Thursday, July 25, 2013

On the road to the defense, part II

Right after the defense, with my husband, paranymphs, full committee and the Beadle
I'm writing the second half of my experiences in the final year of the PhD towards the defense here in hindsight, as I defended successfully on June 14th 2013 and received my PhD degree the very same day.

Previously, I described what happened between finishing my draft dissertation in November 2012 and sending copies out to the committee members in February 2013. In this post, I will continue where I left off in February 2013, and describe those messy final months of working on a doctoral dissertation.

9. Get the comments from the committee members
Most of my committee members preferred in-person meetings. Luckily, most of my committee members are based in Delft or often in Delft for meetings, so that I only had one long train ride to Germany for a meeting. During the meetings, the committee members gave me their input in many different ways. Some preferred my talking them through the dissertation, some interrogated me on topics more related to their field that I implemented into my work, some focused more on the layout and writing style - every reviewer seemed to have his own style of assessing my work.

10. Implement the comments from the committee members
With my piles of notes from these meetings, as well as the pages of comments from the final committee member in London with whom I didn't meet in person, I set off to make some changes to my dissertation. It took me about 6 weeks of full-time work to implement all the comments and respond to all the questions in a way that I felt was satisfactorily. With some committee members I met several times to improve large chunks of my dissertation, or I e-mailed back and forth with them. At first I was surprised as I thought "the work was done", but then I understood how valuable a fresh look at my work can be, not only for my dissertation, but also for my further publications (ie. the papers that I need to write from my dissertation)

11. Iterate if necessary
I felt at times intimidated by the knowledge of some of my committee members, so I felt afraid to ask for their help and input at first, and spent some time studying topics where I felt I was still lagging behind. But then it clicked, and I understood that if they take the time and effort to give some thorough remarks on my work, that they actually show me that they want to help me improving my work. So I went back and forth, learned more things, saw a few more connections in my work and genuinely made a better (yet almost 100 pages bigger) dissertation.

12. Get the approval from the committee members
I remember how my heart jumped up when the final committee member strolled into my office with his "signature". The committee members all need to sign two documents for the Beadle: the first one confirming their availability on the day of the defense and the second one their approval. One of my committee members approved under the condition of making corrections to the dissertation, which then required a written letter from my promotor and additional approval to keep the whole (bureaucratic) process rolling.

13. Revisit with promotor and copromotor
After editing my dissertation, I revisited the work again with my promotor and copromotor, and we needed to tighten my set of propositions (ie. a leaflet with 10 propositions additional to the dissertation that shows your scholarly insight). With a conference in Israel in between, I felt that time was ticking - and that those 4,5 months of preparation that seemed like an eternity where flying by.

14. Send to the printer
With all approval from the full committee, I sent everything to the printer. In the final weeks of working on the edited version of my dissertation, I spent some time in layout-hell, trying to make sure everything fit within the margins (I needed to revamp an entire Annex for that purpose), and making sure all tables are on portrait pages (I used a lot of landscape tables to hold all my data). I sent a draft to the printer before the critical date, and was reminded as well of the fact that all chapters should start at a right page. Lots of tinkering before sending it all off to the printer, as you can imagine. In the meantime, I had a designer at the printer's office developing my cover and invitations - which saved me time for sure, but needed my attention and input as well.

15. Check the print proof

I got my print proof even earlier than the schedule of the printer indicated, and I was very happy to hold the very first physical, book-like copy of my dissertation. I didn't really know how to check the proof: reading from A to Z felt pointless to me, so I ended up going over every page and checking if all looked right - and I did find quite a number of things that did not look as I wanted (yet looked exactly the same as the PDF I delivered to the printer).

16. The final order and delivery
I made more edits, then struggled with the PDF conversion for a few hours. The print-proof arrived right before the start of a conference in Rotterdam, so for the very first time (and equally last time) in my PhD studies, I had to cut back on some sleep to get through the final edits and make it in time to deliver everything to the printer. On the 17th of May, I received a call from the goods delivery point of our faculty that there were "some boxes" for me - and so started my journey to drag my 250 copies of my dissertation into my office...

17. Spread the word

I took the stack of business cards that I had amassed from previous conferences, and started mailing out copies to interested contacts (or at least, contacts that I thought would be interested). I also had two more conferences, 1 in Japan and 1 in Pittsburgh. I took an entire carry-on bag filled with copies of my dissertation, and distributed these during the conferences. By the time of my defense I had about half of all copies distributed.

18. Prepare for the defense

I didn't really know how to prepare for my defense, and I'll write a post about it specifically in the future, but essentially I didn't have much time for preparing my defense all in all. Certainly, I had to prepare my "lekenpraatje", and I reread my dissertation once more, but preparing for possible questions was a little more vague. I summarized my dissertation in a sentence per page, as suggested by Phillips and Pugh, I went over my meeting notes again, and I tried fishing for information from my committee members (unsuccessfully).

19. Defend

Less than a week after landing back onto European soil after my trip around the world to Japan and the US, I got over my jetlag (mostly) and defended my dissertation. I was nervous at first, but after the first question, I felt my confidence returning to me, and I sort of enjoyed showing my work to the committee members.

20. Celebrate!
After the actual defense and receiving my degree, I organized a reception in the TU Delft Aula building, and in the evening a dinner in a restaurant in Delft (plus some drinks afterwards in a bar). Even though I was exhausted from the stressful day, I was feeling uplifted and enjoyed celebrating my fresh degree very much (well, who wouldn't?).

How different are the preparations at TU Delft and my take on them from your institution? Please let me know in the comments!

4 comments:

  1. Great post! I think the procedure might be even different between faculties. I know several people from Computer Science who did not meet any committee members before the actual defense (even though they were from the Netherlands).

    I especially like point 17! I often see that all the printed copies only go family/friends, and to colleagues in the same building (so that there are 3 to 4 copies per office sometimes). I'll try to keep that in mind :)

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  2. Thanks!
    Interesting to read as well that procedures differ between the faculties; it might even be different among research groups

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  3. In the US, we defend, then do revisions which all committee members must sign off on. Once all the paper work is completed, at my university, I had to apply for my Phd. A "Graduate Review Committee" reviews the paperwork and confers the Phd (usually just administrative formality). These are conferred 3 times a year (August, no ceremony; December and May, ceremony). I received mine in August, but then went through the ceremony in December.

    This is the first year that all dissertations at our university were electronic, so no printed dissertations.

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  4. That's more or less similar to what my husband did (he got his PhD in the US as well)

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