I remember stepping foot onto campus for my first day as a PhD student nearly seven years ago. How did I get here? Do I belong here? The path that brought me there was winding and pockmarked by fear, doubt, and a boatload of “imposter syndrome” feelings. As I made the trek from the bus stop to my new home department, a million questions were running through my head. But the biggest questions didn’t have to do with what classes I would take or how I would afford to do research or even how long the PhD process would take. My biggest questions had to do with how different my Comprehensive Exams and Dissertation would be from the exams and defense I had completed for my Master’s degree and whether or not I was good enough, smart enough, or dedicated enough to get through them.
At the time, I thought my situation was fairly unique. I came from a blue-collar background in a small-ish southern town in the United States. A product of the public school system raised by (wonderful and brilliant) parents who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, I soon found myself as a first-generation college student trying to navigate the tricky world of higher education alone. I’ve since learned that I am far from alone. Whether through unacknowledged intelligence, sheer determination, or the help of great professors, I managed to graduate with my B.A. in Archaeology a year early and enter into a terminal M.A. program in History with a concentration in Public History. Because it was a terminal M.A. program, we had comprehensive exams, and as a Public History student, I had a required internship instead of a Master’s thesis. But I opted to complete a Master’s thesis in addition to my internship when I realized I had a passion for teaching and wanted to continue on to the PhD program. In my mind, completing the thesis would give me a better chance of being accepted into a PhD program. And fortunately, it did. But throughout the entire process, I felt woefully unprepared. I had several wonderful mentors who did their best to offer me advice and guidance. But for many who tried to help, they didn’t know how, having come from very different backgrounds than mine. They didn’t quite understand why I just “didn’t get it.”
So when I entered into my PhD program in the mid-west, I had my own idea of what the dissertation process, defense included, would be like given my M.A. experience: arguing, fear, intimidation, and embarrassment. But what I found out was that the M.A. and the PhD process, at least in my case, were quite different than what I expected. As I began to get to know my PhD colleagues and ask about previous defense experiences in the history department, the general consensus was that if a student was given the green light by their advisor to schedule their defense, the defense was a done deal and the student would be on their way to graduation. As Leonard Cassuto so brilliantly put it in his piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “failed defenses turn up in the United States about as often as hairless porcupines.” This seems to be a very different experience to my colleagues in PhD programs outside of the U.S. But as comforting as that thought was, it still didn’t seem to ease the anxiety or the pressure surrounding the dissertation and its defense. Sometimes I found the anxiety surrounding the dissertation process paralyzing, preventing me from getting the writing done I needed to complete in order to even get to the defense. I often asked myself, if the dissertation defense is, as people had described it, “merely a formality,” what was its purpose? Why would they require it?
As I reached the point of “completing” my dissertation (internalizing the mantra “A good dissertation is a done dissertation”), I found my advisor reluctant to schedule a defense. On more than one occasion, my application for defense failed to move forward. But once my advisor was comfortable enough to move forward, that should have made me feel relieved. Instead, I felt intense anxiety. What if I was one of those hairless porcupines? What if my advisor had only allowed me to schedule the defense in order to show me that, really, my dissertation was crap? What if my advisor simply thought I wasn’t cut out for the PhD or the world of academia and was trying to give me a hint to move on? Or did my advisor only schedule the defense because I had landed a job at a small, private, liberal arts college with a teaching emphasis (instead of research) contingent on graduating? Those questions circulated in my brain over and over and over again. Did I earn it? Was I good enough? Reflecting back, I think part of my advisor’s hesitation came from the fact that I had been working remotely for a couple of years, living wherever my husband found himself stationed. Perhaps my advisor thought I hadn’t been focusing as much as I should have on my work and thought that I needed more time to get it right. On the one hand, I was happy that my defense was scheduled. I tried to convince myself that it meant I was nearly done and that I would get to keep a job I’d grown to love immensely. But my fears and reservations were too loud. Especially because forming a committee for my defense had proven a roller coaster. When I first began working on my dissertation several years earlier, I thought I’d formed a solid committee. But when one committee member suddenly left the university, I found myself wondering who would fill the void. The faculty member who originally filled the empty spot was wonderful and brilliant. But as my dissertation progressed, we learned that this faculty member had health concerns that required them to step aside. A new faculty member had just joined the department around that same time; someone my advisor thought would be perfect. And all was set.
My defense was scheduled for December 16, 2015 just after I would finish giving my own students their final exams. But just days before the defense, my one committee member who had taken the place of the previous two became too ill to participate. I was devastated and terribly concerned that I would have to reschedule the defense because when I had applied for the defense, all the committee members had signed it. Could I replace a committee member at the last minute? Even if they weren’t on my application? I held my breath for nearly 24 hours until I heard back from the Graduate School. They approved my emergency committee change and I was back on track. I was told the defense would take approximately two hours. I was to prepare a brief intellectual biography detailing how I got to the PhD program, how I came to my dissertation topic, and an overview of the dissertation process from my perspective. My advisor also told me to be prepared to answer any questions already asked of my through drafts of the dissertation and to be ready to answer any questions that the other committee members might have. I was also told to be prepared to discuss my plans for the manuscript—whether I intended to expand and revise it into a book, including how and what I’d add to it, if I planned to publish any articles out of it, and what publishing venues (scholarly publishers, journals, etc.) I hoped to work with. As dissertations are technically public events, I was informed that my husband would be able to sit in on the defense itself. Colleagues who had gone through the defense process before said that I would know if I was successful because after the committee deliberated in private, my advisor would invite me back into the room by referring to me as “Dr.” This would mean that I was being welcomed as an equal, rather than as a student.
My husband was able to take time off of work to join me and we drove through the night to get to the university. As you might well imagine, I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept going over every tiny detail in my head. Sure, I’d been working on my dissertation for roughly 3 or 4 years by that point. But I was terrified I’d forget various details or that I wouldn’t be able to coherently make my argument to the committee. I also wondered how, precisely, my committee would get on together. Up to that point, one committee member had decided against reading the dissertation until the defense in order not to confuse me with comments that may contradict my advisor’s. And I knew my most recent committee member, although generally knowledgeable of my dissertation, hadn’t seen the project from beginning to end. Would this totally derail my chances for success? Having my husband present was hugely influential to me. I originally worried that having him present might make me more nervous, but in fact, knowing he was there supporting me kept me much calmer and deliberate in my responses.
I arrived to the building that morning to prepare the examination room. I brought notepads, pens, and water bottles for my advisor, my two additional committee members, the outside reviewer, and myself. I dressed comfortably, but professionally, bringing a jacket in case the room was too cold. I can’t stress enough how much being physically comfortable can really set the tone for the whole event. Once the defense started, I presented my intellectual biography and gave a brief summary of my dissertation: my overarching thesis and major points. From there, my advisor allowed my two other committee members to take turns asking questions about the manuscript. It became clear at one point that many of the questions were formulaic and that many were asked because the committee member had either given that section a cursory glance or I had failed to thoroughly explain myself. Some questions were more like suggestions in the form of a question. And there were several times that my committee members were really just talking to each other. Although they never really “argued” with each other, there was clear disagreement about various topics, mostly dealing with philosophical differences rather than disagreements about my work. My husband told me afterwards that he thought I was articulate, calculated, and responded thoughtfully to each question without being condescending. My committee deliberated for only ten minutes before inviting me back in. I was, however, nearly devastated in that moment because when my advisor came out, she called me back into the room by my first name instead of as “Dr.” Fortunately, it was merely an oversight on my advisor’s part, who hugged me and congratulated me as I re-entered the room!
Although the defense itself is “merely a formality,” it doesn’t mean one has graduated, though. I still had corrections to make between the defense and the Graduate School’s final document submission deadline. It was a difficult couple of weeks between the defense and the deadline, but I made the necessary corrections, submitted the document, received confirmation, and officially received the PhD. So while it’s easy to say not to worry about the defense, I think worry is sometimes a protective measure. As long as the fear or worry is not all-consuming, it can help one be as prepared as possible in case the defense becomes something more like a nightmare than the dream its supposed to be. Every defense is different, even if there might be “hallmarks.” And there are some truly terrifying exceptions to the general rule. Clear and effective communication between you and your advisor is vital to ensuring a smooth and successful defense. The age-old adage, “hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” is absolutely applicable when one prepares for their dissertation defense. The important thing to remember, which nearly everyone I talked to reiterated: You know more about your particular thesis/study than anyone else in the world. There’s not a question the committee can ask that you can’t provide some sort of answer to.