Welcome new grads!

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DCF 1.0Hello all and welcome to a new year of graduate study at WMU! We’re so excited to get to know our new students and to say “welcome back” to familiar, friendly faces! To get the latest in news about graduate education, opportunities for funding, workshops and other activities, and WMU programs, check out our various online news venues. The Graduate College website provides the most detailed information about our programs, our funding and fellowships, graduate policies, and support for research, writing, and professional development. For daily updates on grad news, articles of interest, events, and alumni news, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter (@WMUGradCollege), and have a look at our e-newsletter, The Grad Standard. You can see what’s already been scheduled in terms of workshops on our Fall 2014 events calendar. You can also watch our students talk about their experiences and have a look at our virtual social media symposium on our YouTube channel. The GSA (Graduate Student Association) website provides info about our grad student governing body and their activities (also, check out their blogFacebook, and Twitter feed). And visit us again here at The Grad Word to read articles and essays penned by our own students about their experiences here and abroad, and to hear about the latest opportunities offered at WMU! Have a fantastic start to fall 2014, everyone!

Meet an Ambassador: Jesus Romero

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Jesus Romero, Master's candidate in Higher Education and Student Affairs
Jesus Romero, Master’s candidate in Higher Education and Student Affairs

Hello all! My name is Jesus and I am originally from Whittier, CA. I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Ethnic Studies from UC San Diego and I am in the Higher Education Student Affairs (HESA) Masters Program. I am also the graduate assistant for leadership and volunteer programs in the Student Activities & Leadership Programs (SALP) office. In my free time, I enjoy cooking, going to the movies, and keeping up with the many TV shows I watch. I will be serving as the Graduate Ambassador in the area of Diversity & Inclusion with the goal of making all graduate students feel welcomed on campus and celebrating the myriad of social identities we represent.

Meet an Ambassador: Mohamed Gibril

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Mohamed Gibril, M.A. Candidate, Public Adminstration; Haenicke Institute for Global Education
Mohamed Gibril, M.A. Candidate, Public Adminstration; Haenicke Institute for Global Education

Hello! My name is Mohamed Gibril I am a Graduate Student Ambassador for the Haenicke Institute for Global Education, and I am a Masters student at the School of Public Affairs and Administration. I am completing a Master’s degree in Public Administration, specializing in Human Resources and nonprofit leadership. I started my program in Spring 2014 and I hope I will graduate in the summer of 2015 (if everything goes according to plan!). I have a B.S in Political Science and an M.A. in Global Politics and Intercultural Studies; prior to joining the MPA program I worked for the United Nations (UN). My experience in the UN made me realize that I needed further education and experience to advance my career. My first approach to enhancing my knowledge was through training programs (I did a lot of them) then I went through the MPA curriculum and I realized that no training can beat the amount of knowledge and experience I could gain from such program. I have to be honest — since I have been in college my aim has been to get my degree and join the workforce; however, once I started working, I realized how competitive it is out there… the people around me were highly qualified, but I believe that my current program will give me an advantage over the competition. I look forward to representing the Haenicke Institute’s students at the graduate level!

Meet an Ambassador: Michael Bobbitt

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Michael Bobbitt, Ph.D. Candidate in Counselor Education and Supervision
Michael Bobbitt, Ph.D. Candidate in Counselor Education and Supervision

Hello to all! My name is Michael Bobbitt, and I am a PhD student in the Counselor Education and Supervision program here at Western Michigan University. I currently teach the counseling techniques course here at WMU. Before coming to WMU, I was working as a provisional licensed professional counselor at a not-for-profit agency in Springfield, MO. During my time at this agency, I worked with individuals and couples dealing with depression, anxiety, relationship problems, and other difficulties. When I complete my program at WMU, I hope to teach at a counseling program and conduct research that focuses on counselor-in-training self-efficacy and natural disaster trauma.

When I am not at school, you can typically find me with a cup of coffee in my hand watching sports. I am originally from St. Louis, MO which means that I am a lifelong fan of the Cardinals, Blues, and Rams. My second home in Michigan is Lawson Arena, as I often cheer on the hockey team here at WMU. I also like to unwind by listening to music. My taste is music is pretty eclectic, as I can be found listening to anything from folk to metal.

Meet an Ambassador: Alex Houser

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This week we’re introducing one of our new Graduate College Ambassadors, Alex Houser!

Alex will be starting his 5th year as a PhD student in the fall, in the discipline of Economics. He describes himself as a business geek, and is currently interning with the Consumer Analytics function of PNC, where he will remain until August 27th. Academically, much of his research focuses on statistics, and specifically producing new statistical procedures which are well suited towards economic data.

Business remains one of his main hobbies, and he has enjoyed coordinating with a group of students to run and maintain the Campus Beet weekly vegetarian lunch in the Wesley foundation, a small but profitable organization lunch (check out a WMU News article about this student-led initiative here). Alex serves as one of two bread bakers for the organization.

Meet Becky Straple, new Editor of The Hilltop Review

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Hello, everyone! As the new Editor of The Hilltop Review: A Journal of Western Michigan University Graduate Student Research, I wanted to drop in at The Grad Word and introduce myself.

Becky Straple, the new Editor of The Hilltop ReviewI’m a PhD student in the Department of English, currently working on my coursework. I specialize in medieval literature, particularly Old English and Old Norse and issues of gender, sexuality, and the body in those literatures and in Anglo-Saxon and early medieval Scandinavian cultures. I’m considering branching out into early medieval Ireland, too… so if anyone knows where I can take a good intensive on Old Irish, drop me a line. (Or where there’s an outdoor archery range in Kalamazoo!)

I have what I consider to be good, well-rounded experience in the fields of English and publishing, from teaching to copy editing to technical writing. I once worked for a safety consulting company that specialized in industrial shipping, doing technical writing for them and copy editing things like safety manuals and tables specifying the load-bearing capabilities of specific clamps or the severity of pinch points on a shipping vessel (so for anyone out there feeling insecure about their job prospects with an English degree, never fear—you’d be surprised at the jobs you can get). I’ve worked in IT departments and for web design departments and I’ve been working as a freelance copy editor and proofreader for the last five years or so, working on projects from young adult Christian sci-fi novels to scholarly monographs and from academic journal articles to my uncle’s Vietnam memoir.

I’m excited to start working on the Fall 2014 issue of The Hilltop Review, and on that note, I’d like to let you all know about the Call for Papers (and Artwork, and Creative Work, and Book Reviews, and Letters to the Editor!) for that issue. The deadline for this CFP is September 22, but I highly encourage you to submit early—maybe you have a seminar paper from last semester, or are finishing up a chapter of your thesis or a literature review. Take advantage of all the free time you have over the summer (ha!) to prep it for submission and send it in! I’ll send out a reminder about the CFP when the semester starts, but I thought it might be good for everyone to get a jump on things and open the call now.

Submitting to The Hilltop Review is a great way to gain experience about or to try out the publication process at a scholarly journal. We’re completely run by students, but we follow the same procedure that many other peer-reviewed journals do. You submit, your work is blind reviewed by one graduate student and one faculty member in your field (they don’t know who wrote the work they’re reviewing), and we let you know whether your work will be included in the next issue, whether it needs work and can be resubmitted, or whether it’s not right for the current issue. If you need to revise and resubmit, we review the work again, and hopefully you’ll see your name and your research in the next issue! It’s also a great line to have on your CV and something to brag about! Plus, we have awards for the three best articles ($500, $300, and $150), for the best creative work ($250), and the for the artwork selected for the cover ($250)!

Some things to know, if you’re interested in submitting:

  • While the last few issues of The Hilltop Review have had themes, I thought I’d start with an issue that’s open to any topic, methodology, field of research, etc. The Spring issue will probably feature a theme, and we’ll let you know what that will be when the time comes.
  • The Hilltop Review publishes research articles, creative writing, artwork, and letters to the editor. This year, we decided to try book reviews, too; so if there’s an exciting new publication out in your field, please review it and submit the review for consideration!
  • The Hilltop Review is also looking for new Editorial Board members and peer reviewers. If you are interested in either of these positions, feel free to email me any questions you have. To self-nominate, please send me a short cover letter and your CV (which should include a statement about what fields you are comfortable reviewing in).
  • You can see a detailed description of the guidelines for submission (for all types of submission listed above) at The Hilltop Review on ScholarWorks.
  • All submissions are now being handled through ScholarWorks. This is a platform for hosting scholarly journals, on which The Hilltop Review has been available digitally for several years. This is a great system; you can upload your submissions here, and I can assign a reviewer to it, edit it, and respond to you, all through one system. We hope this will be more efficient and useful than emailing back and forth between multiple people. You will need to create a new account to submit if you don’t already have one.

If you have any questions or concerns about The Hilltop Review, the publication process, or me, your new Editor, please feel free to contact me. I’m looking forward to working with you all to promote graduate scholarship at Western Michigan University for the next two years!

Spotlight on Success: Dr. Clara Adams

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For Dr. Clara P. AdaClara Adamsms, GEP scholar, current recipient of a Gwen Frostic Doctoral Fellowship, and recipient of the Graduate Research (2013) and Graduate Teaching Effectiveness (2012) Awards from the Chemistry department, the decision to pursue research in chemistry at WMU has yielded fantastic success, but she gives credit to those who helped and inspired her in her chemistry lab and at the Graduate College. After completing her undergraduate degree in Charlotte, North Carolina, she might have attended pharmacy school if not for the opportunity and encouragement she received from WMU’s Dr. Sherine Obare, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Clara’s eventual advisor. Dr. Obare gave Clara the chance to work on a project in her lab in Charlotte — a project evaluating stilbene-based molecular sensors for the detection of organophosphorous pesticides — the first “real world” academic experience Clara had outside of her undergraduate chemistry labs. Later, Dr. Obare encouraged her to apply to WMU’s master’s program in chemistry, after which Clara was quickly promoted to begin the Ph.D. program. As a doctoral student, Clara continued her work, developing metallic nanoparticles that could detect hydrogen peroxide and pathogens like Escherichia coli.

When she had an opportunity to take on teaching responsibilities, Clara worked as part of an interdisciplinary team to create a new laboratory unit that would better demonstrate immediate and real-world applications for chemistry and biology. Working under a fellowship awarded by the GAANN program (Graduate Assistants in Areas of National Need), Clara collaborated with Dr. Donald Schreiber to develop a “food science” lab that would allow students to determine macromolecules present in food items. Using chemical reagents, students determined the amount of macromolecules such as carbohydrates, lipids, and sodium chloride in foods like chips, cheese, nuts, and turkey. While Dr. Schreiber laid the ground-work for the lab, Clara grew the idea, working out procedures for the tests and expanding their scope to go beyond their initial idea of testing for amounts of protein in tortilla chips! Thanks to the efforts of Clara and Dr. Schreiber, that innovative lab has been implemented into WMU’s undergraduate chemistry program.

Beyond this, Clara’s research in shape control of metallic (ruthenium and palladium) nanoparticles took her to national conferences, including her first oral presentation at the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia in 2012 (a conference that annually draws 30,000 professors, students, and practitioners), to international venues, such as the 2013 IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) conference in Istanbul, Turkey, where she presented her research in a poster session. She sees her future research going into the uses of shape-control for other metallic nanoparticles not extensively studied right now; she wants to do further research into using electrochemical sensors for detecting other bacteria, waste contaminants, and environmental pollutants. As Dr. Adams observes, “this area of research is crucial because nanotechnology is still relatively new, so there’s not much research into how nanoparticles affect the environment.” Clara is currently looking at post-doctoral positions where she can continue her work, and has even considered broadening her experience by starting research in cosmetic chemistry in the future.

Through all her success in research, teaching, and publication at WMU (she has four articles to her name, plus one in the works, as well as a book chapter!), Clara is effusive in her praise of Dr. Obare, for encouraging her to apply first to WMU, and then for numerous awards and funding opportunities. She thanks Mr. Tony Dennis and the GEP program, for providing countless opportunities for professional and academic development, as well as Linda Comrie of the Graduate College, for helping her through a labyrinth of funding rules and policies, and Dr. Marianne Di Pierro and the Graduate Center for Research and Retention, for their workshops on applying for grants and post-docs, which Clara says “are definitely needed and wanted!” Finally, Clara is every day thankful to God for giving her the strength to begin and continue this journey, and the blessings that have come to her along the way. We’re sure that her success has only begun, and wish her the best as she graduates with a Ph.D. from WMU this spring.

Post-Dissertation Blargh

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by Ilse Schweitzer VanDonkelaar, Ph.D. (finally), English

It’s been about four months since I defended my dissertation and three months since I graduated with a Ph.D. from WMU. I fully expected to be living in a state of elation after the defense and walking across the stage, and thought that euphoria would last at least until summer. After all, I had been working toward graduation for 8 years, and had the Ph.D. in my sights since sometime during undergrad. I had reached the final fruition of my academic goals, and had been unburdened of writing, revising, editing, and researching the diss… I should be walking on air!

But now I find myself experiencing a funk for which I was completely unprepared. Instead of feeling finally relaxed, I’m increasingly anxious about jobs (exacerbated by a horrible job market for both academic and non-ac positions), money (hello, student loan payments), publications, and how to improve my chances on the market for next year. After years of managing my time and living with the pressure to read, write, and get the darn dissertation finished, my mind is going in a hundred directions, unsure of what to do now. Without classes or writing groups to attend, I feel disconnected from my fellow scholars. After only a few weeks, the excitement of being unburdened has worn off and now I’m faced with a bit of an identity crisis: I’m no longer a student, yet not a member of a new faculty. I’m stuck in “Ph.D. limbo-land,” a place between identities.

Fortunately, just a few minutes on the Google-machine assures me that I’m not the only one who feels like this (see blog entries on Portrait of a Supposed Scholar, Academic Cog, and Mathemagenic, and this PSA on YouTube). I’m afraid that we don’t really prepare ourselves (or our students) for the shift back into real life after years of working toward a degree. The common assumption for departments like mine is that we prepare for teaching or research jobs in academia, and begin in those positions several months after graduation OR we continue working as adjuncts at WMU or at other institutions. In each of these situations, there’s some continuity in our identities as scholars and as teachers. But what about our graduates who don’t secure these kinds of positions? What about the students who want to pursue alt-ac tracks, or who are unsuccessful in the academic job hunt? What becomes of us?

This is all related to larger issues of employment within and without the university, but my immediate concern is the experience of uncertainty, transition, and anxiety that comes with ending one’s tenure as a student. The experience of completing the largest research project you’ve ever undertaken, and moving slowly and unsurely (if you have no immediate career on the other side) into your new identity after graduation. For my entire life to this point, I’ve been a student… every degree and certification has led into and been preparation for the next, so I’ve never had any fear or uncertainty about the next phase of my life. It’s always been “back to the classroom,” or “back to the library.” And now, I might not see the classroom again… so what do I do? Where do I go? And who am I now that I’m not a student?

Alongside this quandary comes the (strong) possibility that I should have stopped thinking of myself as a student LONG ago. The moment I entered grad school, I should have started thinking of myself as a professional, and maybe this distinction has hindered my ability to be able to launch myself into a post-doctoral career. Well, live and learn…

I have no immediate answer or solution to these issues, no bullet-points of advice at the end of this blog post. What I want is for people to know that this feeling, this experience EXISTS. I’ve been lucky to be able to speak to Dr. Marianne Di Pierro, our Director of the Center for Graduate Research and Retention at WMU, who assured me that I’m not alone in feeling this way. (I’m also lucky that I’ve been able to find part-time work this semester, and that I have a wonderful spouse who DID manage to put his Ph.D. to good use and landed a teaching job. So there’s hope out there!) Still, I wonder how many students have dealt with this kind of post-dissertation funk / limbo / let-down, but lacking a continued connection to their university, they don’t know to whom to speak. It seems that students like me need to be better informed of prepared for the challenges and anxieties of this post-academic transition, and we need to know that counseling, support, and sympathetic mentors are there to help us through.

Graduate Student Research in Suicide Prevention Programming

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Hartini Abdul Rahman and Molly Ray Participate in Suicide Prevention Programming at WMU and Present Research in Portugal

Hartini, Dr. Walcott, and Molly at the 2013 World Association of Social Psychiatry Conference
Hartini Abdul Rahman, Dr. Delores Walcott, and Molly Ray at the 2013 World Association of Social Psychiatry Conference

For Molly Ray and Hartini Abdul Rahman, both doctoral students in WMU’s Counselor Education and  Counseling Psychology (CECP) program, their academic work at WMU has contributed to a potentially life-saving service for the WMU community and given them an opportunity to talk about their research overseas to a global community of psychiatrists and counselors. Last year, Molly and Hartini worked with their faculty advisor, Delores D. Walcott (Psy.D.) on the WMU Suicide Prevention Program, a program with the objectives of raising awareness of suicide and enhancing understanding of suicide prevention resources available to students, faculty, staff, and the greater WMU community.[1] As part of their work on this program, Hartini and Molly helped to create a Resilience Building Workshop which was offered as part of the 2012 MLK Celebration Series and was aimed to promote resilience and increase knowledge about resiliency and its function as a protective factor against life challenges, especially in navigating the college environment. This spring, they will help to plan and participate in an all-day event (February 13, 2014) related to suicide prevention. Several weeks ago, I had a chance to speak to Molly and Hartini about their experiences and their plans going forward.

Recently, you planned a suicide prevention program for the WMU community. Can you tell me a bit about this programming?

Hartini: The Resilience Building Workshop was a part of the annual workshop series that the Suicide Prevention team has developed since 2012 for our participation in the MLK celebration series. The workshop was a two-hour long program that incorporated multiple educational approaches aimed to increase participants’ understanding of resilience and identification of possible strategies that they could use to increase self-resilience. This particular event was offered in 2012 (developed and facilitated by Megan Donnelly who was the doctoral student working with me at that time, and myself), and for 2013, Molly and I developed and facilitated a connectedness building workshop. For next year’s (2014) MLK celebration, we are bringing Mr. Jack Klott as our guest speaker for our day-long event.

Can you speak a bit more about this upcoming 2014 suicide prevention event?

Molly: Along with our supervisor and colleagues, we are currently in the process of planning an all-day event related to suicide prevention that will take place on February 13, 2014. The featured guest speaker will be Jack Klott, a local social worker who is the director of Suicide Prevention Consultants located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Although several of the presentations/activities during the day will be targeted toward specific audiences (e.g. WMU staff, faculty, student groups, health care providers), there will be one presentation in the evening that will be open to all individuals at WMU, as well as individuals in the surrounding Kalamazoo area. This particular presentation will begin at 5:30pm, and will focus on the cultural aspects of suicide. Within this presentation, Mr. Klott will discuss suicide prevention with underrepresented (I prefer the term oppressed) populations. Members of the Suicide Prevention Program, including myself, will serve as hosts for the event. Our primary tasks are to ensure that everything is running smoothly, and to introduce to the audience the various presentations.

How does this programming fit into your own research and academic work?

Hartini: The program is fitting into my personal research interest and professional goals of helping to de-stigmatize counseling and mental health in college campus environment, especially on difficult issues such as suicide prevention and depression. I believe in a strengths-based approach to begin my conversations on these difficult topics, especially with students. For example, by understanding how they cope with their problems, we could help them identify areas of growth and increase their problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Molly: The February 2014 event will provide the suicide prevention program another opportunity to assess how well we are reaching out to the campus community, and what people are taking away from our programs/trainings. In addition, through use of surveys, we can obtain a sense of what our program could be doing better, and what individuals’ expectations are of suicide prevention presentations. Overall, it is through research that our program can make continual improvement.

In the process of administering and planning this workshop, Molly and Hartini ultimately created a poster presentation on the success and future directions for their program. A graduate student travel grant from the Graduate College provided part of the funding for both students to attend the 21st World Congress for Social Psychiatry in Lisbon, Portugal, where the women presented their poster and interacted with a global audience of students, faculty, researchers, and practitioners. Both women recall the experience as eye-opening and fantastic, and a chance to present their work in a surprisingly comfortable atmosphere. For Molly, one of the best aspects of the conference was the chance to “get out of the bubble of your own dissertation research, and to see branches of psychological study in other countries.” They both recall learning about the difficulties faced by social psychologists and counselors in other countries, specifically, the struggles to reach out and provide counseling support and information to populations who may speak a variety of different languages.

You received a travel grant to attend a conference in Portugal to present your research. Can you talk a little about your experiences at the conference (academic or personal)?

Hartini: Lisbon was definitely fun! The whole 7-day experience was down-to earth eye- and heart-opening, educational, full of adventure and also a time for self-care. We had the opportunity to meet and network with professionals of social psychiatry around the world and understand social issues of other countries and cultures. It made me pause and think about what I am doing for myself, my family, my culture and my environment. I felt a sense of connection with scholars, presenters, and friends that I met briefly during the conference, and they are from Canada, Morocco, Singapore, Lebanon and many more. Perhaps it’s because we shared the same goal or trying to understand human behavior and their connections, and help people make better choices in their lives. Lisbon itself is a place full of history and culture. I am more appreciative of cultural differences, openness, patience, creativity and the power of non-verbal communication, especially when you are travelling in non-English speaking countries.

Molly: In a broad sense, our trip to Portugal was nothing less than amazing. I was very proud to be representing WMU at the 21st World Congress for Social Psychiatry. It was particularly important to me that I was representing counseling psychology in general, and my particular doctoral program (i.e. Counseling Psychology). What amazed me most about the conference was the diversity of topics individuals were researching. I became further aware of the particular mental health issues in various countries, and the struggles the countries were having with increasing mental health awareness. Although mental health education and practice may vary across countries, one commonality all countries shared is the stigmatization of mental illness. At the conference, researchers and scholars collectively agreed that across the globe, psychological disorders are highly stigmatized. Two major goals for all mental health professionals, regardless of their country of origin, are to increase local and national awareness of mental health issues, and work to de-stigmatize such issues.

Overall, it was the diversity of the conference topics and attendees that energized me the most. I felt as though I could never learn enough. I returned to the United States with a broader understanding of psychology. Before the conference, I held the assumption that psychological research, practice, and education was generally similar across countries. As I interacted with conference attendees and attended presentations, I began to realize that psychology is defined and described differently depending on where you are in the world. Like almost every aspect of individuals’ lives, psychology too is influenced by culture and context. Although professors and instructors have told me this throughout my college education, I was finally able to see the cultural/contextual influence at the conference.

In addition to the conference promoting my professional growth, I also felt that personal growth occurred as a result of my trip to Portugal. There were moments during the conference and while exploring Lisbon that it suddenly hit me how important the trip was for my professional development. Ten years ago, I never would have imagined I would be presenting at an international conference. In general, the trip prompted me to reflect on the struggles (academic and personal) I have overcome, and the moments of success I have had. My trip to Portugal was one of those times I felt it was warranted to give myself a pat on the back. I returned to the U.S. with increased professional (and personal) confidence, and an even stronger desire to continue on with my own research.

As Molly and Hartini move forward in their programs and research, we know we’ll continue to hear fantastic things about their work and how they are representing the CECP program and the WMU Graduate College. Well done, ladies, and best of luck!


[1] The WMU Campus-wide Suicide Prevention Program (established in 2006) was originally funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) under the Garret Lee Smith Memorial Act (2004).

Surviving the Dissertation Defense

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by Ilse Schweitzer VanDonkelaar (ilse.a.schweitzer@wmich.edu),
Ph.D. candidate in English; Graduate College Social Media Coordinator

Five years and 300 pages after I started work on my dissertation prospectus, this fall, I finally found myself scheduling my dissertation defense. I chose November 1 — All Saints’ Day — mostly because it was the only day that worked for my committee members but also because I thought that I could use some divine guidance to get through the experience. Chalk it up to Imposter Syndrome, a lifelong surplus of anxiety and perfectionism, and the pressure of a long degree program coming to an end… but I really didn’t think I’d get through it. I had attended several of my friends’ defenses in my years at WMU, and I remember being blown away by how articulate, poised, and confident they seemed (and were). Not surprised, really, as I knew my friends were all wicked smart, but in awe that they could manage themselves so well during probably the most stressful two hours of one’s doctoral program. And I thought I’d never be able to live up to their examples.

After I’d scheduled the darn thing (and posted a self-deprecating notice of the event to Facebook, as we do), supportive comments came rolling in… from friends, family members, faculty, even academics whom I had only seen once or twice at a conference, or whom I had never met face to face. Patterns emerged in the comments; we seem to have a canon of encouraging thoughts to say to doctoral defenders:

“It’ll be great… don’t worry. You’re the expert on your research!”

“Your advisor wouldn’t let you defend if you weren’t ready.”

“It should be fun — just like a discussion of your research.”

“You’ll be fine and then we’ll go out for a drink!”

Despite the wave of support I received via social media and in actual life, I felt certain that these people had it all wrong. I thought, “they have no idea. I’m an imposter. I don’t know how to talk about my research. This is going to be a disaster.” And a number of my friends had expressed interest in actually attending my defense. With these ridiculously unhelpful thoughts crawling around in my brain, I really wasn’t sure I wanted people to be in the room with me when I defended… I’m more comfortable expressing myself in ink than I am in person, and I knew I would get tongue-tied, start babbling, say something ridiculous and off-topic, experience a brain-shutdown and just look at my advisor in a state of panic for an awkwardly long period of time. I knew that, if my friends and colleagues attended, it would be in support of me, but I couldn’t help but think, “I don’t want an audience to be there when I forget how to construct basic sentences.”

After a discussion with my advisor, who assured me that everything would be fine, I got down to prepping for the defense. From talks with several committee members, I had a feeling that I would get hit with some questions on theoretical backgrounds. I spent a few days reviewing (or reading for the first time, and cramming) bits of Heideggerian phenomenology, Kristeva’s concept of the abject, materialism and thing theory… I don’t even know what else. (Shortly after I defended, I spoke to a faculty member who said that she had memorized all of the medieval archbishops of Canterbury in preparation for her own defense. Of course, no one in her committee asked her to recite them, but it gave her something to do instead of panic or worry. Needless to say, almost none of these things I tried to cram at the last minute came up in my defense, either.)

For the next few weeks, I pretended to respond to questions in the shower. I tried to explain what I was doing in chapter five while making my tea. I wandered around the house, explaining where my project fit in within the larger scope of ecocritical / environmental and medieval studies. At first, my cats thought I was talking to them, jumping into my lap and meowing in response to my academic babble. Eventually, I think they decided I had lost it and went to sit impatiently by their food bowls, waiting for my husband to come home.

The night before the big day was Halloween, and by that point, it was probably a good thing that I didn’t have time to try and cram anything new. I just skimmed the entire dissertation, interrupted every 10 minutes by someone on the front porch demanding candy. My husband came home, saw how upset I was — five years worth of research and anxiety etched into my face — and just said, “why are you afraid of everything? Just choose not to be scared.” I don’t know why that worked, but it did.

The next morning, the usual catastrophes occurred: technology delayed us from getting started for about 10 minutes. I babbled. I forgot words. I randomly brought up the zombie apocalypse (it seemed relevant at the time. Looking back, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t… but it led into a line of questioning about ghosts and purgatory that WAS kind of interesting). I blew a couple questions and (I think) nailed a couple of others. All told, the defense was fine. As it turns out, everyone else in the universe was right. Apparently spending years researching a project DOES make you an expert (of sorts) at least on that particular issue. Also, there are a billion different ways of answering questions, and you don’t have to stress about giving the perfect, coherent, and nuanced answer that you believe your committee wants. Just give the one that you think best answers the question.

Afterwards, everyone and their brother was asking me if I had plans to go out and celebrate. To be honest, after five years and watching many of my closest friends in my cohort leave to pursue other jobs, other futures, I figured that going home with my husband, opening a bottle of wine, and having my brain finally quiet and back to myself was all I wanted to do. (Of course, other people celebrated for me… my Facebook feed exploded, and the Dean of the Grad College sprayed me with silly string and bubbles when I was nerdy enough to go back to work after the defense). In academia, we live in our own little research bubbles, but there are a few events — conference presentations, thesis and prospectus defenses, graduation — that we go through together, and these are times when disciplinary divisions fall away and we all celebrate as lifelong teachers and students.

Now, several weeks later and at the end of the final revision process, I’ve discovered something else: the dissertation that I decided I hated and never wanted to see again just a few weeks ago is suddenly interesting again. New ideas and approaches suggested by my committee are now becoming more insistent in my mind, and I actually want to open up the document and change, add, fix, and expand things. I want to go back and re-imagine certain sections, analyze poems I had decided to leave out, engage with arguments and theories that I had previously only wedged into the footnotes. Weeks after I survived what I thought would be the worst two hours of my graduate experience, I find that those two hours reinvigorated my passion for my project and my confidence about my own academic voice.

Here’s what I’ve learned from this process, for what it’s worth:

1. You CAN choose to be brave, apparently (though I don’t know how I managed to do it).

2. People who have been through the process know what they’re talking about. If they tell you it will be fine, it probably will.

3. Something will go wrong. Maybe several somethings. It likely won’t be enough to derail the whole show.

4. It’s okay to just enjoy the quiet after finishing your dissertation defense. It’s also okay to go out with friends and obliterate all memory of the event. Whatever works for you.

5. Even if you are at a point where you hate the dissertation and never want to see it again, this whole process may renew your enthusiasm for the project. Consider yourself warned :)

GradHacker’s Andrea Zellner has some additional advice for defenders. Have a look!