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PhD Defenses around the world: I passed and you will too

Today, Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs shares her experience of the PhD Defense. Dr. Jacobs is a professor of biology at Guelph University with research interests in seabird foraging ecology and biology education.

Seated around the table was the cast of the comedy of errors that would become the chorus of years’ worth of restless night. Jester A hadn’t read my thesis; I could tell because the highlighting stopped abruptly at page 40. Jester B had sent his regrets and accepted the thesis as is but had been located, publically embarrassed, and brought against his will to my defense. Jester C, was a committee member who had been undermining my work for years and would continue to afterwards. “I’ve got your back”, he said, putting on a sheep’s costume, after we realized that the Graduate School had forgotten to invite my supervisor to the defense.

The Chair of the department and my external examiner were also there. I felt bad for them. They were kind, prepared, and looking forward to a positive discussion of ideas.

The event quickly deteriorated. The jesters sneered as they asked their facile questions to which there would be no satisfactory answer: Jester C: “What is your thesis actually about?”, Jester B: “Have you read the Spandrels of San Marco*?”, Jester A: “Do you really think that your work is publishable?” Rarely did we discuss my experimental design, my analysis, the significance of the work. It went on for hours and I had made the mistake of trying to answer these questions sincerely.

My supervisor arrived halfway through the defense, sweating from the panic and effort to get there. But it was too late. I couldn’t think straight. At one point I ended up pounding my fist on the desk saying “the birds don’t care if it is 0.05!” The Chair of the department tried to engage me in discussion about my statistical analysis. By that time, I couldn’t have told you whether the number one was greater or less than ten. One of the members of the audience was so distraught by what was happening that he tried to intervene. He whispered in the Chair’s ear, requesting for a few minutes to break. The Chair refused.

In a long, dark hallway with cinderblock walls supporting years’ worth of ripped flyers advertising used textbooks, my supervisor informed me that I passed.

Jester B ensured the delay of my graduation when he insisted that I redo the entire statistical analysis because “Granny Smith apples cannot be used in pie-making**.” (I’ve translated this to an equivalent, and accessible absurdity). I had to write a new chapter about why he was mistaken. When that didn’t work to convince him, I redid the analysis alongside my own and appealed to the Dean of Graduate Studies to make the final call. That process added 18 months to my time to completion.

I’d like to share with you what this comedy of errors has taught me.

Lesson 1: We can become complicit in the design of our own future failures.

There were many times that I should have been an advocate for myself when my supervisor was not. We can dance around this and say ‘yes, but you were young and vulnerable’ or ‘he should have known better’. That makes me feel better. But I should have been thinking ahead about the consequences of decisions.

For example, I should have raised concern about the lack of diversity on my examining committee. Though there were six people sitting around that table, there was only one perspective represented. Had I been examined by a diverse committee, the questions would have been more diverse, there would have been an opportunity for a ‘reset’ with the change of examiner. I might have been able to recover. Instead, I was examined, essentially, by one really pissed off person.

For example, despite the advice not to reschedule, I should have rescheduled the defense when I realized that my supervisor would not be coming. We all need advocates in the room, wherever we are. Knowing that you’ve got at least one person in the room who truly does ‘have your back’ is huge. Never go into an exam alone; your research wasn’t done alone; so bring your team.

Lesson 2: The bar that we set for ourselves is far higher than the one set by others.
I Passed! Despite all the horror, the drama, and the subsequent toll on my mental health, I passed the exam. We build up to this moment as though it is the defining event in our academic lives. It isn’t. Conducting interesting research is, mentoring young academics is, engaging in a meaningful way with the research community is. The defense is an archaic tradition with no evidence-based rationale for its importance as an assessment tool. Let it go, relax, try to enjoy it. If you’ve made it as far as a defense, then you’ve already passed. Use the defense as an opportunity to showcase your work and your achievements.

My defense has defined me as a supervisor. In light of this comedy of errors:

  1. I advocate for my students.
  2. I seek out diversity in my building of a committee.
  3. I set the bar with my student, often encouraging them to lower their own.

Lesson 3: Advocates don’t always make themselves known.
I received a letter of apology from the Dean of Graduate Studies shortly after my defense. My external reviewer had requested it. I was particularly upset by what my external reviewer had witnessed. He was a bit of an idol in my field of research. A few months ago, a full ten years after this comedy of errors, I was invited to his university to give a research seminar. I didn’t even imagine that he would be in attendance. He entered the room with arms outstretched and gave me the same friendly hug that he did when we last parted ways. He whispered in my ear ‘it is great to see you again under such different circumstances Professor’.

* For those in need of a translation of significance, an equivalent question might be: “Have you read the Ten Commandments?”, a text to which we should probably all adhere but old enough that it has lost its comprehensive authority.
**For those interested in statistics, the actual quotation is: “Principle components cannot be used in subsequent statistical analyses”.

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