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PhD Defenses Around the World: a Defense at Wayne State University

Today, I have invited Dr. Victoria Abboud to share her experience of her PhD Defense. Dr. Abboud has enjoyed a seventeen-year career in post-secondary education, the first eleven of which were spent teaching in the college and university systems in Michigan, Ontario, Alberta, and briefly in Brazil. For five years, Victoria served as an administrator in colleges in Ontario and British Columbia, and she recently became a certified coach who supports graduate students through her organization, The Spirited Academic. In the classroom, in administrative roles, and now as the Manager of Programs in Talent Development at a social innovation hub (Toronto), Victoria has been devoted to thinking through the ways in which group dynamics can be used to innovate and support the overall operational, process, and pedagogical goals of diverse communities of learning. Her current role focuses on building and delivering programming that encourages innovation leadership, social engagement, and collective impact.

It took nearly eight years for me to reach that moment where there was not one more word I could write, not one more reference I could squeeze into the works cited, not one more comma I could change. I had hit “send” for the last time on my dissertation draft and I awaited the phone call from my advisor that it was time to DEFEND.

My defense was scheduled in the summer: that time in southeast Michigan when the humidity is stifling and you can see the heat rise from people’s heads when they walk into air conditioned spaces. My family piled in to the car, we crossed the Canada-U.S. border, and I told the U.S. border guard that I was going to my dissertation defense. He could tell by my exhausted eyes and shallow breaths that my story was true – no one would take on that level of stress to hide questionable activity.

At my university, dissertation defenses are public. Members from the department, the institution, and elsewhere are welcomed into the room while the sweaty PhD candidate presents the tome, smiles awkwardly, and mentally shuffles through every page read, studied, or written while awaiting the next fateful question from The Committee.

Although my committee was comprised of wonderful people with deep knowledge of their fields and an encouraging attitude towards my work, my sitting in front of the audience and answering questions was not an experience that their previous support could calm. In fact, their role during the defense was to ensure that I could withstand critique, that my work and my characterization of it could be clarified for our mixed-discipline audience, and that I could speak eloquently about my own contribution to the Academy. They were the gate-keepers between me and my membership in the Academic club.

In my presentation, I shared my gratitude for those who supported my effort, I tried to make light of the stress and pressure, and I offered a version of my research that was meant to be understood by folks who were not specialists in my field. After all, after eight years, I was supposed to the specialist of my own dissertation and a contributor to the progression of my field. The sign of a true scholar, in my mind, is one who can distill the complexity of his/her/their research into explanations that reach everyone. If not, then what’s the point of higher learning?

The rounds of questions were challenging but reasonable -at least now I believe they were reasonable- but my external examiner asked a question that required me to do critical analysis on the spot. There was no place to hide. I couldn’t go to a coffee shop to contemplate her question for hours. The time was here. Now.

I took a sip of water, and, amazingly, I mustered the courage and the intellectual strength to explore the question while answering it. It was a moment of beauty! I was creating the argument, offering the supporting research, and weaving a rhetorical tapestry that I never imagined I could create – especially not when I was feeling so exposed and fearful.

In hindsight, I am not surprised that I reacted so strongly to the whole defense experience. After years of identifying with my research and intellectual exploration, after fusing my identity with that of the 200+ pages of writing that lay like a boulder on the table in front of me, how could I not feel that my very existence was at stake? Fight, flight, or freeze took over and it felt that the multi-hour experience of the defense would be my rebirth or my death. Of course, none of that was ever true, but it would take years for me to realize it and to breathe deeply in spite of it.

There is a moment in every defense when the PhD candidate realizes that this experience is theirs. I suspect it happens about three-quarters of the way through when the last few questions are coming around. By then, there has been some success (hopefully!) and maybe even some answers that s/he/they will revisit for years to come because of how they could have been better, more articulate, more focused. Regardless, when that moment of realization occurs, the tension releases, the amygdala reverts to normal activity, and the dread of the experience begins to drift away. It’s the moment when that candidate becomes a fully-fledged Doctor of Philosophy. That’s the moment when the toil, the pressure, the emotional turmoil of wondering “why” or “can I do it” shifts into a sense of “I’m doing it” or “I got this.”

The committee deliberated for about ten minutes and I returned to the room greeted with clapping and “Congratulations, Dr. Abboud!” shouted by my committee and my audience. It would be months before I would actually recognize that I was done, that the rest of my life was ahead of me, and that I was not defined by the pages I produced, but it was that moment of real-time thought exploration while answering the external examiner’s question that marked me, forever, as a professor.

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