Tuesday, June 28, 2016

PhD Defenses around the world: a defense in political science from Penn State

Today, I am hosting Daniel J. Mallinson to share the experience of his PhD defense for the "PhD defenses around the world" series. Dan grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (though he is not Amish). As an undergraduate he studied political science at Elizabethtown College. He worked at the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and then the Inspector General’s Office at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services while doing his masters at Villanova University. He returned to graduate school full time at Penn State, earning his Ph.D. in political science in 2015, and now works as an Assistant Professor of Public Administration and Political Science at Stockton University in southern New Jersey.

December 3, 2014 – D-Day is two months away. No, not defense day, but my first child’s due date. It was also time to finish up my dissertation and defend. Having accepted a job offer the month before, my wife (a postdoc in Kinesiology) and I decided that a pre-baby defense would better allow me to help in the transition to parenthood. No problem, I would gather the committee in mid-January and wrap things up before the February 3rd due date. Multiple rounds of Doodle Polls later, it became apparent that there was not one day in January that all of my committee members were physically in State College. Furthermore, those that were traveling were not able to teleconference in for the defense. So, January was out. My wife and I discussed the situation and decided to set the defense date for February 4, the day after our baby was due. We also set a back-up date of February 25 so that I could still hit the early deadline for a May graduation.

Gratefully, wrapping up the dissertation was not a large source of stress. I had received helpful feedback throughout the process, and my committee generally seemed pleased. That said, there had been significant discord over one particular chapter that I still decided to keep in the final project. So, there was much uncertainty regarding that particular part of the dissertation. As time ticked away and the due date neared, we were also uncertain as to whether our baby would wait long enough for me to defend. We had few signs of early labor, but the baby was positioned to come quickly when the time came. During the months of December and January, we largely went about our days, but both the defense date and due date hung over my head as I tried to prepare. Defending a dissertation is an important life event, but it seemed small in the scope of also preparing to welcome new life into the world. Especially our first child. The days passed and baby Mallinson seemed increasingly determined to let me finish.

Of course, you hear that first babies often come late, but there are plenty that come early. I was fortunate that ours did, in fact, arrive late. The due date came and passed with no signs of our baby wanting to go anywhere. So I prepared for and carried through with the defense. Our department has an unusual process for defenses. They are technically public, but are not advertised and the candidate almost always meets with just the committee. During the defense, we had a very pleasant and constructive dialogue about the project, holes in my logic, and potential avenues for future work. As far as defenses are concerned, it was a great experience. While gathering for dinner and drinks that night with friends and my very pregnant wife, the whole thing felt surreal. In a yet un-recognized blessing, my committee asked for few revisions, allowing me to file the final paperwork and the dissertation the Friday of my defense week, which was only 2 days after my defense.

That same day, February 6th, we had a difficult OB-GYN appointment. My wife was committed to giving birth naturally, but it turns out that baby Mallinson was very content staying put. Perhaps we had willed too strongly to let me finish my defense and dissertation. So, an induction was scheduled. Little did we know in December that not only would our little one not come early, but we might have to push the process along. As my wife left her last day of work before six weeks of maternity leave, which happened to be the same day that I filed my final dissertation with the Graduate School, we were again uncertain as to how the next few days would progress. We were anxious about an induction and had an army of people praying that our little one would come in its own time. The following day, my wife went into labor, and on Sunday morning February 8, four days after my defense, our little Peter was born after an intense, but relatively short, natural labor.

Many graduate students, such as my wife, remember the chaos and stress leading up to defense day, with cramming in final analyses and revisions. I, on the other hand, was fortunate that this was not my experience, but my defense was stressful in other, unique ways. When I think back to those days, I will remember all of the uncertainty surrounding the birth of our little boy. The wonder of his birth certainly overshadowed the fact that I had reached a culminating point in my educational journey. And therein lies the greatest lesson of this experience. Defending my dissertation was a culminating experience, but the birth of my son was deeply meaningful in a way that the Ph.D. was not. The Ph.D. was really a milestone in the longer arc of an academic career, whereas my son has changed my life forever. His birth and my defense experience also taught me about grace, humility, and faith. Grace for myself and for others, even when things were not going the way I thought they should. Humility in the juxtaposition of my achievement and new life. Faith in God’s provision.

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