Thursday, May 23, 2019

PhD Defenses around the World: A PhD Defense from New Zealand

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Shereen Asha Murugayah. Born and bred in Kuala Lumpur, Shereen recently completed her PhD "Engineering quorum-quenching enzymes" at the University of Otago. She is also a poet with work published in Shot Glass Journal, Rambutan Literary and the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018. You can find her on Twitter @shereen_asha.

It is impossible to write about my PhD defence without acknowledging all the weeks surrounding it and the immense support I received from people around me. I was lucky that the bulk of my writing was during summer and at the end of the day, I could happily wander off into the warm buzz and bloom of the botanic gardens. While I wrote my thesis, my supervisor chose my thesis examiners: one from within my department, one within New Zealand and one outside of New Zealand. She read my drafts faithfully, always reminding me that what was important was how you told the story.

The five big milestones of the PhD submission at Otago as my lab mate Susie described were: submission for examination, the departmental seminar, oral defence, final submission and graduation.

The day I submitted my thesis for examination, my mum and lab mate Tom accompanied me. The graduate research school where all PhD theses are submitted was across the river from my department and for a few seconds, there was the wild thought of tossing it all in to the water. It must have been all the sun (heh). All students submitting their theses for examination receive a marshmallow fish. I don’t think I have ever had such mixed feelings about candy! I scheduled my departmental seminar before my defence so that I could practise my presentation. I had the privilege of having my mother attend my seminar and over the days after it, I got comments from people who came to my seminar saying they understood what I talked about. This was hugely gratifying as the department works on diverse research areas.

The oral defence isn’t really a one-day thing. It starts with receiving your examiners' reports, which I did within three months. This is average, but I have heard it can extend up to a year (!) depending on the examiners. The convenor of the PhD examination process thus has an important role in making sure things are progressing and are there to mediate conflicts if necessary. My biggest dread for my examination was that I would be asked to do more experiments. Considering my lab group was moving to Wellington, this would be complicated. To my immense relief, my examiners agreed that I could pass with minor revisions and the reports outlined the changes I needed to make. it pains me to say that my first thought after reading the reports was "Wow, I'm not actually a useless pile of crap". My second thought was a huge internal groan at the first thought.

The defence itself required a ten-minute summary followed by a page-by-page walkthrough of the thesis to address questions from the reports and any others that might crop up. I had two weeks to prepare. Understandably, I was nervous. I rushed through my summary and then we got down to the questions. The question I remember best was "What is the origin of quorum sensing?" That felt like a whole different PhD altogether! I speculated as best as I could. After the question session, my supervisor and I were asked to leave the room while the convenor and examiners deliberated. My lab mates waited with me while I lost my concept of time. Eventually, the convenor and examiners called me back and congratulated me on a thesis well-done! Tom had made a fabulous cake and my supervisor brought along some bottles of wine. My lab mates also wrote me a nice card and lovely presents. I walked home in cool sunshine, napped on my sofa then went out for celebratory drinks.

The two weeks after that were spent correcting the thesis and having it reviewed by my supervisor, departmental examiner and convenor. The examiners recommended changes that ultimately made my thesis better. The pressure was on to submit my PhD before my student visa expired. I had such a terrible cold the morning I went to have my thesis hardbound that my mother had to accompany me to make sure I made it there and back home safely. About a week later, I was ready for the final submission of my PhD “Engineering quorum-quenching enzymes”.

I do not know what the future holds for me. Both academic and non-academic paths are tricky and difficult. All I know is I will do my best.

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