Defense Advice 4: My Defense

I attended three defenses last week, and, as I discussed with some of my colleagues, they are idiosyncratic events. So much of the tone of the defense is controlled by the group dynamic of professors–and those professors do not always behave predictably. Still, there are a few defense strategies that I feel could be useful to others.

I was very nervous, as I believe I mentioned. So I devised a preparation schedule in the couple of weeks before my defense that was non-strenuous, but  more productive than simply stewing. I read my dissertation out loud, about 15 pages at a time, in order to catch typos and improve sentence clarity. I knew the committee might give me revisions, but I figured getting the dissertation polished in preparation for its final submission was a good use of time. I also decided to completely finish my reading list for the project. This was unnecessary but not a waste of time. I checked out 20 books from the library, going through most of them in a matter of minutes (they were at the bottom of my list, after all, and most were not helpful), but spending a couple of days on some. My idea was simply to feel confident about my breadth of knowledge.

During my defense week, two of my best friends came in from out of town. They are the kind of friends who did not mind listening to me practice my opening statement three timese. We had a restful day before the defense, which included going to the wildflower center and wandering around a meadow, eating at the vegetarian restaurant where my brother-in-law cooks (chosen for its restful vibe), and going to yoga. Yoga was a *very* good idea. Then Emily gave me a shoulder massage, and Rebecca stood on my thigh bones (a yoga assist said to ground you and help you sleep).

Defense morning, Emily & Rebecca, plus the Future Mister Doctor (oooooh, shit–he’s  the Mister Doctor Jones now!) and I got breakfast tacos at my beloved Taco Shack, where the three of them proceeded to give me some warm up questions. I did sort of draw a blank at the first question, so I was glad to have the warm-up.  The three of them all took notes during the defense so I didn’t have to worry about that.  Afterward, the party was twice as exciting with them there. This strategy would only work, though, with very close friends who are also not stressful (or stressed out by traveling). It’s really important to understand that energy dynamic between yourself and other people before inviting someone into your space during a stressful time.

During the defense, I accidentally happened upon three helpful strategies. First, I found the questions asked interesting. I didn’t consciously try to do that, but I realized afterward that my interest in what was said prevented me from getting defensive in a bad way.

Second, I practiced a bit of selective hearing. The Mister Doctor and my DSG partner Doctor Anderson said that my committee kept trying to draw the conversation into abstract theory land, and I kept answering the questions in the concrete terms of my dissertation. I didn’t mean to do that, but by choosing to answer the part of the question I found most interesting, I also kept the conversation focused on my area of expertise.

Finally, there was one question–or remark, rather, that really pissed me off. Luckily it came at the end when I was feeling confident and relaxed. I thought about ignoring it, but decided to (gently) contradict the professor instead.  While none of my committee seemed to find my correction awkward or upsetting, my friends were like, “I’m so glad you stood up for yourself!” And I was too.

Of all the advice I received before the defense, I am most grateful that I asked my advisor directly what he wanted in an opening statement. It was good to get on the same page with that. But secondly, I was grateful for the gossip on committee politics. Thinking about that beforehand helped me instantly understand a very weird moment in my defense. That moment was not bad, but it was all about my professors’ relationships with each other and not about my project. It also helped me come to terms with the way the committee instantly scattered afterward (a function, I believe, of them not knowing each other very well) when I wanted to bask in my moment of glory for a bit longer.

When asked to discuss my project, I have often floundered and felt uncomfortable. I am very proud and happy that I was able to peak at the right time in terms of discussing my project–I had never felt so confident about it. Maybe my idiosyncratic strategies will be helpful to you–or maybe they will inspire you to think of some other strategies better suited to your personality. Either way, I’m glad I devoted time to trying to ensure that grad school ended well. I didn’t have complete control of the situation, so I almost gave up on it–with an “it is what it is” attitude. But I am glad I made the effort to control, if not the situation, at least myself.

Defense Advice 3

In my DSG, when Doctor Gale was approaching her defense and feeling a fair amount of fear, The Future Doctor Anderson and I were like, “you don’t need to prepare! Your dissertation is your preparation! You are the expert–you know more about your topic than anyone in the room!” We weren’t just trying to be nice. We honestly couldn’t figure out what her problem was.

I am shocked by how difficult it has been to take my own advice. If the Future Doctor Anderson had not brought up that discussion a few days ago, I wouldn’t have even remembered it. I am basically scared out of my mind.

I am not big on mantras, but before my defense tomorrow, I will be saying, “I am prepared. I am prepared.”

Defense Advice 2

When I sat down with my advisor, who has sat through countless defenses, I was expecting him to launch into a long list of dos and don’ts. But he had relatively little advice to give, which in retrospect, was comforting.

He advised creating a 5-7 minute opening statement that “summarizes your original contributions to scholarship.” I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was imagining something both more complex and more tangential that that. I mean, didn’t everyone just read the dissertation? Surely they know what it was about . . . ? But as I thought about it, it started to make sense–it’s a simple, direct approach to beginning the conversation. Also, summarizing your contribution isn’t exactly like summarizing the dissertation. I realized that I could discuss my methodology, or the significance of the authors I chose. (And not just say, “well, chapter one . . . “)

His only other advice about the opening statement was to say it rather than read it. I agree that reading something could be awkward. But on the other hand, different people have different difficulties at times like this. If your greatest fear is rambling, maybe reading something isn’t the end of the world. But I would suggest more or less detailed outlines, depending on what you are most comfortable with. It seems like memorizing something might be setting yourself up for disaster unless you’re already comfortable with giving memorized talks.

He also said that I should have a plan for what happens to the project next–how I might develop it into a book, or chop it up into articles. He even suggested I think of presses or journals that might be a good fit. At first, I felt really frustrated with this advice–because more than anything, I want to hear what the committee has to say about publication possibilities. I want to take the shortest path to publication. However, my advisor got me thinking that for any question I might want to ask the committee, I should have a partial answer to the question myself. In the defense, you have to perform expertise, so you can’t just bring the committee some problem and say, “I hope you would solve this for me.”

Defense Advice

Advice from an English professor young enough to remember his defense:

When preparing:

  • Look over the introductory chapters of the Booth/Colomb/Williams book The Craft of Research and practice talking about your research question, your claims, and your overall argument in the dissertation.
  • Memorize a few things–lines from your dissertation or the texts you’re working with.  It helps to have something specific to refer to.
  • Make a short opening statement so that you can control how the conversation begins.
  • Become aware of the committee’s relationships to one another.  (I know a few professors in my department who are more than happy to gossip about things like this, but the details aren’t as important as remembering that these people relate to each other outside of your project. If you sense some tension in the room, it might not have much to do with you.)
  • Send your committee an e-mail the day before reminding them about your defense.
  • Go to a movie the night before and try to relax.

While in the room:

  • Talk to the committee, not other people in the room.
  • Don’t give bullshit answers, but don’t dodge questions, either. “I don’t know as much as I’d like to about that, but here’s my partial answer . . . “
  • Repeat and clarify questions, especially if someone rambles for awhile. This will buy you time to formulate a response and also help the rest of the committee understand each other.
  • You can also help the committee understand each other by connecting their comments. “That’s an interesting question, Prof. S. It reminds me of what Prof. M was saying earlier . . .”
  • Try to connect your responses to questions to something that you want to talk about (at least some of the time).

After the defense:

  • Don’t expect to feel closure. It’s probably not going to happen. (See the previous post, “Not the Apocolypse.”)
  • Drink.
  • Create your own ritual to get some closure down the line. (My mother would no doubt recommend burning something.)

Not the Apocalypse

I really thought when I turned my dissertation into my committee that my world might end.

I imagined endless amounts of free time to cross off all non-dissertation to-dos. I imagined reading novels on sunny afternoons. I imagined writing long letters to friends. I imagined birds chirping. Constantly.

But the night before I turned it in, I realized my world was going to spin right on–overwhelmed with errands, good intentions, hard work, and even–yes, it’s true–more dissertating.

It was a letdown. On the other hand, I’ve had a few friends who experience great highs at the last moments of dissertating–as they write their conclusions, everything comes together in new, exciting ways. They get a surge of energy, and their committees are only too happy to urge them on.

That feeling you might have, that nothing about the dissertation goes the way you planned it to go, does not end once its turned in, or once you’ve defended, or once you’ve graduated. There are so many milestones that say you’ve “almost” finished, but it’s never really the end until you decide you’re done culling articles or shaping a book around the work you’ve done. That could take years.

I’m happy. But I’ve been astonished at how busy I’ve been, and how the dissertation still seems to need so much of my attention.

When I told my friend M. this, he said, “Yeah, but you’re still done.” But I guess what I’m trying to say, to those in the middle of a big project, is that you can’t plan for that  feeling of completeness or relief. It might not come when you’re expecting it.

E-mail Overload

There is a consensus that e-mail makes people less productive. The latest article I read, “E-mail is Making You Stupid” by Joe Robinson, shared some startling statistics: e-mail volume is growing at a rate of 66% per year.

So far, I have not been able to do what’s recommended: check e-mail at 2-4 designated times per day. However, I do generally close my e-mail program while I am writing. Considering it “takes a worker 15 minutes to refocus after an interruption,” I’m not a big fan of stopping to check e-mail or Facebook while trying to be productive.

One suggestion Robinson made that I really like is that if you send less e-mails, you’ll get less e-mails. He also advises putting “no reply necessary” in the subject line to signal that a conversation can be over.

The Future Mister Doctor has a practice of a double asterisks in the subject line to indicate that there is nothing in the body of the message. For example: “**meeting at 4PM tomorrow.” When you don’t have to open the message, it makes the process of checking e-mail faster.

I like to have a clean inbox, so I’ve recently been sorting messages into “This Week” and “Non Urgent” folders. True, I mostly never answer the non-urgent stuff. But that’s probably good (I’d only get more e-mails in return, right?). When all the pressing stuff is gathered in one place, I can go through it without becoming distracted by non-essential messages.  Anything that doesn’t need a reply is deleted immediately. I am also a diligent unsubscriber from mass e-mails–I never let an unwanted sender into my inbox twice.

This system ensures that nothing truly important gets lots in the shuffle–since those messages stay in my relatively small inbox. The “This Week” folder ensures that I see what’s time-sensitive when I settle in for an e-mail session–usually a couple times a week. The Non-Urgent Folder gets mostly forgotten, but it’s in there because it doesn’t need to be stressed (for example, if someone sent me a link to an article they thought I would enjoy).

How do you keep e-mail from making you stupid?


I tried an experiment last week in order to try and see whether anticipating problems would help me be more productive. One morning, I felt unusually tired, so I wrote a short list of what to do if I started having trouble working:

  • 30 minute nap
  • shower
  • 15 minute walk

It actually really helped. Later that afternoon, I looked at my list and decided to take a short nap. Not only was the nap effective, but when I hit a wall, I was able to quickly evaluate my options, make a decision, and address the problem with a minimum of stewing.

Since then, in the front of my calendar,  I’ve been keeping a running tally of ways to address typical problems I face when writing. My mission: to avoid getting sucked into hours of playing computer games. I was truly embarrassed the other day by throbbing wrists in yoga class that I was 100% certain related to mouse clicks. I just got a massage, which included a lengthy session on my forearms, and I’m determined not to waste that money or treatment by exacerbating the problem immediately after attempting to fix it.

I usually play computer games when I’m restless. So here’s my restless list:

  • dance party (an extremely effective method my friend Rebecca & I came up with while writing papers in college)
  • read dissertation-related book
  • deep breathing exercise
  • empty dishwasher/advance laundry
  • organize magazines
  • write a blog post (just thought of that one!)

I know organizing magazines isn’t everyone’s idea of a great time, but we have quite a stack of unread magazines right now that it soothes my mind to put in chronological order. The Future Mister Doctor helpfully disorders them on a fairly regular basis, thus giving me a completely non-urgent, non-stressful project that can be accomplished in less than ten minutes.

And here’s the FEAR list:

  • read dissertation-related book
  • deep breathing exercise
  • exercise
  • design an elaborate reward for the end of the day’s work
  • try to focus on inviting yourself to write and explore, rather than demand yourself to succeed (a technique I learned in yoga)

As you can see, there is some overlap in the lists. But the point is not originality, the point is simple, effective ways to get the off-track Future Doctor back on task. For me, a written contingency plan has been very helpful.

Ooh, just thought of another list–the maddening e-mail from an advisor list:

  • call and/or immediately forward e-mail to members of dissertation support group
  • read the Dinosaur Comic entitled “kant was the one who thought genius meant originality, but kant thought a lot of things” (The title alone reminds one that every smart person has a bunch of idiotic ideas, too–just consider Plato on the theater. Then T-Rex starts talking about a “Power Punch Bear.”)
  • watch Die Hard (where the hero takes every form of psychological and physical abuse, and yet triumphs) or something in the Shooter/Taken genre, where Marky Mark/Liam Neelson gets mad and then kills everyone. Any Bourne movie would work too.