Thursday, January 26, 2017

PhD Defenses around the world: a defense in Spain

Today, I have the pleasure of inviting Dr. Lola Fariñas to talk about her defense in Spain. Lola is currently a Spanish postdoc fellow at Harvard University. Her background is Telecommunication Engineering however, she got her MSc degree in Biomedical Engineering at Technical University of Madrid (UPM). After that, she joined T.E.G. Avarez-Arenas group on Ultrasounds and Material Science at Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) where the research to get her PhD was carried out focused on the characterization of multilayered vegetal tissues using air-coupled ultrasounds. Lola is currently figuring out next steps to follow in her postdoc stage.

In her free time, she enjoys travelling, doing sports as running or cycling and watching movies and tv-series. She would like to become a blogger also in English soon and you may find her easily on Twitter.

There are two ways to get a PhD in Spain: the traditional way of writing a complete dissertation in a book, or, the non-traditional way. The non-traditional my way requires compiling peer-reviewed articles that you have published. No particular number is required; this is simply your university's business. Of course, you must reference whichever your contribution was in every paper. Also, one must attend international conferences. Another thing to take into account is that in Spain, you always have the chance to write and present your thesis in Spanish. However, many of us decide to do it in both Spanish and English in order to receive a special International mention.

Once your supervisor considers that your thesis dissertation is ready, the real challenge to reach the viva begins: Paperwork!. In my particular case, I gave myself a deadline to get the PhD. I declined the opportunity to delay getting my thesis until my grant ended, because I had a postdoc short stay at Harvard University (USA) - and I didn't want to interrupt my future work there and travel back to Spain simply to defend it.

All the research during my thesis was carried out in the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), which is a public research agency and not a university. Of course, one must be enrolled in a university to get a PhD even when you don't do any research in there, so I enrolled. To give you a brief idea of how complicated it is to get your PhD in Spain, laws regarding PhD schedules and requirements changed twice during my 4-years-PhD-work -- and not in a clear way. That means that in order to get all the paperwork done to schedule a viva date, meet all deadlines and organise the committee members, I had to complete a nonsense course for one month, I had to talk to many administrative personnel, who thought that I couldn't make it on time, and I also had to pay more money to my university. After all this, (in addition to some personal weight loss, worrying, and presumably years of lifetime lost) I finally set a date for my viva. Setting a date wasn't the end of this path - not by a long shot.

I've never thought before about how hard it is to sum up your work: Pick what you think is most interesting and discard some other elements that were difficult to obtain as well. One of my primary concerns was trying to make everything fit logically together, even when this meant discarding some papers only because they were difficult to include in the thematic thread of the whole presentation. Additionally, I had many doubts about preparing my speech. For example, is it necessary to include a long introduction in order to make sure that everyone understood the background of my research or, on the contrary, should I provide a shorter introduction in order to focus more time on my actual work? I chose the second approach, but even today, I've seen much controversy regarding this particular point.

Moreover, the multidisciplinary nature of my thesis presented myriad challenges. The committee was a mix between experts in engineering/applied Physics and also experts in Biology/ecophysiology. I was terrified! Everyone always says that you are the one who knows the most about your research when you show up in your defense room, but my naturally worried self found this hard to believe. Since my background is in engineering, I was afraid of deep questions in Physics or Biology. I would have hated to have messed up all of the valuable work I completed during my studies under the supervision of my PI, simply because of insecurity or nervousness. What if the emotion of the day caused me to make basic mistakes?

So, the defence day arrived and there I stood, in a room in front of almost all the committee. Only one evaluator missing: the president! Yeah, when I thought everything was almost done, I needed a president in the committee. This resulted in a last-minute scramble simply to meet arbitrary requirements. Moreover, it was a hot day by the end of July in Madrid, nobody thought about delaying as an actual option. Finally, the public defence began. It began by the time I planned that should be over when I woke up that morning. Because when I woke up that morning while I was hardly trying to eat some cereals, I wanted to run away (hopefully, this won't happen to me in a potential future wedding - fingers crossed -) I calmed down by thinking: Okay Lola, this will all be over in a mere 6 hours.

Apparently, I was totally wrong. I started the presentation very nervous. However, I felt better little by little as I was speaking and presenting my slides. As I was wrapping up, the missing president appeared! He was there for the whole Q&A, which I found really long. Also, - for some reason I still don't understand, one of the members in the committee delivered a lengthy diatribe explaining to the public why, in his opinion, making a thesis by compiling peer-reviewed articles wasn't a good option (as if some of us had the choice to decide over that). All the difficult questions that I had expected and prepared for didn't appear at all. More, I tried to add value to the questions by adding information that was missing or misunderstood. At this point, I realised that this multidisciplinary thing I was afraid of was also an issue for the committee to develop challenging questions about my research material. Truly, by the end of the Q&A time, I was so emotionally exhausted that my answers turned shorter.

Over six months have passed since defending my thesis and I'm now on my way to enter the club of those who tell you, beloved current Ph.D. student, that the hardest work is the one you do during your thesis and the viva part is just a formality. I told all of these anecdotes because I guess my case is quite particular and extreme so hopefully, it might help to make you feel better and more confident through this process.

Finally, I realised that even when my thesis defence seemed like the end of a long journey, it was actually only the starting point of a brand new one! Now the challenge lies in deciding what I should do next, where to go, and how to make it happen. So, even though I absolutely know how hard preparing for your thesis and becoming a PhD can be, don'92t forget to enjoy the journey!


  1. Thank you. Fabulous story.

    1. thank you for reading it and thanks dr. Lantsoght for hosting :)