So You’re Defending Your Dissertation Tomorrow!

Dearest ATS,

Congratulations: It’s a BOOK!

Your 273-page volume–the weighty, serious, mighty tome–is sitting in the center of my cluttered desk. Since it’s bigger than everything else around it (how small and slight those 20-page student papers look in comparison!), I can’t miss it. It’ll be there tomorrow when we all meet to perform the one-to-two-hour ritual during which you “defend” your work to your advisers, your committee members, and your colleagues.

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons, photocopied and given away to friends and students so often over the years I no longer have a version, was of a woman reaching across a seminar table and socking a guy in the eye in front of six well-dressed adults, with one of them commenting to the group “Excellent defense. Let’s give her the doctorate!”

It won’t be like that tomorrow, I promise. You’ve already won this race; now there’s nothing to do but enjoy the scenery as you cross the finish line. As your adviser, you know I would have counseled you to postpone if I thought you weren’t ready. But you’re ready. In fact, because you are almost comically ready, the following five pieces of advice are the only ones I can offer:

1. Wear comfortable clothes. We’ll be sitting in fairly uncomfortable chairs for at least an hour and a half and you don’t want to be pulling, tugging, worrying, or adjusting. The last thing you want to think about as you’re answering an intriguing question about the theoretical implications of revising your work for a wider audience is whether your Spanx is crawling up above your waistline and will, when moving towards your mid-section, be in danger of actually cutting off your oxygen-supply.

2. Remember that you’ve earned the right to be considered the expert in the room. When you started writing about this topic, I knew more about it than you did. Now you know more than I do. That’s exactly how it’s meant to work: Because of the research, the scholarship, the thinking, the writing, and the time you’ve put into your dissertation, you are the one person who can answer with authority the questions we’ll ask. Show everybody in the room evidence of that authority. Enjoy the sense of mastery; let us see how at ease you are with your subject.

3. Bring water. Brings lots of water. Your mouth will go dry. You’ll be the focus of all attention and it’ll be amazed how depleted you can become merely from turning your head one side of the room to the other–even when you are at ease with your subject.

4. Remember that part of what will happen during the defense will have more to do with the personalities of the faculty who attend the session than it will have to do with you, your dissertation, or your subject area. People will use questions to draw attention to their own peeves or pet theories; they might pose questions having almost nothing to do with anything you’re talking about simply in order to make themselves heard; they might–on rare occasions–want to impress someone else in the room. If you can’t address their question directly, see if you can rephrase it in such a way that it draws you back to an argument you’d like to make concerning your work. It’s part of your adviser’s job to make sure nobody else steals the show from you, so I’ll try to make sure nothing goes too far off course.

5. It’ll be over before you know it and I bet your big regret will be that you didn’t get to say half of what you’d hoped to say. Don’t worry: That’s what the next three or four decades of your successful career will allow you to do.

And that’s why awarding you the Ph.D. tomorrow will be a celebration of the beginning of things. You’ll be fine.

Go get ‘em.


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