Thursday, April 20, 2017

The End of an Era: Defending the Dissertation

After I ran my first Boston Marathon in 2010, I mused in my blogWhat is pure joy? Can it be bottled and preserved forever? Maybe not. But pure joy can be found at the Boston Marathon.

That question encapsulated an important moment in my life, one based on achievement, that would take on new meaning as I earned my doctorate.

In the six marathons I've run so far, the marathon itself always manifested itself as a victory lap: a multi-hour celebration/endurance challenge after months of hard work. My advisor, and many other professors and Ph.D. recipients who had gone before me, framed the defense as another victory lap. They described the defense (a two-hour oral examination with six professors) as an opportunity for a great discussion and conversation, and to enjoy the fact that six people had carefully read my 315 page dissertation. I never quite believed them when they said it would be enjoyable - how is a two-hour exam enjoyable? Maybe they didn't remember how their own defenses panned out - surely they had forgotten the difficult questions and the gradual tightening of the screws throughout the exam.

In the week leading up to the defense (the taper, as it were), while there were the occasional small bouts of nervousness, but I felt pretty relaxed. I had worked on my talk, and prepared responses to many questions I thought were fair game, but overall, I felt really good. The day before the exam, time moved so slow, but again, still felt really relaxed. I went on a sunset run, listening to Katy Perry's Rise.

Oh, ye of so little faith
Don't doubt it, don't doubt it
Victory is in my veins
I know it, I know it
And I will not negotiate
I'll fight it, I'll fight it
I will transform

It was 75 degrees out - but I got chills (literally - it's a very strange sensation to get goosebumps while sweating) listening to the lyrics. And in moments like that, you can tell something special is about to happen.

Until about 10PM. It was as if someone flipped a switch, and the reality of the situation set in. Adrenaline started to flow, and it made for a rough night with not enough sleep. The morning of, I set out for a 5 mile run, hoping that as usual, it would disperse pent-up nerves. Usually, I can shake out those worries a few minutes into a run, but not on Defense Day. It was a 45 minute run, and it wasn't until about 42 minutes in, with just a few blocks to go, that knot in my stomach and shortness of breath finally disappeared, thankfully. And with the worry gone, I set off to get cleaned up and ready for the big day.

I love my campus, and because my defense was at 9AM, getting to campus early meant some quiet time to myself, including at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (whom I've called upon throughout all of graduate school) within the National Basilica. After a few final moments of prayer and quiet, I headed to the conference room for my exam, arriving at the same time as my advisor.

"Breathe. Relax," my professor said. I smiled and tried to not say to much that would betray any sense of confidence I was trying to display. The professors filtered in, and as I suspected, once the curtain went up and it was showtime, I would be ready to go. The defense began with me opening with a 20 minute overview of my project, which I had practiced every day for the past week. As I was laying out the parameters of my project, it felt as routine and rhythmic as a regular run - the muscle memory was there. While I was talking, I tried to look around and make eye contact with each professor, and as I caught the eye of my advisor, I realized she was smiling.

I nearly melted.  Oh, this is going to be okay. I realized at that moment, this wasn't a smile of encouragement, but one of pride. My advisor has known me since I was 22 and a brand-new student, who arrived to CUA with a lot to learn. I still have ways to go, but this was a moment that reflected positively on her as much as it did about me - this was our journey. So I tucked that feeling in my pocket and continued on until I got my cue to wrap up my opening statement.

The second part of the defense consists of each professor getting a short segment for questions, beginning with the advisor, and then going around the room. Before she launched into her first question, my advisor opened by saying, "First of all, Vanessa, I want to commend you on this project. In your exploration of Mary's voice, you introduced us to this fascinating topic..."

Okay, this is going to be okay. Everyone is on board. This is actually going to happen.

And then the Q&A session ensued. I went up to "the buzzer" with each question, meaning that I gave substantive answers (I was really worried about being too short with responses), and as a result, it went by really fast. It was an exercise in mental gymnastics, and the faculty were offering different questions to see how I could respond. After the last professor got his question in, I was sent in the hall for them to deliberate. "Go for a walk - it'll be a few minutes. We have some paperwork to fill out."

Ok, the rational side of me knew that everything was fine. The committee wouldn't have scheduled the defense if they thought I would fail - failure would be a reflection on the department. I knew that there was a reception scheduled in my honor in about 20 minutes - they wouldn't have ordered cake and champagne if they thought it would be a bust. But until the door opened, I wouldn't actually believe it. Tick tock. Tick tock.

Finally, the door opens, and my advisor walks out with a big smile, uttering the words I'd been longing to hear and working towards all of these years:

"Congratulations, Dr. Corcoran."

The smile says it all: me and my advisor
And just like that, it was all over. All of those years of classes, reading, writing, exams, studying, crying, praying, going back to the drawing board, wondering, worrying, hoping that it would happen - a whirlwind of experiences and emotions manifested in a dream come true. 

There was a small reception, and the rest of the day was spent with friends and family, on the phone and in person: just exchanges of pure joy. It's hard to believe that one era is coming to a close, and another one (TBD) is about to begin.

It's been just over a week since I finished, and I'm still in a state of disbelief/relief/overjoyed. It's hard to put it into words. Although so many people made the comparison of the dissertation to a marathon, the build-up to any marathon was 4-5 months. If you've lost track of the timeline:

2008 - Graduated college, moved to DC to start master's program in medieval history
2009 - First marathon
2010 - First Boston Marathon, Finished master's degree, started Ph.D. program
2011 - Finished coursework, Passed doctoral comprehensive exams
2012 - Reached ABD status (all but dissertation - you have 5 years to finish), started dating my husband, started teaching and researching my topic
2013 - Teaching, my dissertation proposal was approved, and we got engaged
2014 - Research/writing, got married
2015-2016 - Writing, revising, teaching
2017 - Defended

And throughout, I had these lyrics from Smash "They Just Keep Moving the Line:"
So I made friends with rejection
I've straightened up my spine! 
I'll change each imperfection 
Till it's time to drink the wine! 
I'd toast to resurrection 
But they just keep moving the line! 
Please give me some direction, 
'Cause they just keep moving the line!

It took a long time, but I finished right on time. A few statistics were always weighing on my mind:

  • The average student takes 8.2 years to slog through a PhD program and is 33 years old before earning that top diploma.
  • Only about 57 percent of doctoral students will get their PhD within 10 years of starting.
I've never worked so long or so hard for something. My mentor from Holy Cross sent me a congratulatory e-mail, which included the following:

You have worked so hard for this and overcome challenges and obstacles, that I know were tough at the time but which have made you stronger and more able.

And she's right. This was an uphill battle, but to stand at the top, to look back and to see how I've gotten here, had been a wonderful feeling. It's the end of an era, and I'd also be remiss if I didn't thank all those involved. As I shared in a Facebook post last week:

I'm so incredibly thankful and grateful to all of my family, friends, classmates, and professors who supported me professionally and personally throughout this marathon endeavor. It was truly a joy today to discuss my project after years of research, writing, and revising. This was a labor of love, and while my name is on the front page, it was a project supported by so many people near and dear to my heart. Thank you. 

And once more, for the cheap seats in the back - thank you.