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!

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