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PhD Defenses around the world: a defense in chemistry at the University of Edinburgh

Today, I have invited Dr. Karin Bodewits to share her defense story. Karin Bodewits is a PhD graduate from the University of Edinburgh and is the author of the humorous but tragic campus novel ‘You Must Be Very Intelligent — The PhD Delusion’ (Springer Nature, 2017). She founded the career platform NaturalScience.Careers. She works as an author, speaker and seminar leader for a range of communication topics, and regularly writes short stories about the peculiarities of academic life. This post is adapted from You Must Be Very Intelligent – The PhD Delusion.

I follow Prof. Gilton through the chemistry building on auto pilot. Is my PhD defence really finally happening?… I have postponed this exam as much as anyone can. Under my arm I carry a copy of my thesis, full of dubiously scribbled notes, while my legs move forward unprompted and my hands all but squelch with sweat.

For two months I have revised. Felix, a lab friend, had explained me every bit of chemistry in my thesis right down to the last dull detail. He has instructed me better than any Russian spy might be briefed before infiltrating the CIA. Just yesterday, it seemed I knew everything, but now my head feels empty.

We enter a small room at the back of the chemistry building. Prof. Gilton tapes a note to the door: “Viva in progress.”
A grey-haired guy, springs up to introduce himself.
“Professor Green, pleasure to meet you.”
He speaks with a soft voice and offers me a cold, limp-fish hand. Oh dear, he looks vulnerable. I get the impression he is somehow more afraid of this exam than I am.

I sit on a chair on the other side of the table. Despite Prof. Green being much less scary than I had nervously envisaged, my anxiety levels remain stratospheric. This man will decide if I pass or not. Very soon…
“Who do we have here?” Prof. Green asks in a friendly voice.
“Eh… I am Karin…”
“I know your name. But I would like to learn a bit about you before we start. What drives you?” WTF dude! I am here to be grilled about my thesis. Since when was I ever asked what drives me, the person carrying around four limbs, two of which can hold a pipette?
I stare at Prof. Green, not knowing what to say. In the past, love of science drove me, but today I have no clue what motivates me or why I am here.
“I am not sure…,” my voice is trembling.
Prof. Green is peering at me. I realise he honestly wants to know about the girl who wrote the thesis in front of him.
“What kind of job do you want to do next?” Four years ago, I had dreamt of becoming an excellent scientist. Now I don’t even have the confidence to be sure I would make a good toilet cleaner.
“I don’t know.” I only know for sure I don’t want this one.
“Do you feel you learned enough during your PhD to prepare you for the next stage in your career?”
Profs. Gilton and Green are scrutinising me, awaiting a reaction. How can I tell the truth? That I have “learned” as much as a penguin learns when he eats yet another fish? That I had “learned” that I am grossly imperfect, nay downright deficient, and oh-so hopelessly weak?
“I guess there is always more to learn,” I manage to say as if the question hadn’t nearly made me weep.

Both men open a copy of my thesis. Prof. Green’s is scribbled full with notes, and we are only on the acknowledgement page.
“Let’s go through it page by page,” says Prof Green.
I look at the 250 pages in front of me, and then at all the notes he has made in the margins of his copy. I look despairingly at Prof. Gilton. He avoids my eye, but he too looks alarmed by this barking mad suggestion.
“Eh… sure,” I say.
He patiently flicks through the first thirty pages of the introduction. “It’s very good,” he mumbles.
He doesn’t look up from the pages and he doesn’t ask me any questions. Oh, if we’re going through every single page by looking at it without comment, just checking it exists… great! I should pass no problem because I’m a dab hand when it comes to staring at pages in silence.
At length he points at a chemical formula, and redraws it for himself. In all seriousness, he informs me that one of the dozens of hydrogen atoms is pointing in the wrong direction. A-ha! You’re a member of the hydrogen atom mafia! You’re one of those many chemists who get their knickers in a knot about the direction of every single atom.
He continues silently flicking through and arrives at page sixty, whereupon he asks me to draw four different types of sugar molecule. I could do so blindfolded. Prof. Gilton dutifully checks the piece of paper I drew the first two on, and that is as much interest as he can fake in this bewilderingly pointless exercise.
“Keep on, I’ll be right back,” he says and leaves the room, carefully closing the door behind him lest any noise distract from the dull delineation of a dull sugar molecule.
Prof. Green looks worried and confused about Prof. Gilton leaving the exam.
“You and Prof. Gilton do not know each other, do you?” I ask quickly. “No, we don’t.”“He’ll be back. He probably just went for a smoke.” Prof. Green looks at me as if I just told him that Gilton has gone to collect his weekly supply of Rohypnol.
Half an hour into the exam, Prof. Gilton returns. Prof. Green asks me questions about the techniques I used and how I came to certain conclusions. All the questions I am asked – none of which are about me as a person – I am able to answer. Shortly afterwards the question-answer scenario gives way to a normal grown-up conversation between adults about research. I am not nervous anymore. The sweat in my palms has evaporated. I am confident I will pass.

Almost two hours in, Prof. Green is approaching the end of the thesis.
Prof. Green does not enquire further and indicates to Prof. Gilton that he has now finished his part of the exam.
“Please leave the room and wait outside for five minutes or so,” Gilton says.
I stand and notice that I have left a most undignified sweat stain on the plastic chair.
I lean against the wall in the corridor and my head starts to throb painfully. I close my eyes for a moment and take a few deep breaths. I have an out-of-body moment and see myself standing in front of the door where the PhD defence had taken place. I see a disillusioned and defeated doctor-to-be, without any future plans, to whom a degree from a famous university means nothing anymore. It is the same girl who started her PhD almost four years ago feeling ambitious and energetic, manically driven with the desire to become a scientist.

I open my eyes. Prof. Gilton’s fingers are patting my shoulder.
“You can come back inside.”
“Congratulations,” Prof. Green says, with an excitement I do not feel, and shakes my hand.“You passed, very well done!” Prof. Gilton adds. I am not sure if I should be proud or, weirdly, feel humiliated.

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