Defense anxiety
June 20, 2016 12:42 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to defend my dissertation on Thursday. I got two responses from committee members last week on the final, final draft and they were ... Lukewarm? How do I prepare to come out of this alive?

My diss has been largely self-directed, due to a hands-off advisor and lots of life changes along the way -- I did a fellowship overseas, had a baby, and moved out of state. It's taken me longer than I wanted, but I'm done and I'm set to defend Thursday.

Despite offering to send pieces over the past two years, none of my committee members except my director have taken me up on that. I sent a full draft in March and finally heard from the other three members last week. Of them, the one I expected to be harsh was not and the two I had pegged as supportive were less than. The overarching criticism seems to be that I have a very ambitious project and it doesn't completely gel just yet. They've all said some version of "if you could work on it another semester or so, that'd be best". But I'm out of funding and can't really take out a loan to crank out more drafts. I'm planning on reworking it this next year anyway, to send out as articles and potentially a book sometime. I think it could take a could years to get it to a publishable state, considering I'm a stay at home mom.

On the positive side, they've all said some version of "this is really interesting and ambitious research and could potentially change the field".

So, in terms of the next three days, is there anything I can do to assuage my anxiety? Our field (liberal arts) has a track record of passing people if they get as far as a defense. I guess I'm not as worried that I won't pass, but that they'll think I was a waste of time and that I'm dumb. I'm flying in for the defense, so changing it and working more isn't in the cards. I'd have to defend by July 15 anyway, which only buys me a couple weeks. My advisor is super supportive and has said he's very confident I did great work and that some of it is really brilliant. Do I just take some Xanax and wait for it to be over? What would you counsel your advisees or students or friends to do?
posted by mrfuga0 to Education (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
but that they'll think I was a waste of time and that I'm dumb

Hey, people's opinions are their own business and largely reflective of their own issues. I feel like most committees have burned out their care-circuits years ago, so if they're actually mustering up the flicker of enthusiasm to call it interesting and ambitious you should take that as raging approval.

These stakes are incredibly high to you and incredibly low to them. Of course you're going to be frazzled to a crisp! If you have some Xanax, do that. Hydrate, light exercise, sleep, healthy enjoyable food. It's almost over. You will be okay.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:51 PM on June 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

Every dissertation committee member ever has thought a draft would be improved by having another semester to work on it, but you know it's time to be finished with it. What matters at this point is defending - I'd listen to your advisor here. If you weren't going to pass, your advisor has the responsibility not to let you defend. I don't know what your field is or school, but in mine, it's what your advisor thinks that is paramount - the other committee members give feedback, but you're ultimately not their student. I wouldn't worry about the comments from your other committee members - go and do a great job at the defense and get on with the rest of your life.
posted by heurtebise at 12:52 PM on June 20, 2016 [7 favorites]

I defended my diss in 2014 in English Language and Literature. I was about to write a lengthy answer (fee free to memail me for more info) but thought I'd go with the simplest:

1. You effing MADE IT. Put aside imposter syndrome. If you're anything like me, even a successful defense can't kill imposter syndrome. You have to do it in here first (points to brain).

2. yes, feel free to take a Xanax. I took an Ativan and was worried I'd be clouded, but I wasn't. It went fine.

3. It's going to go so fast. When you're done you'll remember a million things you should have said. This is normal.

4. You are the EXPERT - not them, you. Sell it! (or if you're battling imposter syndrome: fake it!)

5. Really: the hard part is over. You're going to do wonderfully (even if you doubt the words of a stranger). My defense felt more like a head-game or psychological test of endurance than anything.

Sincerely: Good luck. And CONGRATULATIONS.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:54 PM on June 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

If you have done as you should have, you know more about your specific area of expertise than any on the committee asking questions. Let them know with every answer just how much about your area of interest you do know and how nice it is of them to want to know more about what interests them but they do not fully understand but you do. Congrats!
posted by Postroad at 1:00 PM on June 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just did this last month! Here is what you need to remember:

1. You are going to pass. You are.
2. Lukewarm reactions in writing are likely to be better in person. I think a lot of scholars get into peer review mode with written reactions, but they are more likely to be enthusiastic and interested in person, when you are in the room with it. . .
3. . . . especially if you seem excited. No matter how nervous, go in and BE STOKED to talk about your research. No one knows your project as well as you do! This is your chance to talk, in depth, about the most esoteric details and the most dense of footnotes! This is the opposite of the elevator pitch. Now is your time. You are the expert on this project. Remember that.
4. It is totally fine to talk about changes you would have made if you had had more time. During my defense, I talked extensively about two chapters that didn't even make it into the final project, but which had contained theoretical work that was relevant to the questions my committee asked. They expressed regret that the time crunch meant the chapters didn't make it in, but also agreed getting the defense over with was way more important.
5. If you can, find a book or a few articles that JUST came out in your field/relevant to your project. I had one that I referred to a few times (with regret that it came out too late to be included in the diss), and it made me seem very invested in the field and scholarship despite no longer doing it professionally.
6. Even rough defenses become invisible to the rest of the world once you have the degree.
7. Cheat code: find some publications by your committee members, cite them verbally if you have a chance. One of my outside members asked me a question, and I answered it with a quote from her own book that came out last year. SHE DUG IT.
8. This is a bit silly, but I got a manicure right beforehand. It made me feel like a fancy professional lady instead of a garbage monster who had been living in piles of JStor printouts. Also, it's nice to get some self-care done by professionals right before you go into the room.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 1:06 PM on June 20, 2016 [19 favorites]

I don't have direct experience here, but I did attend a girlfriend's defense (Physics PhD at Rice) 15 years ago or so. I was absolutely SHOCKED at how pro forma the activity was. It seemed more like mild hazing than anything else.

I've been told by other people that this is common -- ie, that getting to defend means you're done, and that failing a defense is spectacularly unlikely.

This was, of course, long ago and not in your field, but perhaps it'll be encouraging.
posted by uberchet at 1:31 PM on June 20, 2016

This may seem silly or like I am joking, but I know that when I am going into a stressful, pressure-packed situation, I like to have a funny, light-hearted image/concept in my head to relax me. In your case, I'd suggest considering that at least you don't have to literally fight a snake.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:32 PM on June 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

There is nothing for the university to gain by you failing the defense. If you trust your advisor, then trust they would not have let you get this far if you were not ready. It seriously makes them look the fools if you get to this point and it is not passable.

Expect to make edits even after the defense. Everyone I graduated with had changes to make after the defense, but they were relatively minor in the scope of the whole project (e.g., adding in a few more recent citations, explaining something differently). In my own, I had to clean up my final chapter to make it sound more like the expert I came across as in the actual defense.

And yes, it will be over in the blink of an eye. It goes SO fast. Practice!!

And seriously -- you only need to pass the defense. You can change the world with your book.
posted by archimago at 1:47 PM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

So all the worst possible outcomes here are what happened to me: lukewarm reactions to the final draft before the defense, and then the committee wouldn't sign and let me submit after the defense, so I spent the next semester *unpaid*, but enrolled and paying tuition, revising several more times (don't think minor edits, think new analyses and major rewrites) until they grudgingly signed the dissertation and let me submit the damn thing.

But I'm done!

Which goes to say, this could go about as badly as you imagine and you will come out the other side with a PhD, eventually. You've come this far!

And yeah, I got myself through the whole ordeal with Klonopin. Xanax away!
posted by pemberkins at 2:03 PM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Have you checked around and found out what the food traditions are around defenses? In college I worked in the Psychology department office and the conventional wisdom was mid-morning with donuts and pastries from the good place, lunchtime with a pretty deli sandwich platter (from a deli, not a grocery; two kinds of sandwiches *minimum*) or mid-afternoon with baked goods and coffee. (Lunch was generally only for dissertations, but theses could be morning or afternoon. The most profound thing I ever saw was the Brazilian doctoral candidate who flew her mother in to cook for her defense.)

We'd usually see the student first, as they'd come by to tell us they passed (and bring us the leftovers - never anger the admins). Later we'd see one of the professors and they would invariably comment on the food. I'm not saying you can spackle over a crappy dissertation with a good chicken salad, but I am saying that free food puts professors in good moods.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:09 PM on June 20, 2016

Oh gosh, my defense, I still have nightmares, it was weird. Just weird. Even though I passed, I somehow convinced myself that I did not pass because my advisor did not call me "doctor" when she told me I passed. This story might be the best example of imposter syndrome out there. It's basically insane. The lengths I went to to drive myself mad with that dang PhD!

You will pass. My committee had NO idea what I was doing for the two years that it took me to write my dissertation; my advisor, I met with every other week, and she was very helpful and shaped the work a lot, but the rest of the committee was not involved in any way. So the fact that your committee read drafts? That is great. You will be OK.

I am now a TT faculty member and I've been spending the past year writing articles from my dissertation. My running joke is that now I am finally writing the dissertation I wanted to write. I needed another six months or a year to make my ideas gel. I still got my PhD. It was fine. I had edits; you will have edits, but at the end it is your advisor who pushes the cart and who OK's the edits, not your entire committee (at least that is the case both at my degree granting institution and the institution where I am now, where I advise PhD students). If your advisor likes it - which they do - you should pass. Really. You'll pass.

Eat breakfast that day, and take care of yourself. You're almost there!!!
posted by sockermom at 2:56 PM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, also, I once saw someone defending who could not explain the difference between correlation and causation. It was awkward. (I think she knew the difference but got flustered, to be honest.) She still passed.

And to all of those who say a defense is more like a mild hazing than anything else, they are exactly right. Pop 'em if you've got 'em and just screw your head on and get it done.
posted by sockermom at 3:00 PM on June 20, 2016

Xanax, a massage, anything you can do to make life more pleasant, maybe a long walk the day before or the morning of the defense to get those creative juices flowing and some nervous energy out.

Re-read your chapters if you need something to do. Do you have to give a talk before the defense? Practice that, and try to smile and think about how good it'll feel to wake up the day after you pass your defense. :)

I was so nervous before my defense, but I ended up really enjoying speaking with the committee, the time flew by, I didn't get the questions I anticipated but it was good to prepare. I regret not throwing myself a bigger party immediately afterwards although I did have friends come by and drink with myself and the committee. No one wants this to be a bad experience for you, it is definitely a hazing/formality if your advisor is being so positive, you'll do great.
posted by lafemma at 3:07 PM on June 20, 2016

It seemed more like mild hazing than anything else. I've been told by other people that this is common -- ie, that getting to defend means you're done, and that failing a defense is spectacularly unlikely.

Yep. Letting you get to a defense and not passing you is basically unconscionable pedagogically in most programs.

Graduate school is full of this kind of stuff.
posted by listen, lady at 7:22 PM on June 20, 2016

Everyone is nutsy before their defense. If they are allowing you to defend, then they expect you to pass. You may get edits, but they expect you to pass. Officially, I passed without modifications; however, I did have a few strongly suggested edits which I made because they were good ideas. Whether your pass paperwork says "with mods" or "without mods" you will almost assuredly have mods. You aren't going to discuss your research with a group of knowledgeable people and come away without a few things to edit/clarify. Depending on your program, officially having mods may mean some additional paperwork for your chair.

When I was doing my final prep with my chair, I mentioned that I was holding off on having my family purchase tickets to fly out for graduation. My chair sighed and said. "Oh, please tell them buy the plane tickets. You are graduating." Hearing her say that made it all so much easier.

For the next few days, eat healthy, get enough sleep, drink plenty of know the basics of good self care.

You made it Doc.
posted by 26.2 at 7:42 PM on June 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Xanax-taker, know thyself. I have a tendency to stop and think before replying to a question, and after a Xanax, the pauses can stretch nearly to the awkward silence point.

I attended my son's PhD defense. Most of the hard questions were directed to or answered by the members of the committee while my son went through a simple example (backed up by about sixty pages of mathematical construction unintelligible to anyone outside the field.) One member of the committee from a different university asked a couple pro-forma questions about the comprehensiveness of the math, and my son answered it was only comprehensive enough to prove his results.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:04 AM on June 21, 2016

Thanks, everyone. I'm just going to re-read this thread until Thursday. I'll check back and let everyone know how it went.
posted by mrfuga0 at 9:59 AM on June 21, 2016

I passed after a very short and helpful meeting. Thanks everyone!
posted by mrfuga0 at 3:23 PM on June 23, 2016 [8 favorites]

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