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Dissertation Defense

Karen Allendoerfer ravena at cco.caltech.edu
Tue Feb 25 17:12:43 EST 1997

I'd just like to add to the reassuring words that Kathie wrote.  I
thought my defense was going to be a real pain.  My advisor had moved
from one institution to another, and I had moved too, but I had to go
back and defend at my old institution.  I was sure no one would remember
me, but the room was full, and many people were old friends.  

I had a number of bureaucratic hassles related to the move.  I had to
change my thesis advisor, on paper, to be someone at the old institution.
The administrator of the program that administered my PhD quit 2-3
weeks before the defense.  It turned out that no one had assigned an
outside the department reader for my thesis, so I had to call professors
at my old institution and see whether one of them would do this.  I
had three grades to change from "incomplete" to [grade of the prof's
choice] from rotations I had done in 1987 and 1988 (this was 1993)
where someone (perhaps myself) had not turned in the appropriate
paperwork, and it had not been noticed.

I was asked how PhD defenses were handled, because the incoming people
were kind of scrambling and weren't sure how to handle it, including 
the party, and fortunately some wonderful friends in the program and on
the faculty stepped in:  one agreed to be my outside reader on short
notice, one agreed to plan a party, and bought a wonderful cake.  I did
get my advisor changed, and I did get my grades changed (they were even
A's, I think).  

All of this helped me not to think about the talk too much.  I gave the
talk or parts of it in a number of other forums first:  my old institution
had "evening meetings" in the department, and I talked in one.  I also
spoke at the departmental retreat for the two different departments.  And
I had given a 10-minute presentation at a national meeting.  Having given
the talk before was essential.  I don't think it's possible to practice
too much.  I also found that for me, memorizing the order my slides were in
kept me from being nervous.  When I would find myself unproductively 
stressing out, I'd take a deep breath and review my slides (e.g., for
my thesis, which concerned neurotrophin receptors in the visual
system, I would say to myself:  NGF mechanism
of action, schematic of the neurotrophin receptors, diagram of the
part of the receptor to which my antibody was made, staining pattern of
the antibody in development, close up in the cerebral cortex, and on and
on until the conclusion.)  I would count the slides as I went through
them to make sure I didn't forget one.  I found this was a good way to
calm down, and by the time I gave the talk, I knew by heart what was
coming next.  There could have been an earthquake, the slides could
have all fallen out of the projector, and I would have been able to
reconstruct them on the blackboard for anyone who was still interested.
I too found the defense itself more of a sharing among colleagues.  The
professors on my committee were really just wonderful.  I found it
enjoyable to have that much brain power concentrated on my topic.  

Also, the night before, I went to this hot-tub place.  I had been there
the night before my prelims, and it had been good luck then.  I figured
it couldn't hurt to revisit something that had worked before.  You
develop your own little superstitions.  For me, the hot tub was part of
it.  As well as being nicely dressed.  

It can be a really fun day.  I hope yours is.  Good luck!


Karen Allendoerfer
>JPotter wrote:
>> Hi to all,
>> I am a mere 5 weeks away from my Ph.D. defense and am quite nervous about
>> the entire thing!  I was wondering if others who have gone through this
>> would share their experiences....was it as bad as you thought it would
>> be?  All of a sudden, my data just doesn't look as good as it did a month
>> ago!  Is this common?  How did you prepare for the defense, both the
>> seminar part and the defense part?  If you knew then what you know now,
>> would you change anything about the defense or your preparation for it?
>> Thanks,
>> a somewhat panicky Jennifer Potter
>> jras at post.its.mcw.edu

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