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PhD Defenses around the world: A defense in medieval history at The Catholic University of America

Vanessa Corcoran earned her Ph.D. in medieval history in 2017 at The Catholic University of America and wrote her dissertation, “The Voice of Mary: Later Medieval Representations of Marian Communication,” under the direction of Dr. Katherine Jansen. Her research interests include the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary, the intersection of gender and popular religious practices, and the textual representations of medieval women’s voices. Vanessa was the Assistant Director of Tutoring Services at The Catholic University of America. Currently, Vanessa is an Academic Counselor in the Office of the College Dean at Georgetown University. She’s working on a forthcoming memoir of her experiences in graduate school, entitled “It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: Lessons Learned on the Road to the Marathon and Ph.D.” Follow her on Twitter @VRCinDC.

My dissertation, “The Voice of Mary: Later Medieval Representations of Marian Communication,” investigated the emergence of Mary’s powerful persona through an examination of her speech as reported in narrative sources from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, including miracle collections, passion narratives, and mystery plays. I found it fascinating to explore some of the unconventional aspects of Mary’s medieval persona. For example, in her capacity as “Empress of Hell,” one twelfth-century source described Mary attacking the devil, “redoubling her blows and making them sharper with words, ‘Take that, and go away. I warn you and order you not to harass my monk any more. If you dare to do so, you will suffer worse.'” The provocative nature of the topic kept me engaged in the project, which took almost four years from proposal to defense.

My advisor framed the defense as a victory lap: an endurance challenge and celebration after years of hard work. Dr. Jansen described the defense (a two-hour oral examination with six professors) as an opportunity for a fascinating conversation. She also encouraged me to enjoy the fact that six people had carefully read my 315 page dissertation. I never quite believed professors when they said it would be enjoyable – how could a two-hour test be pleasant? Maybe had forgotten how their own defenses panned out.

In the weeks leading up to the defense, I felt relaxed. My mom heard me rehearse my twenty-minute opening statement 4 times during that final week. Over coffee, my friend Micalena grilled me a set of questions that I thought were fair game. I was focused, excited, and I was ready.

As if someone flipped a switch, that confidence vanished the night before the exam. The surge of adrenaline made for a rough night. The morning of my defense, I set out for a 5 mile run, hoping that hitting the pavement would eliminate my pent-up nerves. Usually, I can shake out those worries a few minutes into a run, but not on Defense Day. It wasn’t until I was a few blocks away from home, that the knot in my stomach disappeared. I tapped into my motivational music as I got ready for the day, trying to both calm myself and get psyched for the defense.

I arrived early, seeking a few final moments of quiet. I headed to the exam, and was greeted by Dr. Jansen.
“Breathe. Relax,” she encouraged. I smiled and tried to not say anything that would betray the confidence I was trying to project. The other professors trickled in, and as I suspected, once it was show time, my nerves faded away.

The defense began with my 20 minute overview of my project, which I had practiced every day for the past week. As I laid out the parameters of my project, it felt as routine as a regular run – the muscle memory was there. While I spoke, I tried to make eye contact with each professor, and as I caught the eye of Dr. Jansen, I expected her to have a somber expression on her face, as was her usual expression in class. Instead, she was smiling.

I nearly melted. This is going to be okay. This wasn’t a quick smile of encouragement, but one of pride. Dr. Jansen had known me since I was a brand-new, wide-eyed, and optimistic graduate student when I arrived to CUA at 22 years old. My defense was as much a reflection on her as it was on me. I continued to speak until I received my cue to wrap up.

The second part of the defense consisted of each professor asking a series of questions, beginning with the advisor, and then going around the room. Before Dr. Jansen launched into her first question, she opened by saying, “First of all, Vanessa, I want to commend you on this project. In your exploration of Mary’s voice, you introduced us to this fascinating topic…” This is going to be okay. Everyone is on board. This is actually going to happen.

Then the Q&A session ensued. I went up to the maximum time limit with each question, meaning that I gave substantive answers (I was really worried about being too short with responses), and as a result, it went by really fast. While it was an exercise in mental gymnastics, there were no questions out of left field. After the last professor got his question in, I was sent in the hall for the deliberation.

The rational part of my head knew that the committee wouldn’t have scheduled the defense if they thought I would fail. But until the door opened, I wouldn’t believe it.

Finally, Dr. Jansen walked out with a big smile, uttering the words I’d been longing to hear: “Congratulations, Dr. Corcoran.”
Just like that, it was all over. All of those years of reading, writing, worrying, and hoping that it would happen finally transformed into the greatest achievement of my (young) career.

Prior to the defense, I was told that on defense day, professors often hand the student a series of edits that must be addressed before the official dissertation deposit. It wasn’t until later that day that I remembered that my professors hadn’t given me any feedback. Realizing that there was nothing left to change, a sense of relief flooded through me.

I had never worked so long or so hard for something. Throughout the writing process, one of my motivational songs was “They Just Keep Moving The Line,” from the TV show “Smash.” The lyrics perfectly described my quest to achieve approval from my professors:

So I made friends with rejection
I’ve straightened up my spine!
I’ll change each imperfection
Till it’s time to drink the wine!
I’d toast to resurrection
But they just keep moving the line!
Please give me some direction,
‘Cause they just keep moving the line!

At last, I had crossed the finish line, and the victory was sweeter than I could’ve ever imagined.

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This Post Has One Comment
  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I loved reading a picturing every word. A hardy congratulations to you. You have grown into such an amazing scholar and woman. I admire you so. xoxo

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