Megan Poorman completed her Ph.D. 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 from "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com
In the fifth part of my dissertation series we’re talking about all things defenses – the good, the stressful, and the practicalities. We’ve hit the final stretch of the series. There’s only one more post to come after this. Still in the writing stage? Check out the previous parts below:
It’s the moment you’ve been working towards for years. You’re dressed to impress. The room is filled with friends, colleagues, and loved ones giving you encouraging looks. You resist eating a cookie for the third time because your jitters are already through the roof—the last thing you need is a sugar crash. Your slides are ready. The video call to your out-of-state committee member is up and running. Your advisor steps up to announce you when, all the sudden, the projector crashes. You can’t help but roll your eyes and laugh. What else can you do at that moment? It’s the most critical moment of your entire graduate career, your Ph.D. defense, and the building you’ve spent so many late nights in apparently isn’t ready to let you go without a fight.
Thankfully for me, the projector came back a few minutes later and my defense proceeded as normal. My advisor gave a heartwarming introduction and away I went, zipping through my slides and forcing the room to act out magnetic resonance spin physics to demonstrate my research. It was simultaneously the best and worst feeling. On one hand I was proud and excited to show everyone what I had accomplished. I had a room full of people that voluntarily chose to come and hear me speak about a subject I cared deeply about. On the other hand, I was terrified that my stressed-out brain would forget everything I’d learned and I’d become the horror story that senior grad students tell to first years they are trying to scare.
In the end, the talk went well, and the private questions from the committee began. There were some questions that threw me for a loop, some that made me think, and some that made me sweat. For the most part though, I was just glad to have an outlet for all the pent-up thoughts that had been swirling in my head for months. Finally I got to explain in detail exactly how my algorithms worked and debate the finer points of my project! I had the five brilliant minds that made up my committee with which to get into the nitty gritty. In some weird way it was validating to get into the weeds on a subject and hold my own - to discuss the science as peers. It felt a bit like a dance or a ritual, one where you pass the test and the armed warriors salute you as they present you with your reward.
Perhaps I’m romanticizing – it certainly didn’t feel that fantastic while it was happening. The important part is that I made it through and you can to. Here are some steps to get you started.
1. Attend some defenses from your department: This will give you an idea for the format so that you know what to expect during your own.
2. Create your slides: I suggest spending at least 5 to 10 minutes on background and introduction. Defenses are often open to the public, so this is your chance to get everyone hooked and to show your committee you know how to communicate at all levels.
3. Don’t get stuck in the weeds: Just like in writing, you don’t have to make your slides in the order that you will present the. If you’re stuck on the background slides, start putting in results figures from your dissertation document. If you’re tired and don’t want to think too hard, edit the formatting.
4. If applicable, list your publications and presentations: Whether you do it throughout as you show figures or on slides at the end (or both), show your committee that you’re a productive member of your field. It’s also a nice self-esteem boost.
5. Find and print all the forms: This includes any forms needed by the graduate school to grant your degree and any required by your department. If you’re unsure what you need, talk to your admin.
6. Put someone else in charge of logistics: The last thing you need to worry about is who is bringing the snacks and keeping track of your parents (yes mine came to my defense). Put someone in charge of transporting food (great job for said parents) and trust that they’ll bring it. Also tell them your ideal after-party and let them plan. Even if partying is the last thing on your mind right now, celebrations must be had!
7. Send an announcement: Don’t forget to notify the department of your defense date/time/location. You want people in the audience besides your committee to throw you some warm-up questions and remind you that people care.
8. Do laundry: Make sure your presentation outfit is ready to go and you aren’t scrambling to find socks last minute.
Day of the defense:
1. Trust your logistics coordinator: Huge shout out to my boyfriend and roommate who took care of everything so that I didn’t have to. This meant I could focus on getting myself mentally and physically ready.
2. Carve space for yourself: I ate a good breakfast, came to campus early so that I could get a good parking spot, laid my clothes out nicely at my desk, and then relaxed. I spent a few minutes walking around campus and meditated at the student wellbeing center. This helped me feel centered and ready to face the challenge ahead. Then I got ready and reviewed my slides.
3. Wear what makes you feel good: Whether it be a power suit or dress and heels, be authentically yourself, albeit a well-groomed one. The better you feel, the more confidently you’ll be able to defend.
4. Whatever happens, don’t panic: If you’re stumped by a question or mess up your words, take a deep breath. Try to work through your response verbally so your committee can hear your thought process. They are going to test you and ask you hard questions, the way you handle the situation matters just as much as your ability to answer.
1. Make sure you have all the forms: Before your committee scatters out the door, never to be seen in the same room again, make sure you have all the requisite signatures.
2. Thank your committee and advisor: They supported you through this and devoted time to your success. It will be a whirlwind after they announce you’ve passed, but try to catch them before they leave.
3. Congratulate yourself: Take a deep breath and smile. It’s going to be weird. Despite knowing you’ve made it, you may not feel any different. Even so, take a moment to remind yourself of how far you’ve come and how hard you’ve worked.
4. Celebrate: Enjoy the after-party. It could just be happy hour or cake in the office but make sure you commemorate the occasion. After all, you only get your PhD once!