My dissertation defense

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
Someone told me I should write about the actual day (thank you Jak!), so I have tried. Not sure if it came out the way I wanted it to, but it is all still settling.

Submitted: June 15, 2008

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Submitted: June 15, 2008

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So I've been meaning to write about my dissertation defense all week, but I guess first I had to convince myself that it actually happened.  This may sound weird, it sounds weird to myself, but let me try and explain.  I think somewhere in my sophomore year of high school, maybe junior year, I decided that I wanted to get a PhD in anthropology.  Mainly because I LOVED social sciences and Dr. Schmidt, who taught it, inspired me so much.  It was just what I wanted to do.  Then something funny happened that I didn't realize would affect me for a long time: I got malaria.  For everyone that doesn't know this about me, your eyes are probably bugging out.  I still can't believe that either, but that is a story for another day.  Went to the University of Florida with a vague goal of working for National Geographic because I loved culture and I loved writing.  Journalism soon bit the dust because it was...mind-numbingly boring.  No joke.  And then I discovered through a medical anthropology class that who we are culturally and the societies that we live in can have a very large effect on what disease we get.  Blew my mind.  Seriously.  And realizing that persuing a career in anthropology was like asking for a 'You want fries with that?' t-shirt and switched to epidemiology.

Where I promptly found that epidemiologists could give a flying fudge about anthropology.  I was disappointed initially, but at the time switching disciplines was like going from trying to learn Spanish to Japanese:  you have to change your thinking entirely.  I persevered to learn this new culture and was happy with that. 

Then after five straight years of school (3 undergrad, 2 masters) I was pretty burnt out at school and decided to get a real job.  I would be an epidemiologist!  I wouldn't have to study on weekends, I would have free time, and I would have a salary!  All which was great and true, but I soon came to realize the limits of my job and that what I really had wanted to do in the first place was research and plainly I didn't know how to do that.

Which is where I found the Univeresity of Michigan and the Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health; a place where they looked at the 'social' causes of diseases.  To say that I was in an intellectual nirvana would be an understatement.  I discovered these things called contextual effects (effects larger than the individual), the built environment, life-course theories, and I was set.  I'm not saying that it all happened in one day; but you get the idea. 

I'm not saying that the last four years were easy - I could use the entire 'current mood' selections on this site to describe them - but I always had the end-game waiting for me at the end of the tunnel.  There was always something to be worked for, this very scary day where I would be presenting my work to my committee and anyone that wanted to show up that day.  I watched fellow students that I looked up to and thought I would never be as awesome as them go through the process with flying colors.  I went through all the minor steps: the comp test, the proposal, and the every day of writing my papers.  But that day was always at some point in the future yet to be fulfilled.

So to wake up that morning knowing what I would be doing in a few short hours I thought I would be scared out of my mind.  But something happened a couple weeks before that seemed to tilt things a bit: I turned in my written dissertation to my committee.  I had been working 10 hour days for months before hand trying to get this thing done, not exercising, freaking out, pretty much going insane and then....I turned it in.  And something just seemed to go out of me.  I just looked at that document on my desk, this shining beauty of a thing that I had been working on for four years...my accomplishment...and wasn't really afraid anymore.  This is me the day before at the peony garden at the Ann Arbor Arboretum:

\"\"



I'd really given two of my papers as presentations before, so the actual presenting part didn't scare me too much.  It was the questions, those dang questions that I couldn't control what people were going to ask that scared me.  But I will come back to that later.  I woke up pretty early to pick up my 'dissertation defense packet' from the grad school, treated myself to my favorite coffee from Caribou Coffee, stopped off at my mom's B&B, and headed up to the school; where I proceeded to make sure everything was set up, walked around a lot, and generally just waited for it to start. 

But I do remember on moment before everyone came in.  My presentation was all set up on the screen, all techinical issues were ready, and I was alone in the room.  I sat down in a comfy chair in the back of the room and just absorbed the moment.  But I still didn't believe that I was going to be defending within the hour.  My friends and family started arriving, including Bill with a video camera (something I did not know about until the Saturday before and funny enough freaked me out more than the defense).  I love you anyway Bill.

\"\"

And then suddenly it was time to go.  My mentor Ana introduced me, and I was off!  Honestly, it's kind of a blur.  I just started talking and nothing was going to stop me.  I had a script, I read it, tried to not look at my notes, and talked about what I loved.  I even forgot that the camera was there.  And I remember looking out at all the people that were there - my friends and family, my committee, fellow grad students, professors, and postdoc - and realizing that this was not scary at all.  That these were all people that were there to support me.  And when the time came for questions, they were all things that I had either thought about at some point, was asked about by people interested in my work, or just answered honestly.

\"\"

Then my committee asked me some questions, gave suggestions; all valid and good points, and I was done!  The girls in the department were nice enough to set up a reception for me upstairs.  I ate cake, chatted, and just reeled.  My family and I went to Dominick's and drank Sangria.  Then later on had stir fry at Mongolian BBQ.  And I went to bed.  Over the next few days, trips to the airport were made, family flew home, but I still didn't believe it had happened.  I slept a lot, was able to read a book for the first time in a long time, and was actually able to go to a movie! and I still didn't believe it had happened.  But slowly slowly  it is seeping in.  I really did defend my dissertation.  I will turn in the written part to the grad school this week and then it will truly be over.  Maybe then it will be real.  Maybe then I will realize I had accomplished the goal I set out over 10 years ago.  Maybe not.  In the meantime, call me Dr. \"\"


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