Monday, May 17, 2010

defending your life.

it was actually really fun.

i know you're supposed to tell horror stories about the phd defense, and the tales my director have told me tell me that it varies widely from institution to institution, but mine was genuinely fun.

it didn't really start out that way.

as you well know, the few days before the defense were a horror.  i was trying to finish grading, and i had been grading for EVER it seemed, and my brain was quite simply fried. on monday, when i was finally finishing some of the grading that i needed to do before i could well and truly move on from the grading part of my life to the preparing for the defense part of my life, i just couldn't imagine thinking anything smart, sharp, or successful for that day. 

my brain felt like swiss cheese.

my wonderful husband gave me a blessing (which is a special prayer specifically for me that offers guidance and peace from Heavenly Father; others can be given in times of sickness--they both work amazingly) in which he said the following (or something darn close): "a defense is named a defense for a reason. you'll be asked to defend your ideas.  don't shy away from them--have confidence and defend them."

you know, i hadn't really thought before that about going in there expecting to be challenged and finding that exhilarating, but the blessing really made that happen for me. i suddenly shifted my thinking, seeing those challenges as not something to be afraid of, but as opportunities to show what i know.

so the day before and the day of, i baked goodies for my committee. i reread my dissertation (SO BORING when you've read it 900 times in the last month already as you were doing revisions) and at 8 the morning of my defense, i got a long email from my 2nd reader with a series of questions that he would ask.

at first, i panicked.  but then i realized that here was a LIST of ideas that i knew that i needed to cover. it really helped me crystallize my ideas, to put down into words what i needed to put down into words for my opening statement.  my director and i had discussed what i needed to cover, but until i went through his questions (which were both big and small in scope), i didn't feel capable of reining in my thoughts.

once i had those notes down, i felt ready.

so i started getting ready. i was out of the shower and blowdrying my hair when i realized it.

i had forgotten to pick up my paperwork.

now this may not seem like a big deal, but getting four professors in a room together at the end of a semester is like herding cats sometimes.  it's challenging, requires energy, and is almost impossible to replicate, especially when one of them leaves the state for the summer, the other is retired, and another is about to go overseas to adopt a baby. 

if i didn't have my paperwork, i would have had to find each one of them in turn to get them to sign it.

i panicked, hyperventilating a little bit.  i paced the floor of our small apartment for a minute or so, saying over and over to myself "i can't believe i did this. i can't believe i did this."  my husband, poor soul, didn't quite know what to do with me.

a minute passed, and i came up with a plan.  i'd call.  no one would answer. i left a message, then called my director, who reassured me that if i couldn't get it we would figure it out--but to try.

my leisurely preparation time, when i envisioned that i would do my hair and makeup and relax a little bit, turned into a frantic hair straightening, makeup slapping rush to get out of the door so that i could hunt down the paperwork. musicboy drove me, and when i got up to the office, there she was.  no problem.  paperwork in hand.

chaos reigned just a little bit, but that's pretty standard.  by the time i got to the defense, the adrenaline was pumping. my legs were shaking and i was nervous. 

the first thing they have you do is leave the room.  i love the geographical politics of that and the symbolism.  they, the committee, the symbolic gatekeepers of the phd club, have you leave the room so that they can convene and discuss what gauntlet they are going to run you through.  i was nervous because i knew that i had to do my opening statement after that, and i so desperately wanted to sound intelligent. i wanted to be able to encapsulate my argument and clarify some questions about the relevance my project has to scholarship.  it's been the hardest thing for me to articulate, and it's the big question that my readers were left with after reading my draft.

they called me in and we began. i was sitting at the head of the table, the four committee members surrounding me.  the worst part of it was that statement--and that's because i was still shaking and still so nervous.  but i had my notes and something took over. i was able to explain and i think i did a really good job doing so. i could see heads nodding as i would make certain points, and i knew that i was addressing questions that they had.

after that, and after the first question, i thought to myself "i've got this."

and i did.  question after question came, and the challenges came from my second reader.  he called me on a few ideas, and i found myself confidently explaining where i was coming from.  each time, he commented that he could see my point.

when it was over, when the questioning was done, they had me leave again.  i wasn't gone for long when my director came out and said "congratulations, dr. marriedlastname."

it was nice.

what was nicer, though, was their comments after i returned. now that the gauntlet had been run and i had been victorious, they told me what they thought--that i was as articulate in person and in the oral defense as i had been in what was a well-written and thoughtful dissertation. my second reader, specifically, thought i was poised and confident in those moments of defending my ideas, and they all commented that they thought that i would do well in interviews because of my demeanor--i listen to others' ideas but stand firmly behind mine.

what a huge confirmation of the guidance i got in my blessing.  it was an amazing thing to behold, how prayers were answered and my testimony grew of the power of the priesthood in my life.

and the best part of all?  no changes. other than the errors that need to be fixed, they didn't think i needed to make any changes at all at this time. they had quite a few suggestions for when the manuscript becomes a book (yeesh!), but not for the dissertation.

that surprised me i think most of all. that and the fact that i wanted it to keep going.  i was a little sad when it was over.  all of this work, all of this preparation, all of this anxiety, and i rocked it.

i left the next day for vacation with my mom, and i entered what my mom called my zombie phase.  i was quieter than normal, didn't have much to say, was impatient, and was in general in what musicboy calls my "backup brain." i thought it was because i was apart from musicboy (and posted re: that) but i realized only on thursday, when i started coming out of it, that it was decompression from the months and months of incredible stress and pace that i'd been keeping. 

now that i'm coming out of that zombie phase, and am trying to come up with plans for the next few months and for fall, i'm wondering what i'll end up filling my time with. suddenly my schedule seems so very free, and i'm not sure what i'll do with myself.  maybe i'll get the chance to revisit some of my old hobbies (hello, crossstitch) or pick up new ones.  maybe the Lord will see fit to bless me with things to occupy my time most constructively. 

nevertheless, the defense is over.  last up is those few revisions, which i may expand a bit to include the justification portion that i sussed out for my opening statement but which i don't plan to have take a long time, and submitting it to the graduate school. then i get to decorate my cap and graduate in august.

and then i'm really done. 

it's a really strange feeling. i feel a bit lost in some ways. i've been in school straight for eight years, and for so long it's been the way that i've defined myself.  but in the hours after the defense, when the glow of my accomplishment was still shining brightly within me, i realized that i am so happy that i finished.  more than anything else, i knew in THAT moment that i would have regretted it so much if i hadn't. i don't know what i'll do with my dissertation or with my degree. i don't know that i will ever be a professor in the tenure-track, traditional sense.  i'm okay with that.  but what i do know is that i did it. not only did i do it, i did it on my terms and i did it with my ideas and in the process i earned the respect of the people that i respected most in my department.  these were the people who i learned from, who inspired me to do my best work, who helped to develop me into a thinker.

and in my thinking, i won their respect.  and i won my respect too.  i used to start a lot of things and not finish them.  the carnage of my craft box is evidence of this fact.  but i don't think i do that anymore.  now i know what it's like to take something important, to set my sights on a goal that seems almost unattainable and to work through it until i reach it.

i learned a lot about myself. i'm still learning, of course, but if i could encapsulate my phd process in a few words, i would say this: i endured to the end, and i endured well.

really, i don't think there's anything else i could ask of myself.


  1. I heart the priesthood.

    You need to update your about me to include "doctor". :)

  2. Congratulations, Dr. TeacherGirl! (Note: you must now capitalize your pseudonym to go with your title) :)