expert on many things, but I do know the dirty details of IceCube software and programing. I have my little corner of expertise, and no one can take that away. Degrees are different from job qualifications that way: if you stop working towards a PhD several years in, it doesn’t count as a fractional part of a degree; it’s just quitting. But if you work at almost any other job for a few years, you can more or less call it a few years of experience. A month before my defense, part of me knew I was so so so close to being done, but that didn’t mean I could take a break.

And now, I can take a break.

Share

Tags: , , , ,