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PhD Defenses around the world: a Defense (without a defense) in biology from UC Berkeley

Today, I am hosting Dr. Maureen Berg in the “Defenses around the World” series. Maureen is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and received a BS in Biology at the University of Dayton. Maureen recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a PhD in Integrative Biology, and is currently applying for and interviewing for non-academic research positions in the Bay Area. You can follow her on twitter @MaureenBug.

The majority of PhD programs in the US require a written dissertation, as well as an oral defense. However, the various biology departments at Berkeley do not require a formal defense. Most do require some sort of “finishing talk,” which is essentially a seminar where you present your all of the work in your dissertation. For my department, we form our dissertation committee after passing our qualifying exams (taken at the end of year 2), and meet with that committee at least once per year until graduation. To submit your completed dissertation, all you need to do is have each of your committee members sign off on it. Then you’re done.

For me, I initially had trouble dealing with not knowing what to expect from my committee because of the lack of any formal defense date. I contacted my committee members a few months before the university deadline to ask for clarification and to get an idea of when I should send them my dissertation. One committee member requested the final version no later than two weeks before the deadline (in May), so I set my own deadline of five weeks prior to the university deadline (in April).

In the month or so before my April deadline, I received a few rounds of feedback from my committee chair/primary advisor. However, the lack of any sort of “rubric” or strong reassurance from my primary advisor that my dissertation was ready or acceptable took a toll on my anxiety. Once I was able to embrace the subjective-ness of the entire process and start to truly view my dissertation as my own (and not my advisor’s or any other collaborators’), it was much easier to feel confident about my final version, and I actually had some fun writing it up!

Once I sent off my final version to my committee, the waiting game started. I waited two weeks before sending a reminder/check-in email. Some members didn’t respond, and one told me that they will read it “soon.” As the days/weeks went by, it became harder to focus on any final experiments or presentations, as all I could think about is how I was “running out of time.” I sent another reminder after three weeks, same responses (or lack there of). I sent another reminder one week before the university deadline, and received a mix of responses:

1) (Nothing)
2) “I will finish it in the next few days”
3) “Oh, I didn’t see your earlier reminders and haven’t read it. I’ll skim it now, and then we can meet next week to talk about it?”

Now I’m in the final week, and the deadline is Friday. On Monday, I received comments/corrections back from #1. I met with #3 on Wednesday, which was a very pleasant and very helpful meeting; it was like an informal, hour-long defense where we just talked about the main results and the implications for my work (#3 requested no corrections to the actual text). I was unsuccessful in tracking down #2, so by Thursday I camped out at the desk outside their office. Once I found #2, they told me that my last two chapters would need to be developed more/polished for publication, but everything was fine for my dissertation (no corrections to the text). #2 signed my form, shook my hand, and congratulated me. Once I got all the signatures, I submitted it to the university’s graduate office, they gave me a lollipop, and I was officially done.

My department was the one that doesn’t require a finishing talk (although, this is likely to become a requirement soon), but I was scheduled to present at a joint lab meeting on the last day of the semester, so I used that opportunity to give a finishing-type talk. There wasn’t any sort of big, singular “hurrah!” at the end, but there were many smaller celebrations as I said goodbye to various students and faculty (and more once my parents flew into town for commencement the following week). The somewhat drawn out, low-key celebrations are more my style, so I didn’t feel like I missed out on any big finish!

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