Pressure, Pushing Down on Me*

In the US, one of the last major hurdles for Ph.D. candidates is defending their dissertations. I understand it’s the same in many other places, too. If you have a Ph.D. yourself, or you’ve sat in on one of these events, then you know it’s a very intense experience. As this is posted, it’s my ‘dissertation anniversary,’ which has me thinking about the process. Candidates spend weeks or even months preparing their presentations of their material, as well as responses to possible questions they may get from members of their dissertation committees (and, at times, the audience). And, of course, those questions may be about any aspect of the dissertation, so the candidate needs to be thoroughly familiar with every bit of the material. It’s nerve-wracking, to say the least.

The thing about defending a dissertation is that it’s a bit difficult to describe, since it doesn’t have a lot of obvious parallels in other fields. But a look at crime fiction can help give a few insights.

Getting ready to defend a dissertation is a little like rehearsing for a performance. Just as actors must know their lines and musicians must know their pieces, Ph.D. candidates have to have their presentations well-prepared. We see the intensity of rehearsal in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, Christine Poulson’s Stage Fright sees her protagonist, Cassandra James, asked to adapt a Victorian novel, East Lynne, for a stage production. She’s Head of the English Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge, and her specialty is Victorian literature. So, she’s the right choice for the job. All starts out well enough, and rehearsals begin. But then, Melissa Meadows, who is to take a leading role in the play, tells James that someone is stalking her. Then, she goes missing. This throws rehearsals into chaos, and, when she doesn’t return, leads to the investigation of a possible murder.

Fans of Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett, and Deborah Nicholson, among others, will know that their novels also take the reader ‘backstage.’ In such novels, we see how many times material has to be prepared and how important timing is. We also see the suspense, nerves and tension that come out under so much pressure. It’s the same when one’s preparing to defend a dissertation.

Defending a dissertation isn’t really entertainment, though. Candidates need to be prepared to address challenges to everything about their work. They need to examine each aspect of their dissertations, from the topic, to the data collection, to the data analysis, and more. In that sense, preparing to defend a dissertation is a little like preparing for a trial. A good attorney prepares thoroughly for each trial. That includes working with witnesses and, possibly, the defendant. It also includes looking carefully at each aspect of the case, and addressing possible weaknesses. Attorneys know that any serious weaknesses in a case will be exploited by the other side. So, they do everything possible to prevent that. Admittedly, the Ph.D. candidate doesn’t risk prison. But it’s still quite a high-stakes process.

We see that sort of preparation in work by, for instance Scott Turow, John Grisham, Robert Rotenberg, and Paul Levine. The writing team of ‘Perri O’Shaughnessy’ also explore this sort of pre-trial work in their Nina Reilly novels.

Presenting one’s material before the dissertation committee, and fielding questions, isn’t exactly like a trial. The role of the dissertation committee is to support the candidate. After all, if the candidate doesn’t do well, this reflects on the committee, too – in particular on the candidate’s advisor/tutor, who generally chairs the committee.

In that way, defending a dissertation is a bit like a major sports competition. On the one hand, the player has to work very hard, and coaches can be difficult to satisfy. The Olympic Games, the World Series, the World Cup, and other such contests, all require discipline and focus. And coaches and trainers push and challenge players to get the most from them. At the same time, their role is to be allies and support systems.

Alison Gordon’s crime novels give readers a good look at what it’s like to play for a Major League baseball team. Readers see how important the actual games can be, and what the roles of coaches and trainers are. John Daniell’s The Fixer offers some similar insight into the world of rugby. And there’s Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series, which takes the perspective of a sports agent. In all of these novels and series, we see how pivotal a game or series of games can be. That stress and tension is quite similar to what it’s like to defend a dissertation.

As I say, it’s a little difficult to describe getting ready to defend a dissertation. It’s a singular experience, and it challenges Ph.D. candidates to think about their work in ways they probably wouldn’t otherwise. But there is nothing quite like being informed you’ve passed, and having your committee address you as ‘Doctor.’ I often think it would actually be a solid context for a crime novel. There’s tension, intense preparation, possible ego clashes, and there’s no telling what the candidate might uncover in pursuit of that all-important data set. If you went through this process, I’d love to hear your experiences. I still remember mine, even after a number of years.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure.


Filed under Alison Gordon, Christine Poulson, Deborah Nicholson, Harlan Coben, John Daniell, John Grisham, Ngaio Marsh, Paul Levine, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow, Simon Brett

28 responses to “Pressure, Pushing Down on Me*

  1. In the Netherlands, Spain and other countries too you defend your dissertation in front of the public, but in the UK I was fortunately spared that, and only had to defend it in front of a panel of external examiners. I can’t say it wasn’t nerve-wracking, and they were all experts in the field and had some in-depth, probing questions, but at least there was no public blushing involved.

    • I’m glad for you, Marina Sofia. The examiners are quite enough when it comes to nerves. And it is nerve-wracking, isn’t it? No matter how carefully you prepare, there’s always something. Still, you get through it. And I will say, getting ready to defend a dissertation forces you to know your work, and the field, very well. And that is helpful.

  2. A nice and unusual linkup in this post! I’m going to suggest a comparison with doing a radio or TV interview when you are ‘the expert’ – it can be nerve-wracking, and you try to prepare for any possible question. I’ve done it from both sides – being the interviewer is also challenging, and you feel the obligation to research the topic to ask the right questions and followups.

    • Thank you, Moira – I’m so glad you thought it worked. And that’s really a very interesting comparison, too. I have to admit I’ve not done too much of that – certainly not on TV. But I can see how it could be nerve-wracking as you try to prepare everything. If you’re the ‘expert,’ you have to know your facts cold. And you have to appear comfortable enough on air so that people aren’t put off by a shaky voice, tapping hand, etc.. If you’re the interviewer, you do need to ‘do the homework,’ so you come off as prepared and informed.

  3. tracybham

    I have no experience in this area, although as you point out, many activities can put a person “under pressure.” The Queen / Bowie song is one of my favorites.

  4. Margot: It was an interesting post. As I read I wondered if you would draw parallels with the legal profession. I think the comparison is more apt at the appellate level. There are no witnesses. There is a paper record of the trial evidence and arguments of the Crown and defence. As counsel you present an oral argument to a panel of judges who can ask you anything they consider relevant. Even with preparation it can be intimidating.

    As lawyers are used to asking probing questions have any Ph.D. candidates ever asked lawyers to question them to help prepare for their defence?

    • Thanks, Bill. And I really appreciate your insight into the appellate process. That’s something I’m less familiar with, but it’s certainly got a lot of parallels to defending a dissertation. And you ask a really interesting question about Ph.D. candidates getting help from lawyers. I don’t personally know anyone who’s done that. But as I think about it, it might be a very good idea. A lawyer would know how to ask a probing, challenging question, and might be able to help with the presentation itself.

  5. kathy d

    I haven’t gone through a dissertation, but a friend is now working on that in archaeology. I suspect it’s like studying for a law degree or preparing for a trial. When I worked at a nonprofit law office, I saw some people studying for law school exams: Yikes! And I saw lawyers preparing for cases. Most kept their cool, but not always.
    Since I had to type the legal briefs, I saw so many rewrites it was wild. But that was pre-Word documents, so every page had to be retyped in totality if there was a mistake. At least we had electric typewriters. I can’t imagine days before that, but then I got through college with a manual typewriter.
    I feel like a dinosaur.
    Glad that it’s a dissertation anniversary, an accomplishment not to be repeated.

    • Thanks, Kathy. And it’s interesting you’d mention using typewriters and having to re-type everything. When I was in graduate school, one of the professors I worked with told me his ‘Ph.D. story.’ He got his Ph.D. in the days before there were electric typewriters, so he had to type his work on a manual typewriter. And every change, even as small as one comma, meant he had to start that page over. Today’s candidates at least have the comfort of easier editing fixes.

  6. My sister-in-law has a Ph.D and went through this many years ago–it seemed very stressful for her, but she ended up doing a great job. Congratulations on your anniversary! And thanks for the books for my reading list. 🙂

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. And I hope you’ll enjoy those reads if you get to them. I’m sure your sister-in-law did a brilliant job. But yes, if her process was anything like mine, it was stressful.

  7. Margot, congratulations on your dissertation anniversary, I have great respect for anyone who does a Ph.D. I’d a tough time doing just my post-graduation!

  8. Happy anniversary! Happily, not an experience I’ve gone through – the very thought makes me shudder!

    • Thanks very much, FictionFan. And no, it’s not an experience one goes through lightly. Ultimately it was the right choice for me, but it really is challenging.

  9. Patti Abbott

    Oh, I could tell you some hair-raising stories about this topic. Don’t know why there are not more murders on dissertation committees.

  10. Thank you for the kind mention, Margot. This post took me back! Back in the days (would rather not say how long ago!) when I had my viva, it wasn’t as pressurised as it was in the US system, but all the same I was nervous.

    • It’s my great pleasure to mention your work, Christine. And ‘m sure you were nervous. It’s a high-pressure situation, and no matter how humane it’s made, it’s still a challenge.

  11. Happy anniversary, Margot! As someone who isn’t comfortable with public speaking, I can’t even imagine how stressful defending a dissertation must be.

  12. I’m gearing up for what we call here my ‘pre-submission seminar’ in a few months’ time. Congratulations on your anniversary, Margot. It gives me heart to know the mountain can be conquered!

    • Thanks, Angela. And yes, you can do it. I wish you all the best with the pre-submission seminar. From what I’ve read, it sounds quite formidable. But you’ll be great.

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