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PhD Defense Day!

Posted on the 25 April 2011 by Thecancergeek @thecancergeek

Those of you who either know me IRL or follow me on twitter or facebook know that I defended my PhD successfully this past Friday. Yay!  After a relaxing weekend where I attempted to think as little as possible about science (didn’t succeed to ignore completely), I’m ready to get back in the lab tomorrow, start working on some of those experiments for our paper revision, and finish up the edits on my thesis and get all my paperwork squared away for graduating and postdoc stuff etc….I have a rather long list of demands on my time for the next 2 months that I will be in my PhD lab before moving.  But my blog has to start somewhere, so I guess I’ll write some about finishing up my PhD.

D-day was rather anti-climactic to be honest.  While I had a lot to be confident about (being a quite successful student with my own funding, lots of awards and more than the average number of publications etc), the last minute nerves still got to me, mainly felt in my stomach.  Haven’t had this sort of anxiety for many years – even though as an undergrad contemplating grad school, I was scared of the candidacy exam (after all, they could ask you ANYTHING – impossible to study, right?), once it actually came up, I was pretty confident since I knew I had nailed the written proposal, that the actual presentation and questioning were rather benign.

So why was I so nervous about my defense, since intellectually I knew that in my program virtually no-one actually fails at that point, that candidacy and committee meetings are the weed-out points?  Well, it was more to do with having rushed the writing of my thesis for various reasons that had me on edge.

Earlier in March-April I had 2 back-to-back conference trips (and then an immediate day-trip to Houston), when I told myself I would make good progress on my thesis, which I had only just outlined before leaving.  Coming back from them still on chapter 1, section 1.4, wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for ‘good progress” on a thesis that was due at least in draft form less than a week later to the graduate school (which I subsequently got a short extension for by being nice).  Somehow I still got it all together in time (basically pulling 16-18 hour writing days in a few coffeeshops, including a close-by 24-hour one), and got it off to my committee a whole 5 days before my defense.  After taking a day breather with no writing and no coffee (which by then I could feel was affecting my appetite and GI system), and taking care of some life stuff, I began my presentation 2 nights before my defense….still not nervous.  I mostly finished it that night, and just left some minor polishing to do on Thursday.  Then Thursday I pretty much became a nervous wreck as can be seen by some of my tweets and facebook postings (figure 1).

Me freaking out online

Figure 1: Me freaking out the night before

It was heartwarming however to see all the great tweets of support from my “twitter friends” most of whom I still (unfortunately) don’t know IRL yet….its impossible for me to select a single special one, so figure 2 has most of them.

Tweets from friends before defense

Figure 2: Look at all those sweet words of encouragement

Somehow I managed to get a good 4 hours of sleep on Thursday (normally if I’m that nervous I’ll stay up all night)…and in the morning, I got into one of my new favorite outfits, and I got ready to leave, with plenty time for a Starbucks tea stop (since it was also Earth Day and they had a promo for free tea/coffee if you brought in a reusable cup J ).

I arrived at the auditorium where my defense was held nice and early to setup, and test videoconference, and then I sit and chat with my friend Mary (thanks for trying to keep me calm!) on twitter until finally my PI and committee show up, and small audience, given that it was Good Friday afternoon.  PI begins and gives great introduction, and I’m still a bit nervous after her setting up all the high expectations, but once I’m a few slides into the background I settle down, and give probably one of my best talks ever…managed to slow down when going over data, and talk is perfectly timed, without any true run-throughs of this particular presentation (although large parts of it were similar to most recent student seminar in January).  So then closed grilling begins, and surprisingly it was rather mild, and my PI couldn’t even think of 1 scientific question (so she makes up some general grad student question on recruiting etc)…a total of  ~20 minutes pass before I get sent out for the committee to chat, and a minute or 2 later get called back in with the good (expected) news.  So that’s the story of my defense.  Glad it went so well, but wish I wasn’t so nervous.  PI even admitted later during champagne celebration outside the lab that it was the best thesis she’d read, and now that I’d pulled off that feat (writing the whole ~200 page masterpiece basically in 2 weeks) that I wouldn’t get to take a month off to write grants like some PIs do.

Final stats on my thesis (pre-edits, but these shouldn’t add a significant amount):

-   Pages = 200

-   Words =  34,738

-   Figures = 75

-   References = 206

Anyone else have any interesting stories about defenses? Or large writing projects?  Next time maybe I’ll delve more into how I managed to write it in that short of a time (other than writing for hours-upon-hours a day).  If anyone has any questions feel free to ask in the comments, and if the answer is long enough maybe I’ll make a special post for you.

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