Thursday, August 23, 2007

Thesis Pieces

About 5 years ago, when I had to decide whether or not I wanted to do a PhD, I had a number of reservations. One of them was the fact that, in order to actually finish the program, I was required to do an oral exam. The longest that it could have taken was three hours. It's a very small amount of time when you consider that it took 4-5 years to get to the point where I could do the defence, but up to the time that I had to make the decision, and for quite some time after that, I was terrified by the idea of public speaking of any kind, even if it was just in front of a small number of people. The fact that every member of my audience would be evaluating my performance to determine whether or not I actually deserved the degree that I had been working on for more than four years didn't make the idea any more appealing.

Now, here I am, and I've done it.

So how was it?

You already know that I passed.

The defence consisted of two parts. The first is a twenty minute presentation, which is public. The second is a question period, which is not.

I've only been to one other defence presentation other than my own, and in both mine and his it felt like far too much material was covered in those 20 minutes. I feel like nobody who didn't already know what was going on would be able to understand the material [1]. Not so much because it's hard to understand, but because it is spoken about so quickly and in such sparse detail that it would be hard to absorb what little could be said long enough to appreciate it.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the question period in terms of the character of the examiners and in the types of questions that would be asked. I'd heard a few stories from people who had already done their PhD's. At least one person said that the examiners question you until you feel stupid. Not that this is their goal. They are trying to determine the limits of your knowledge, and that limit is reached when you can't answer a question that they ask, at which point you feel stupid. Or so went the reasoning. More recently, a friend told me that his friend's father was a professor, and he would actually try to make the candidates that he examined cry. Other than the external, I knew all of the examiners on my committee beforehand, and of those I knew, none seemed like the type to do that. The only unknown was the external. My experience did not reflect either of the above scenarios. On the contrary, when one of the examiners sensed that I was feeling uncomfortable he assured me that it was natural to feel that way, given the setting. My performance wasn't flawless, and so I felt a bit silly here and there when I my answers didn't come out quite as well as they should have, but I never felt stupid because of the content of my answer. There was a point where I knew that I knew the answer to a question, but I couldn't remember it right away. It was something that I felt I should have been able to answer immediately, but it took a few leading questions before I gave the examiner the answer he was looking for. The most difficult questions to answer, though, were not the ones about things that we knew were true, but about the open questions. Do I think that the answer to this question is yes or no? If it is no, do I think that the answer is almost always yes. Some of the questions required me to talk about things that I'm only vaguely familiar with, leaving me to fumble around awkwardly trying to find the right words. Most of these negatives, though, I feel are minor.

I don't think that I could have done much to prepare for the questions in the five weeks between submission and defence. Some of them I was able to anticipate, but most of them I wasn't. I did spend some time reading through the thesis trying to make sure that the material that I thought was important was actually committed to memory. However, I would have been able to answer almost all of the questions without this extra effort. It wasn't that I had committed every important detail to memory. It was more that the questions could mostly be answered without having memorized them.

Overall, the defence didn't feel too different from a presentation that I might have given in a seminar. The main difference between the two is that the presentation is shorter and the question period is much longer. It was hard to forget that I was being evaluated, but I don't think that my answers would have been very different if I wasn't. Certainly it wasn't nearly as horrible as I had expected it would be when I started the program.

[1] This was confirmed by the chair of the committee. During the defence, his role is to maintain order (could things really get that out of hand?), so he didn't say anything to me or ask me any questions. After the defence, however, when he was no longer required to maintain order, and all chaos broke loose, he told me that he was lost after the first slide.

1 comment:

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