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PhD defenses around the world: a defense in Education in the USA

Today, I’ve invited Dr. Monica Killen to share her story of her PhD defense. Monica graduated with a Ph.D. in Education with an emphasis in Culture and Curriculum Studies from Chapman University. Dr. Killen’s research interests include food justice advocacy, Latino/a community organizing and ethnic studies. A first-generation college graduate and the first in her family with a Ph.D. Dr. Killen’s most recent publication is titled “Why Ethnic Studies Matters” and appears in “White” Washing American Education: The New Culture Wars in Ethnic Studies (2016), Edited by Denise M. Sandoval, Anthony J. Ratcliff, Tracy Lachica Buenavista, and James R. Marin, published by Praeger. She currently lives in Southern California with her husband, son, and two dogs.

The dissertation defense is the hallmark of any doctoral program. The defense symbolizes the end of a journey that began on the first day of class. However, I would argue that as a doctoral student, there is more than one defense that occurs within this academic journey. The defense begins with your research interests and convincing your advisor why it’s important to pursue. The defense continues with qualifying exams and convincing the committee that you have the knowledge and skills to continue in the program. A year or two later, the proposal defense marks your next step to the dissertation defense. By the time we arrive to the dissertation defense we have become experts in defending our work and what we stand for as an academic.

What I described above is my journey to the dissertation defense. By the time I arrived at the dissertation defense I was tired and quite honestly, terrified, perhaps because I was traumatized of what I had experienced before. On the day of the defense, I was nervous and shaking while driving to the campus. I was more nervous than my wedding day and I would think getting married presents a more uncertain scenario than a dissertation defense. So many things can happen in a marriage and a dissertation defense can only go one of three ways-pass with no revisions, pass with revisions or no pass.

Before my actual defense in December, my defense had been postponed once before. My co-chairs felt the draft I had given them was not defense ready and they returned it back to me with extensive comments and gave me a few months to make changes. This period between the original defense date and the actual defense was a period of uncertainty, stress, and a struggle. During that same period, I had to request an extension from the university for my program because I had reached the 7-year limit. Fortunately, I had endured other extenuating circumstances that are perfect for another guest post, but the graduate council approved my extension by one semester. When I submitted my revised draft, my co-chairs felt I was ready to defend and we scheduled the defense during finals week of the fall semester.

The doctoral defenses in my department are about 2 hours long. It entails a presentation, question and answer period, deliberation by the committee, and then a final discussion with the committee. My actual presentation was about 40 minutes long and in attendance was my friend from the doctoral cohort. My question and answer period felt like it took up as much time as the presentation. My committee had lots of comments and suggestions and my friend didn’t even have a chance to ask a question since the committee had taken up the entire time. Committee feedback at times was critical and for a moment I wondered if I had failed. After the q & a session, the committee deliberated for about 15 minutes but it felt like forever. I was called back into the room and the committee informed me that I had passed with revisions. Since I had taken copious notes during the q & a, I thanked the committee and made verbal promises that I would address all their comments. One suggestion made as part of passing with revisions, was the title of my dissertation. The change was brought up by the external committee member who believed the title of my dissertation did not reflect my research. My co-chairs went along with the suggestion and there I was recovering from the emotional rollercoaster of the defense to come up with a new title for my dissertation so that the committee can sign the paperwork since it was going to be the only time all four committee members would be together in the same room. I remember sitting in my co-chair’s office trying to access my email and reprint the document. Two hours had already passed and one of my co-chairs had to leave to teach class. It was a moment that I will never forget. I frantically retyped the document at least twice because I kept forgetting a word or incorrectly typing the name of one of the committee member’s name. When I finally had all the signatures and the committee was ready to depart, I could not believe it was over. The defense that I had worked so hard for, had come to an end and now it was time to move forward and finish my revisions. I don’t think anyone could have prepared me for what happened at the actual defense since committees are unique combinations of scholars.

Completing the doctoral journey is an experience that I will never forget. If anything, I left the program knowing that I have the tenacity to begin and finish a project and the courage to overcome big and sometimes messy obstacles. During my exit interview with the doctoral director we never discussed the personal milestones I achieved, rather the focus of the conversation was on the program itself. I do believe doctoral programs should examine the entire experience of the student, not just the perspective the student has of the program but a student’s own perspective of themselves as a newly minted public intellectual. A personal evaluation of newly acquired skills could help graduates transition to jobs inside and outside of academia.

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