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PhD Defenses around the world: a defense from the University of Charleston

Today, Dr. Philip Shields shares his experience of the PhD defense. Dr. Shields is a scholar-practitioner in the field of Executive Leadership. He currently works as a manager for a General Electric Company and as an Adjunct Professor at two universities. His undergraduate degree was in Chemistry and he holds a Master’s degree in Management with a focus in Integrated Logistics. His passions include faith, family, flying, friends, and bridging the gap between public and private organizations so that both may benefit through strategic alliances.

May 16th is a day that I remember fondly and with pride, but like most highly anticipated events it was not quite what I expected. Three and 1/2 years of preparation and hundreds of hours of research/writing on my topic prepared me for the technical aspect of this day, but the psychological component of the day was a different story. Preparation quieted most of my fear of failure, but the prominent question in my mind that day was “am I good enough to be at this level…a Doctor?”

My program was designed for full-time professionals in leadership positions, so that they could also be full-time students. The Cohort model used was designed for the scholar-practitioner, and worked well for me. The University of Charleston, nestled in the hills of West Virginia, designed this program around the findings of a study by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Structure, learning outcomes, and course design were all developed to meet the changing environment of doctoral education. I truly enjoyed my doctorate studies more than any other academic venture in my past, and was surprised at how much I enjoyed instructing at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

After I completed my course work and my program’s comps equivalent, I asked one of my mentors at the University to be my dissertation chair. This turned out to be an excellent decision that helped me to complete my dissertation according to my timeline. He and I communicated regularly and we did multiple edits prior to the remainder of the committee seeing each chapter. This relationship gave me confidence as I submitted my dissertation proposal and my final dissertation defense.

Three weeks prior to my formal defense my chair had me defend my dissertation to my committee (no guest were present for this session). It was more intense than the formal defense, lasted three hours, and lead to several small revisions that I made prior to my formal defense. I am very grateful for that exercise because it gave me confidence in my ability to defend my research, especially as the formal defense would be in front of a much larger audience.

I felt prepared and confident, but it is somewhat unsettling when your boss’ boss is in the audience and mentors from your academic and professional life are grading your responses. According to my university’s defense format, your committee asks the first rounds of questions, and then anyone in the audience is allowed to ask questions. The audience consisted of my immediate family (parents, brother, in-laws), boss’ boss, a couple of friends in academia, half of the students in the doctorate program (some from my cohort and many from newer cohorts), and faculty and staff of my university. This large of a group was possible because the defense was broadcast live via WebEx.

My chair and I rehearsed my dissertation’s defense PowerPoint a couple of times and adjusted my slides so that my presentation would last forty to forty-five minutes. I practiced presenting my defense with my wife (a Doctor of Physical Therapy) and my older brother (a M.D. and PhD that practices medicine and conducts research), and several other times speaking out-loud by myself. Even with all of the practice and edits the nagging questions of “is my dissertation good enough?” and “am I scholarly enough to join the academic ranks as a Doctor?” remained.

On the evening of May 16th, 2017 I signed on to the WebEx meeting, briefly said hello to my committee, pulled up the slides for my presentation, and waited as more than fifty people joined the meeting. After my chair introduced himself, my committee, and me to the audience, I began. I would be lying if I said that I was not nervous, but just as some of my peers had said, once you get started you forget about your nerves because you are speaking about the topic that you have lived with for the last couple of years. Forty-two minutes passed like it was only five minutes and then the question began. To my surprise I enjoyed fielding each question and hearing reflection about my topic from the committee, and from the audience. An hour and forty-five minutes after I started my defense everything was concluded by my chair when he thanked everyone for supporting me through the journey and for joining in the defense process. He asked everyone to leave the meeting and told me that after the committee discussed the defense they would contact me. About thirty minutes later I received a call from my chair that opened with “Dr. Shields, good job on your defense…”

As with most dissertation defenses, thesis, etc., the committee wanted a few final tweaks to be made prior to signing their names to it. I took the remainder of May to make the corrections and have my editor take one last look at the document. The completed dissertation was submitted prior to June and then a slight depression came over me. I had been warned about this happening, but I did not think that it would actually happen to me. I am a generally happy person and know that I am very blessed, but the realization that a four-year relationship had ended hit me harder than I expected. “What do I do with all of the free time?” and “Why do I feel guilty about not researching, studying, or writing?”

It took me about a month to get over it as I began helping my peers complete their dissertations. I am the peer member on three committees and help several others from my program as they push forward to the finish line. After more than a year I am comfortable with “Dr. Shields” and remember the doctoral journey with fondness. As I continue to help grad students finish their dissertation/thesis my reflections lead me to the same conclusion, I would do it all over again.

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