27 and a PhD

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The thesis defense – after all this I’ll be a PhD

Welcome to my blog!

Hello there, awesome reader. My name is Dr. 27. I'm older than that now, but I'm staying faithful to the origins of the blog.

This blog started 2 months before completing my PhD in a pretty southern university back in 2009. It was a way to practice my writing and take a break from all things thesis. My PhD is in a branch of structural biology where I studied some rather impressive stuff.

After completing the degree, I packed my life of 6 years in 3 days and moved to Canada to do a postdoc in a completely different field. Two years later, and after attending a lot of seminars, workshops and doing some much-needed soul-searching, I ended up getting out and looking for an alternative path to academia and industry.

The blog chronicles my mishaps, ideas, musings and tips on entering, staying and finishing grad school. It also talks about some (or a lot) of personal stuff. For a while, the blog became a place to talk about the frustrations of not knowing what to do after PhD. I wanted to explore alternatives to the traditional paths of research (academia, industry and goverment) whilst going back to my field of training (if at all possible). Eventually a job materialized. Follow my quest as I navigate the waters of being a staff scientist at a core facility.

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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.

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24 Comments

  1. Confounded says:

    New reader here. Great post! And so timely for me. I’ve just set my defense date (I think, though it’s not entirely clear that it’s been confirmed by one committee member), and I feel like I’m going to be high anxiety until then, but your defense story made me smile, and I can’t wait to be on the other side.

    • kristine says:

      Hi, I’m defending my IMC campaign for my masters degree in a few days and I’m scared as hell since this is the so-called judgment day… Your story made me smile for a moment and gave me an ounce of encouragement 😀

      • Dr. 29 says:

        Thanks for your comment Kristine. I’m sending hugs your way. Everything will be A-OK. And yes, it feels like judgement day. What a clever way to put it.

  2. […] The thesis defense – after all this I'll be a PhD « 28 and a PhD […]

  3. 28 and a PhD says:

    Confounded … congrats on being so very close. I know the feeling, and I’m sending good vibes your way. My only extra piece of advice is that even if it doesn’t seem like it at the moment … enjoy every single minute. You’re the star of the show, so enjoy every minute. You’ll look back and smile even more when all this is behind and you’re a PhD. Cheers on your defense!

  4. […] thesis – totally normal feeling. If you want, feel free to read about my thesis defense and the aftermath. I’ve mentioned this before, but even though your PI, your labmates, your family, your […]

  5. […] free to check some of my entries about grad school and my experience here and here. And as always, if there’s a question, just leave a comment and I’ll reply […]

  6. […] free to check this post on how my PhD defense DAY was … yeah, it felt like a day although it was all said and done in […]

  7. […] or made figures and calculations in a matter of seconds when I was taking my qualifying exam or defending my thesis. The internet and textbooks were there, just not a my reach, and had I relied only on those sources […]

  8. […] the proteins that I needed and started doing those darn assays (which didn’t work). Also,  I blogged about my defense in as much detail as I […]

  9. sci says:

    Excellent post. Captures some of my experiences even if I am asian grad student, in a tier-3 school.
    Just completed my defense and the jitters are still there…

  10. […] My PhD was by no means all happy and pretty every day. I did have some bad moments. I also had some pretty awesome moments.  But it wasn't because of her, it was all school and occasionally project related, but she was a […]

  11. N says:

    Congragulations. I’m only reading your blog now and I had tears in my eyes as I read this post – your day of defense must have been so many feelings culminating into this one day. It sounds so fullfilling. As rhey say, a PhD is totally worth the end of the journey because you are a PhD now after all.
    Brilliant job! Enjoyed this post.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Awww, thanks N! It was indeed an amazing day. I try to remember as much as I can, as I was running high on adrenaline and so eager to have the degree (and get done with all the questions and the examination, gaaah!). I got to enjoy my partner’s defense recently, and I was all smiles, it reminded me of my day and I wanted to pay back, in a small way, all the support he showed a couple of years ago.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Sorry it took forever to answer. Hope all is well and enjoy!

      -27

  12. Hi! I just defended my dissertation last month and passed! I wasn’t sure if I could already use the title Dr. until communications in the office addressed to me bore the title “Dr.” It was only then that I started using it in my class syllabuses. I’m still doing my revisions now. My dilemma however is that our program, which I head, will be going through accreditation in January but I don’t receive my diploma till April. Can I already say I’m a Ph.D. or am I still a Ph. D. Candidate?

    • Dr. 27 says:

      I think that you can already say you’re a PhD. You’ve had your defense and after you’ve had the thesis approved in its final form, meaning, once the corrections are all done and the grad school has given the OK. When I went into my postdoc lab my boss and labmates addressed me as 27 and a PhD. I think you can start using it as soon as you defend and the corrections you have to do are not huge. You’re definitely not a PhD candidate anymore :-). Congrats!

  13. Hi! I just defended my dissertation last month but wasn’t sure if I could already use the Dr. title after that until I saw all the official communications from management using it. Thought, could this only be out of politeness? I won’t receive my diploma until April. I’m still working on the revisions now. My dilemma though is that our program, which I’m heading, will be undergoing accreditation on January. Hence on an official note, do I say I’m a PhD or am I still on a PhD candidate status?

    • bobik says:

      I understand your question – I am having the same. I think it depends on rules of your country. I think you could ask for some temporary confirmation of your PhD degree completion. PhD candidate (aka ABD) actually means “all but dissertation”. Thus it implies you have a right to say you are a PhD when your dissertation is completed and successfully defended. No more candidate 🙂 Just my opinion.

  14. bobik says:

    Thank you for this great article! My dissertation defense is in just 2 days and I am getting nervous. Your story helped to relax my mind 🙂

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Awww, my pleasure. I’m happy you found this entry somewhat comforting or reassuring. Yes, it is and will get very stressful, but do try to take a few seconds to let some of it sink in and enjoy your day. Congrats in advance and thanks for visiting!!

  15. Dr Carot says:

    Hi Dr. 27 Thanks so much for this post. I just passed my thesis defense two days ago and I still feel overwhelmed by the fact nearly five years of life has turned into a nicely wrapped power tool for life.

    To share something too, I thought I wouldn’t pass my thesis defense. My prof always told me nice things and then “but you don’t have enough data to say that statement.” etc. So I ended up saying extremely vague things like “I think / I believe / I hypothesize” when the data was clearly evident it is happening. When the examiner asked just five slides down from the beginning “so why did you use this mice stain?”, I panicked and could not answer. I thought very carefully and there was an absolute silence. But nothing was in the head. Only “yeah, why did I use this strain of mice? Because that is what the lab has!”. For the first time in my life I wanted to just squat down and cry like a child in front of the auditorium, full of supporters. It felt like everyone else was Tier-1 university and I was Tier-99 in terms of brainpower. My PI just stepped in and explained why, but only much later. That few moments was so scary.

    Somehow I felt lost thinking about what to do next, and I bumped into your blog. I am very happy to know I am not the only person feeling lost and dazed. Hopefully I will gain back my senses soon. ^_^

    • Dr. 27 says:

      You will. First of all, congrats!!!! So very happy for you and yes, between all the practicing for the talk sometimes little questions like that can pile up and make us feel quite confused or freaked out. But you did it. I think examiners understand that and understand that we’re scared, which may be why they cut some slack. Rest assured, things will start to look normal soon. I call it the post-thesis defense daze ;-). Thanks for visiting 😀

  16. […] for the time you should give your committee to read your final draft before your dissertation defense.  And, that does not account for last minute editing before that.  And, that does not account for […]

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