Earlier this month, my wife defended her PhD. It was 8 years in the doing… with most of the thesis being completed in the last year after switching jobs and supervisors. It’s amazing what a change of scenery can do.
This was the fist time I’ve witnessed a defense – though they are often public, they aren’t usually attended. I guess most people aren’t interested in sitting quietly in a room for a few hours watching someone get grilled about something and using language they are completely unfamiliar with. I’m lucky, because not only do I find my wife’s research interesting, but I was requested for moral support and not asked to stay away as a source of extra anxiety (seriously, my wife’s supervisor spent her defense sobbing, and someone else on the committee defended in front of their extended family).
I saw how hard she worked leading up to the date – reading criticisms of her approach, articles by her committee members, etc. after near daily writing sessions starting at 5am. As I expected, she totally kicked ass and was awarded a PhD with no revisions (kind of a big deal, but no revisions doesn’t mean literally no revisions, just no revisions in terms of thought, methodology, etc. You still have to fix typos, sometimes re-write passages or address something the committee feels wasn’t dealt with. The possibilities are no, minor, or major revisions, and failing.).
It was an interesting experience, and from what I understand pretty rare. First off, there was the form. The thesis was written as a literary biography, which has been frowned on for at least 50 years, I guess? except when writing about old white dudes (and never in a thesis). Everyone on the committee mentioned what a joy it was to read it, which makes sense, because it was written with a view of a future trade audience. While I haven’t attended defenses, I’ve read plenty of academic writing, so I get the point. Reading lots of theoretical jargon isn’t pleasurable, it’s work.
Second, the room was a private meeting room that you had to know about and know how to book. It’s hidden in the middle of nowhere behind a metal door in a large concrete building. It’s wood-paneled and would have fit nicely in Hogwarts as staged in the Harry Potter movies. As we were leaving, we noticed a full kitchen that committee members would have taken advantage of for baking during the defense! The post defense champagne was still fine, even though it was kept cool by ice packs. I’ll try to find a photo without people to share.
Third, the atmosphere was very casual and friendly. Even the external examiner known for being a hardass was smiling and joking in between questions. I watched my wife handle the questions she’d prepared for with ease; deal with questions she hadn’t prepared for – questions relating to ethics, especially because she’s the first person with access to the archives of a notably private person – just as easily and thoroughly. I heard later that the external examiner looked for reactions – apparently I was more nervous than my wife – and I was a tell for issues that I thought she might have difficulty with.
Anyway, I’m super proud of all the hard work she did to get to this point and how spectacularly she succeeded, and in the knowledge that this is more of a beginning than an end. I might have to post more when the book is closer to publication, even if makes it a little harder for me to hide who I am, but that’s not going to be any time soon.