It's been almost two months since I defended my Ph.D., and I still get a thrill out of being called Dr. Pulsipher. I HAVE A DOCTORATE DEGREE. I can't get over it. Such a momentous occasion deserves an excruciatingly long blog post, so here you go!
My defense consisted of two parts: a public, hour-long presentation describing the research I've done over the course of grad school, followed by a closed-door questioning session with only my advisor and dissertation committee (three professors who are not my advisor) present.
I was most nervous for my presentation, but not because I was worried it wouldn't be good enough to earn my degree. If your advisor lets you get to this point the degree is more or less guaranteed, barring some major display of incompetence on your part during your committee's examination afterward. The presentation is all about showing off what you've done and impressing people. It's a performance. And I was nervous I was going to let myself down. Six years of hard work only to culminate in a lackluster showing is not how I wanted things to end. I wanted to kill it.
So, I put all of my competitive ballroom training to work: practice, practice, practice. Chose an outfit strategically. Use pump up music effectively. Say lots of prayers.
My parents and youngest sister all flew in the night before. They were an immense help in the strategic outfit choosing and the pump up music playing. We dance partied to "Party in the USA" and "Run the World" both the night before and the morning of to get appropriately psyched up. Aaron was originally going to have to work the night before and then walk across the street to the chemistry building the morning of and try to stay awake during my presentation. But! He miraculously arranged to have the night off and surprised me by showing up at home at 10 pm, ready to sleep through the night and actually be awake for my defense.
I was worried that no one beyond my family and lab group was going to show up that morning since it started at 8:45 am, but people came! Friends from other labs, friends from church, department staff, etc. were all there to be supportive. Staring at those friendly faces made it a lot easier to go through my presentation, even when the red color cut out of the projector completely and 75% of my slides were shades of barely distinguishable blue, yellow, and gray (so much for my carefully chosen jewel tone color scheme). I thanked lots of people at the end and managed to not trip over too many words. I also did not end by saying "in the name of Jesus Christ, amen," which I was nervous I was going to accidentally do. When I finished, the audience had questions, which is always a good sign after a presentation. I could answer all of them, with varying degrees of competence but with lots of faked confidence thanks to power blazer + very high heels.
I think I killed it.
I mean, there was way too much adrenaline running through my system to be at all objective, but I felt really great afterward. I said everything I wanted to say, and I said it about as clearly as I think I was capable. The questioning period with my committee was pretty short and more like a discussion than a grilling session. They asked me about the broader implications of my work (what are the disadvantages to this system? how practical would this be commercially?) and a few clarifying questions about some of the data in my presentation that I moved through more quickly. All of my forms got the necessary signatures and that was that: Dr. Pulsipher became reality.
I know I didn't really blog much about grad school (other than complaining about it in passing), but it was long and difficult. The actual day to day work was not all that bad for me, I wasn't spending 14 hours a day in lab or staying until 2 am. But spending six years of your life working on a problem that's not particularly well-defined, that no one knows the answer to, and without any definitive end in sight is tough. I thrive on structure, rules, and clear expectations and grad school doesn't really have...any of those. It's also often difficult to convince yourself that what you are doing matters or will lead anywhere. Most of my experiments and mini-projects were failures (true for pretty much any scientist), and I still don't know why a lot of them failed! For six years, I ingrained skepticism and second guessed everything: is this a real result? Did this experiment not work because this is something new I've learned about the world, or did it not work because I screwed something up in the procedure? There is always something that you forgot to consider or something you should have been more rigorous about, and frankly, dealing with that for so long was exhausting. After my defense, I just wanted to lie on my living room floor and cry tears of relief for a week. (Instead, my lab group threw me a lunch party, my family and I went out to a nice dinner, and then I ran away to visit my sister in LA, which were all much less depressing.)
In the end, it all worked out. I showed up every morning in lab and somehow all of those small, marginally progressive days added up to a Ph.D. If I can do that, lemme tell you, you can do anything.
Love, the newly minted Dr. Pulsipher