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Dissertation of A Mad Black Woman: Birthing the Dissertation

One GradHacker looks back from the other side of the Ph.D.

June 5, 2016

Regina Sierra Carter recently graduated with her doctorate in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Read more about Regina here.




Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Breathe.  Relax.  Breathe.  Relax.  Breathe.


I could not relax.  My mentor (aka Lamaze coach) tried to prepare me for D-Day—the day of my final defense.  He spoke with me what to expect and how to respond to hardball questions with confidence.  I wanted to roll my eyes in frustration (we were talking on the phone and he could not see me) but I resisted the temptation to do so.  That man had been mentoring me for more than 10 years and he deserved (and soon got) my full attention.  He seemed to be slightly more excited than I was about the prospect of me obtaining my doctorate.  I was simply terrified.


Like any expecting mother, I was nervous about the well-being of my child… ahem, dissertation.  Would my committee consider it to be a healthy, necessary addition to pre-existing scholarship?  Or would they view it as being inadequate, malnourished, or premature?


I tried to terminate every negative thought that crept into my subconscious by preoccupying myself.  Since I would figuratively be giving birth in less than 24 hours, I began to prepare my overnight bag.


Laptop.  Check.  Notepad.  Check.  Flash drive with presentation.  Check.  Clicker.  Check.


As I slipped the clicker into my backpack, I felt one sharp pain.  Than another.  Contractions...?


I rushed to the bathroom.  As I leaned on the toilet holding my tummy, I began to think about all that had happened to me since starting my doctoral program.




In the beginning, I was so full of life and energy.  However, as days turned to months and months turned to years, I began to grow weary.  I was tired of the PhD process, which had taken a tremendous toll on my mind and body.


Since starting my doctoral journey, I have had my fair share of ailments.  For example, I begin to doubt whether or not I had the intellectual capability to finish.  I started asking unnecessary and ridiculous questions like: “Was I smart enough?”  “Had they made a mistake by admitting me?”  “Why was I here in the first place?!”  


With regards to my body, I have sacrificed sleep more times than I care to remember.  The dark circles that ring my eyes were badges of honor.  However, my ankle abnormalities were not.  At times, my ankles became so swollen that they looked liked they belonged to an elephant instead of me.  That’s what I get from sitting 24/7 at a computer cranking out chapters and answering endless emails.  I had mood swings like it was nobody’s business.  Some days I was a beam of sunshine and other days a ball of fierce fire who would sear anyone who stood in my way.  At odd hours of the day and night, I would crave sugar, which was strange because I usually shunned sweets.  My weight fluctuated due to my poor diet, irrational worrying and debilitating fear.     


To top that off, I constantly experienced mourning sickness.  I mourned over spending six years of my life (my prime) in school.  For six years, I was a slave to my scholarship.  Was it all worth it?  I was about to find out.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016


The Final Defense  


Sleep did not come until 2 a.m.  That sleep was brief.


8:00 a.m.: My alarm sounded.  It was D-Day.  I prayed.   I also freaked out and had to rush to the bathroom again.  Morning sickness?… More like pre-defense jitters!  


9:00 a.m.:  I threw on an oversized tee-shirt and some sweatpants.  Then I headed downstairs for a breakfast of fruit and eggs.  Who knew… maybe this would be my last meal?


10:00 a.m.: I returned to my room to check and recheck my backpack.  I was acting anal because I was so nervous about forgetting something.  As I was spazzing, I shed my shirt and sweats for more alluring attire... a fit-n-flare beige and black dress.  I might as well look the part (soon-to-be PhD) even if I did not (yet) feel the part.              


11:00 a.m.: Despite being pregnant with anxiety and fear, I drove myself to the College of Education, which might not have been one of my best or brightest ideas.  I had a hard time keeping my mind and eyes on the road.  On top of that, I overfed the parking meter.  Paranoid.  


11:30 a.m.: I did a quick technology check and paced the space.  I was scared stiff.  I was afraid because I did not know what to expect.  All I knew is that I just wanted it to be over.  I wanted to pass.  I wanted my committee to say “well done” and give me my degree.  But first...first...I had to defend.  However painful that process might be (or become) I decided beforehand  there would be no epidural (e.g. over-the-counter medications, illegal substances, or alcohol) for me.  I opted to have a natural birth--final defense--because I wanted to remember every intricate detail of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.  


12:00 p.m.:  Showtime.  To my horror, I discovered that two of my committee members were unaccounted for.  I wanted to scream yet realized this was counterproductive.  So instead, I told myself to… Breathe.  Relax.  Breathe.  Relax.  


12:05 p.m.:  Those committee members were still no-shows.  I started to have a mental meltdown.  Almost.  


Breathe.  Relax.  Breath.  Relax.  


I did not totally freak because Doc (my dissertation advisor and thesis chair) was seated right beside me.  He uttered some encouraging words that compelled me to keep it together.  Miraculously, at that moment, one of my missing committee members showed up.  She announced that the other committee member was on the way.  Whew!


12:10 p.m.:  Once my fourth committee member arrived, the entire committee asked me to leave the room while they conversed.  I don’t know what was said in that meeting.  It really didn’t matter because I was too busy trying not to flip out... again.


Breath.  Relax.  Breathe.  Relax.  


I channeled my Woosah because when I stepped back into that room, I needed to “bring my A-game.”  It was past time for me to birth this baby diss... pronto.       


12:20 p.m.:  PUSH!  I began my presentation at breakneck speed.  After introducing myself, I dove into the purpose of my research, presented my questions, and described my methodology… I was making headway, but I was also losing traction.  My lips felt dry.  Where were the ice chips when you needed them?  My palms were also sweaty and I was shaking like a leaf.  However, I pressed on.  I needed to sum up six years of work in 20 minutes.  Every second counted.  There was no time to hyperventilate.


Breathe.  Relax.  Breathe.  Relax.  


I started unpacking my theoretical framework.  This took some time and I started feeling faint...   


TIME UNKNOWN: PUSH! The pain I felt was so jolting and intense that it left me delirious.  Why did it feel like my theoretical framework was taking forever?  Time was of the essence and I had not yet gotten to my findings.  


Breathe.  Relax.  Breathe.  Relax.


Again, I thought to myself... I just need this to be over.  Somewhere during the defense, I let go.  I let go of my feelings of inadequacy… of being a first-generation college/graduate student in the midst of esteemed scholars of color at a Predominantly White Institute.  


I let go of the myth that maybe... just maybe... I just was not good enough to earn my doctorate.  I let go of that lie because if I wasn’t good enough, I simply would not have been where I was at that moment in time.  


I let go of the “what ifs” and replaced these with “why nots?”  Why not me?  Why not now?  Why don’t I slay this dissertation right here right... now?  


When I let go, I stopped entertaining the possibility of not passing.  Instead, I embraced the reality of becoming a new mother… a newly minted PhD.


Breathe.  Relax.  Breathe.  Relax.  


I finally made it through the findings section and was hammering toward my implications and conclusion.  

Would I have enough time to finish…?


12:35 p.m.:  PUSH!  I wrapped up my final defense talk with what seemed like seconds to spare.  My committee asked me to leave the room.


Once I got outside, I exhaled.


Breathe.  Relax.  Breathe.  Relax.  


My heart was pounding.  Did my talk take too long?  Did my committee resent me for being too long winded?  My friend reassured me that I had not.  “Your entire talk lasted only 15 minutes,” he whispered.  


I was in shock.  The whole ordeal had lasted only 15 minutes?!  It felt like a lifetime.


12:55 p.m.: My committee requested that I reenter the final defense delivery room.  All was quiet and then I heard “Waa!  Waa!!”  I mean… wow!  My advisor announced that I had passed.  Praise GOD!!!


On March 16, 2016 around 1:10 p.m., my little (P)hillip (H)arris (D)unbar was born.  He was 8½ inches wide, 11 inches long, and weighed 3 pounds.  My little PhD was simply perfect.      


While I was pushing out papers, studying for my qualifying exams, completing my preliminary exam, collecting data, writing my manuscript, and defending, I felt intense pain.  However, after all these tasks were completed… after it was all over, all I felt now was relief.  My previous pain became a distant memory.  


Pursuing my doctorate was a journey of a lifetime.  Now that my dissertation was one and done, I felt joy.  Gratitude.  Love.  Every good emotion that one could possibly feel, I felt the moment I finally became  Dr. Regina Sierra Carter.


Now that I have my doctorate (my darling PhD), I can now breathe easy because I am “PhinisheD.”


How did you feel after being notified that you had successfully defended your dissertation?  To those of you who are well on your way to receiving your PhD, how do you think (or hope) you will feel?  Do tell.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons user Tulane Public Relations used under Creative Commons license.]


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