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Megan Poorman recently completed her PhD in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at CU Boulder and associate of NIST. You can find her on twitter @meganpoorman or on her website.

Image courtesy of XKCD comics

This past July I successfully defended my dissertation to a room full of family, friends, colleagues, and my committee. It went by in a blur. The projector failed right as I was supposed to start, and I only marginally remember what I said during the presentation. However, I remember smiles from the audience and that kept me going. I came out of the room with resounding congratulations from my committee members and a boisterous surprise champagne party in my typically quiet dungeon of a basement office.

While I am immensely proud of myself and grateful for everything that happened, looking back, there are things I wish I had known before going through the dissertation process. There are so many resources for graduate students pushing through the ups and downs of grad school, but when you’re preparing for the end you suddenly realize you are striking into the unknown. Everyone that has been through what you are about to go through has already left, and as an independent researcher, this is a task you must face alone.

With my dissertation fresh in mind, my next few posts will be part of an informal series to share advice, tips, and tricks for getting through your final year of graduate school and defending your dissertation.  First up the pre-game: the things I did and wish I had done before writing my dissertation to make my life easier at the end.

Things I Did

Attended a retreat: My university writing center offered a dissertation writing retreat on campus every semester. I was skeptical when I first signed up, but two days later I came out with a complete dissertation map, formal outline, and had begun formatting references and previous publications into their appropriate sections. I could have declared a “retreat” of my own and stayed at home to write, but there is something to be said for getting out of the lab into a dedicated writing environment. I turned off my email for 48 hours and got to sit at a sunny window desk with uninterrupted writing time, workshops with writing experts, and an endless amount of snacks and caffeine. For free. If your university does something like this, I highly recommend you take advantage. If not, consider creating a writing group with friends and holding each other to your goals.

Kept a citation manager: If you haven’t started doing this, it’s never too late to begin. I use Mendeley, but there are plenty of others out there to choose from. Most options will integrate seamlessly with your writing program of choice, even LaTeX, making citing papers throughout your dissertation a breeze. They also can sync papers between computers and allow you to take notes directly on the documents in an organized fashion. No more stacks of paper!

Sought advice from those who had previously defended: It may not be on your mind at the beginning of your time in graduate school, but talk to those in your lab that are about to defend or have recently defended. They may be hard to find since they tend to be busy writing outside of the lab, but they will have invaluable insight into what the dissertation and defense are like. Particularly if they are in your research group, they might have similar committees to you and can attest to what the questioning might be like. If you’re a late-stage grad student, don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends that have already left the lab. They are often more than happy to give advice and can be a cheering squad when you need reassurance.

Things I Wish I Had Done

Started my literature review earlier: The first thing I realized when I sat down at that retreat was that I should have started earlier. I was a few months out from my defense and I had to remember all of the background from all of the projects I had ever done in the last four years. Yikes! Get a jump start on your introduction by writing a literature review for publication or setting aside a couple of days a month to write paragraphs over the articles you’ve been reading, even if you’re a few years out from graduating. You might even consider attending a dissertation retreat before you officially start. On the first day of my retreat I was surprised to see a first year colleague there, too. So see if there is extra space, and maybe you too can start nice and early.

Warned the world: When I set a defense date and began writing, I had an irrational fear that if I told people I was writing my dissertation and had to push the date back or didn’t pass that I would be the laughingstock of the department. So instead of tapping into my support system, I just disappeared. Writing your dissertation is scary, but now is the time when you need your support system the most. People were extremely understanding and helpful once they found out: my parents paid for my food for a month so I didn’t have to worry about cooking; my roommate, lab mates, and boyfriend coordinated defense-day festivities so I could focus on preparing the talk; my friends accepted that I wouldn’t be free to talk much and planned for catching up after my defense. You’ve spent time building your support system, it’s okay to use it.

Created a food plan: Despite my living within walking distance of the grocery store, I found it incredibly difficult to plan much less execute any recipe. My brain was too full of thesis thoughts to even decide what groceries to buy, so I resorted to ordering take-out, which isn’t always healthy or easy on the wallet. Plan and decide what you’re going to do about food ahead of time. If you need to eat out, do it. If you’d rather stock up on freezer and crock-pot meals, do it. Even consider asking for restaurant gift cards for a few holidays, just make sure you have a plan to stay fed and rested so you can operate at the level you need to.

Updated my wardrobe: When I opened my closet the week before my defense I found the business dress I’d had since freshman year of college was too small, my shoes were scuffed and smushed from years of stuffing them into suitcases for conferences, and my nice suit would suffocate me in the 100°F and 90% humidity of Nashville in July. I had been too busy running last-minute simulations to even think about what I was going to wear to my defense. This meant the weekend before my defense I was video calling my mom from the floor of the shoe store because my brain was too full of equations to decide if my shoes matched. Don’t be me — plan what to wear in advance and save up some money to buy nice formal clothes that you can rely on to be comfortable, in style, and presentable even in extreme weather.

Trusted myself: I was fortunate to not suffer from Imposter Syndrome for most of my time in graduate school. However, that all changed the minute I set a defense date. That date was uncomfortably close, only two months out. I was stressed trying to balance finalizing my postdoc offer with finishing experiments, writing my dissertation, submitting a paper to a journal, and preparing to present at the two conferences that happened in the meantime. Even with everything going right I began to hardcore doubt myself, my decisions, and my conversations with my mentors. In the end, I wasted so much mental energy worrying and it wasn’t until I made the final slides of my defense talk where I listed all my publications that I began to calm down. Trust me, there’s enough outside stress during your dissertation that you don’t need to add to the pile. Take ownership of your accomplishments and trust that the same work ethic that got you to your defense will carry you through it.

Are you getting ready to defend? Have you made it through? What do you wish you had known before you started?

[Photo courtesy of XKCD comics]

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