August 18, 2021
Major life update: I successfully defended my thesis and earned my doctorate in toxicology from the University of Rochester. PhDistance is official now!
The leadup to the defense felt protracted, but not very stressful. I must have practiced my talk over ten times, so I felt prepared and genuinely excited to give a talk to my friends, family, colleagues, and committee.
About ten minutes before my defense, I logged on to Zoom to ensure everything was working correctly, like the Share Screen feature. Oh, by the way, I defended my thesis via Zoom due to the pandemic. Sure, it’s not how I dreamt I would end my PhD, but given the fact that I live in North Carolina now, it was very convenient.
After a very sweet introduction by my advisor (complete with photos of me and handmade cards I had made for him over the years) I began my talk. My friend, Kelly, took screen-shots of me during it:
About 45 minutes later, I was done talking about research and began my photo collage of acknowledgements:
I got a chance to answer a few good questions after the photo sharing. Then, I logged into another Zoom link for my closed-door defense. Whereas the open-door defense is public and involves me filling the hour with a research talk. the closed-door is exclusive to my committee, me, and the chair of my defense, and I don’t give a presentation during this.
Everyone congratulated me on my talk and said some nice words about my thesis document. Then I was moved to a Breakout Room while the committee went over the rules of the defense and determined the order in which they would ask me questions. I re-entered the main Zoom room with everyone and then we just went round-robin-style asking questions. (Almost) everyone asked good questions that were actually somewhat fun to discuss.
After approximately an hour of answering questions, I was excused to a Breakout Room for about five minutes. When I was let back in, the committee congratulated me and told me I passed. Huzzah! I now have a terminal degree and I feel quite old.
…So, that was last week. Wow. Time really flies.
The most common question people have asked me in the past week is, “how do you feel?!” Honestly, there are a lot of emotions and I’m probably still processing more. For now, I know I feel accomplishment, happiness, pride, relief, and freedom.
Reflecting on my feelings up to right now as I type, the dominant feelings have been of relief and freedom. I’m relieved that it’s done. I had been frustrated with my research project (what PhD hasn’t?) and had qualms with the fundamental premise of my lab’s research topic. I sincerely hope that other PhD’s don’t experience the latter. I think my sense of freedom stems from speaking up about those qualms, which I decided to do during my closed-door defense.
During the closed-door, one of my committee members asked me, “Do you really think it’s worthwhile to study how muscle development is sensitive to methylmercury?”
To the chagrin of my advisor (and amusement of my committee) I said no.
My advisor became defensive (naturally) which required me to share thoughts I’ve had for the past year and a half on why I think the current focus is unlikely to have a significant impact on public health.
I truly could not believe I said no. However I had some pretty good reasons, given I had perseverated on this for so long. My committee seemed to agree with me, which felt validating. Additionally, my committee asked good questions for the most part; the kind that were broad, thought-provoking, and stimulated some truly good discussion. I wish all of my committee meetings had been more like this!
However, there were some not-so-good questions as well, which was a shame. Whoever said, “there are no bad questions!” was wrong.
Here is how bad questions tend to begin:
I am interested in Thing X and will proceed to talk about it. Oh, I forgot my question. Sorry. *note that Thing X is unrelated to my research*
There were not many bad questions, however I was pretty incredulous that my advisor interrupted me to remind other members of my committee to write a lstter of support for his grant resubmission. The opportunistic nature of this action really just left a bad taste in my mouth. A student’s thesis defense is not the place to remind colleagues to write a letter of support for a grant resubmission… I digress…
Here are some examples of good questions:
I noticed in your talk that X happened during Y. What do you think that meant?
How relevant are these doses and why did you select them?
What is an experiment you could do to test X?
What is one part of your work that you would like to see continued and why?
Also, many of my committee’s questions demonstrated that they had actually read my document. I was worried that no one would have read my document because my advisor told me no one would read it. Thankfully, he was wrong. They read it, and they seemed to have even liked it.
I felt really proud when they congratulated my writing. I enjoy writing and like to think that I’m decent at it. Honestly, after writing 140 pages I better be good at it. The positive reinforcement I received from my committee and defense chair meant the world to me. They used words like “scholarly” and “concise” and others that affirmed my belief in myself and my abilities.
I had one measly edit from the University (to bold my name in my publications) plus one suggestion from my advisor (to rotate one of my figures in my thesis document). But I technically passed with no revisions. Cool.
After I responded to my edits, I uploaded my thesis document to ProQuest so that it can be formally published. I ordered two hard copies too: one for the bookshelf in the Department of Environmental Medicine where all Ph.D. theses have a home, and one for my own bookshelf.
Given I have a manuscript under review, I opted for a year and 3 month embargo period prior to allowing worldwide access to my thesis document. So if anyone is interested in reading my document, please reach out to me directly. Honestly, I would just read the introduction and maybe the discussion if you want to hear me roast my lab’s research premise.
And so that’s a wrap. I’m all done. I’m officially terminated as of August 15 from the University. I begin the next chapter of my career on Monday as a toxicologist. Cheers!
“Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.” – John Dewey (1859 – 1952)