I think I first heard the phrase “defend your dissertation” when I was in college, from an MFA acting T.A. who was doing a thesis on performing drunkenness. Even then the words sounded ominous. I imagined a dark room with a single chair and a locked door. Or maybe no chair at all–maybe you had to stand, while a group of people stared you down from across a table and fired questions at you.
When I started PhD coursework back in 2006 I knew that I would eventually have to defend a dissertation, but that day seemed as far away as Topanga Canyon from Los Feliz. At that time I pictured myself wielding a sword, or maybe a long kendo-style staff, given the nature of my work, while my dissertation cowered behind me.
For me, the actual writing of the dissertation–the 2+ years that I spent researching, outlining, drafting, and trying desperately to turn six short articles into a cohesive whole–was a lot more frightening than the idea of the defense. Fear of failure and mediocrity dogged every step of that two-year process. The defense, I could at least reassure myself, would only last two hours.
All grad programs handle dissertation defenses slightly differently, but I get the feeling that most of my colleagues were like me–worrying a lot more about the writing than the defending. It’s not as if you’re likely to fail. I’ve honestly never heard of a humanities grad student failing their defense. I’ve heard stories of people who were gently (and not so gently) asked to leave their programs a year or two into their studies, but it’s almost unheard of to make it all the way to the defense with a distinct possibility of failing.
All the same, as the days ticked by and my defense got closer and closer, I felt sort of obligated to freak out a little bit. I sometimes feel that half of grad school is theater. There’s plenty to be genuinely nervous about, but sometimes the freak-out over field exams, quals, the prospectus, and the defense seems at least partly performative. If you didn’t freak out just a little you’d worry there was something wrong.
I was lucky in that I’d always gotten along very well with all four members of my dissertation committee. I couldn’t imagine any of them “attacking” me during my defense, or asking questions that were designed only to unnerve me or trip me up. That’s the other thing–your committee wants you to succeed. (And if they don’t, you need to ask yourself whether you chose your committee right.) They may call it a “defense,” but for most people it’s a far cry from being attacked and thrown into defensive mode.
Some universities are trying to make defenses more public and open, part of their efforts to demystify certain parts of the PhD trajectory. One of my colleagues invited people to her defense, and a couple of people came. I’m all for more transparency, but I didn’t invite anyone to my defense. I told myself it was because I didn’t think it would mean much to anyone who hadn’t read my dissertation (even though, admittedly, plenty of committee members only ever read the introduction). But I think it had a lot to do with the fact that, in spite of my outward calm, I was afraid to let people see me in such a vulnerable position. And maybe I wanted to preserve the mystique a bit. I like rituals. Not creepy hazing-style Skull and Bones rituals that involve physical injury or humiliation, just events that you can’t really know or understand until you’ve been through them yourself. I’d asked plenty of people to tell me about their defenses, and they had, but I knew I wouldn’t really know what it was like until I’d done it myself.
I got to my defense a bit early and paced up and down the hall a little bit. Our wonderful administrative assistant had made me Rice Krispy treats. I wandered around the conference room table. The committee arrived and asked me to wait outside. They shut the door and I paced some more, and I was relieved that no one walked by, because I wasn’t really up for having a casual chat at that point. They opened the door and I went back in.
The next hour and a half was really just a very pleasant conversation. It’s a rare treat to have all the people who’ve advised you over the course of your graduate career seated together in one room, all talking about your work. It felt indulgent–all these people are here to talk about my stuff! For a whole hour and a half! And in my case, they seemed to actually like my stuff, and had lots of nice things to say about it! Granted, it was hard for me to believe a lot of it, impostor syndrome never really goes away, but still!
After that conversation they sent me out of the room again to handle the paperwork, and then my chair came outside to give me a hug and tell me that I’d passed. There was champagne. I don’t like champagne, but I drank a whole glass that afternoon and probably could have had two.
So if for some reason you’re really fixated on the defense portion of your PhD career, don’t be. Of course my experience can’t speak for everyone’s, but my defense wasn’t scary or unpleasant. It was actually a highlight of a lovely week back in L.A.