As promised before, I’m going to conclude the series on what to expect when you’re applying for grad school, once you get in and how things look toward the end by posting this entry. It’s about how my thesis defense *day* went, starting the tale from a day or two before. I’ll conclude with thoughts and a little on what transpired after, though I mentioned some of it before.
***Disclaimer: I won’t reveal too many intimate details, as I prefer my identity to remain hidden.
On we go:
I don’t remember if I’ve said this before, but attempting to schedule my defense was c-r-a-z-y …. some of my committee members were out of town, some were too busy to even bother to schedule. I had to put my foot down, write an email without my boss’s “permission” telling them I was more than ready to defend, and it was now or never. I also mentioned that I had to extend my job offer and keep being paid by my boss’s grant if they wanted to prolong the agony. It worked, and less than 48 hrs after sending that email (or ultimatum) I had 2 possible defense dates. But this didn’t mean that life was fine and dandy … having a defense date made the whole process real … it was happening sooner rather than later and I was a nervous wreck in the works … I had to practice the lecture, pack all my things, and staying on top of things almost proved too much to handle (I also had to pick up family at the airport, make sure they were all comfortable, even if all I wanted to do was cry). My only glimmer of hope was that after all this ordeal I’d be a PhD.
My mom arrived a few days prior to D-day, while the boyfriend arrived less than 12 hours before the defense. I was super … SUPER nervous. I think I’ve mentioned before that I was having some faith issues, so I did no prayer before, not even meditation. I was going at it all alone (also, since my mom is super spiritual AND religious, I felt as if all the prayer that needed to be done was done by her). I did a test run of the defense at home, made sure the presentation worked on a computer other than the lab one, prepared my clothes, shoes and accessories; all was taking shape.
The defense was to take place at 10am, on a beautiful summer morning. I had a lovely designer dress, and I wore the shoes I had worn 6 years earlier when I got the invite for the interview at Big Name U (to borrow Dr. Leigh’s term). At 8:30 am we headed out (might have been earlier, by this time I was running on adrenaline, was super psyched and ready to get this over and done) and my mom started to pray … but I just didn’t want to hear it, at all. I was SO nervous I thought I’d puke. We got to school, went into my old office and I had the BF take care of my mom. I showed them where I’d defend, what would happen and when they’d have a chance to see me in private once things were totally over.
I think I might have done a few changes here and there, but the talk was all ready for delivery. I said hi to a few friends, and finally walked out and into the room. I felt a bit like a quarterback that’s the underdog at the Super Bowl, all odds seem to be against you, but the people who love you are there and they’re cheering for you. You have to understand that even with all the prep, all the coaching, all the prayers, all the breathing, I still felt like I could fail, like failure was an REAL option (especially after what had happened at my qual). My boss, my family and I were in the room for a little while before people started showing up. At my school you give a public lecture followed by a closed-door meeting where you’re grilled for what appears to be hours on end and finally when you’re almost down on your knees begging for mercy they tell you to exit, to then congratulate you because you’re a doctor now (I’ve exaggerated some facts here … just trying to get a giggle out of all the minted PhD’s that may come in contact with this blog).
My lecture started. I’ve never been so proud of myself as when I was clicking and saying the words, when I was talking about what had been my life for the last 5 years. Memories (good and some not so good) started flowing, and I remember not being nervous at all. Friends, family, co-workers, profs that served as my inspiration, all known faces were there. I remember most of the advice the boss had given me just minutes before, enunciate, breathe, think and say the words confidently. It all just clicked, and on and on I talked, I paused; I was on top of the world.
After the lecture was over, and some great questions were asked it was time to pack it all and head over to the defense. The call it defense for a reason. I felt like I was defending my points, my work and my ideas in front of theSupreme Court, and all odds were stacked against me (not really, it was more the nerves than anything else). That was the part that scared me the most. I was anticipating the looks of the committee if I made some stupid mistake ,and got confused or something, or if there was a piece of critical knowledge that would somehow escape me.
I can’t remember how long it was .. but I think it was over an hour-long meeting, when they finally asked me to step outside, and after a few minutes of talking and God knows what … they came out and CONGRATULATED ME!!!!! Yes, ME, totally me, all of me. They said that I was a Dr, a PhD. I could not believe it. My boss and I were both beaming with joy. They shook my hand (or hugged me … I can’t remember), we all went in and they all signed my thesis title page (a procedure that’s very normal, even if you have to make changes to the thesis later). After saying thank you for like 10 minutes we all headed out, and I headed into my boss’s office for a breather. I got gifts and cards from friends and co-workers, and I got briefed on what to do next (how long the changes would take, when to hand it in) … and after what appeared to be hours (but were only minutes, really) I finally headed out to meet with my loved ones and share my happiness.
At first I couldn’t find them. With all the nerves and excitement I’d forgotten my cell phone in my purse, which my mom had, and it was silent, so there was no way that my family would find out that I was out of the woods. My mom and BF are very polite and proper, so I thought they would not get my phone out of my purse. I tried calling from an emergency phone at school, my boss was not in the office .. it was all crazy. After a few minutes of wandering around I found the BF and we got into one of the longest and most meaningful embrace EVER! It was so awesome. He’d seen me bloom, he’d held my hand when nobody else could. He helped me study for a super important test, even though he knew nothing about the techniques and problem. Then I met with my mom. She was so … SO proud …. to have her very own PhD, hehe. Growing up she said an old aunt and she used to talk about how one day I’d be teaching the pros, the masters … and in a way it was true. We then reminisced of lost ones, of family members who could only witness this accomplishment from the next life. We cried a little.
A few hours later we had a departmental gathering where my committee, profs, friends, classmates and co-workers came in to share and congratulate my mom and I. I was pure smiles. And that’s when it finally dawned on me, how all those years of effort had paid off. How I was this newly minted PhD who could “conquer” the world with her super skills (they totally are). I got many hugs, smiles, congrats, nudges …. I was in heaven.
The next few weeks were spent making or correcting figures and paragraphs. It all went by very fast. My mom went back home and the BF and I stayed to pack a life of 6 years and move into a totally new direction.
Months have passed and I am getting close to (hopefully) attend graduation (I’ve never missed one, I loved being all gowned up … and this might be the last time I wear the grad gear … for REALS … unless I become a PI … but that’s a whole different story).
I can honestly say now that even though some of the hardest times in my life happened while in grad school, I would not have it any other way … in fact, if I could fast track a few moments I’d do it, so I could enjoy the fruits of my labour sooner. But I guess everything happens at the appropriate time.
This is my story. This concludes my series on what to expect when you go to grad school. Cheers! And best wishes to you my padawan.