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Monday, September 26, 2005

So what's a disseration like? Part III

So now you know the basic format and requirements, and you're familiar with my committee. I guess it's time to discuss the actual day. It began with the public seminar, which took place at 1pm. About 20-odd people showed up, which wasn't bad considering it was a Friday afternoon in August.

More in Extended....

For starters, I choked on the presentation. Big time. One of my worst in a while. I have General Anxiety Disorder, and I don't seem able to control it too well when I'm in a situation where the potential negative outcome is considerably worse than the potential positive outcome. For instance, I could rattle the talk off quite well for a job interview (which I got), because the worst case scenario was just that I had to look for another job. Here, I didn't do well because the worst case scenario (finding a new field and restructuring my career after wasting 8 years of my life) was much worse than the potential payoff (being done with graduate school and looking forward to writing grants), and my mind started racing to the point that I couldn't pick out the words I had planned.

Thankfully, the presentation quality wasn't really the focus. I've presented at conferences and won awards for it before, plus in the past my program director has given his stamp of approval on my abilities, so it's not like it was too big of a big deal. More of a crushing blow to my fragile ego than anything.

Moving on to the next part, the private defense. This is where you and your committee go off to a room and they grill you for a few hours. My committee, being very business-like, does not see the value in rehashing old, basic material that could have been covered in the Prelim exam (which, for the lay people, is essentially similar, and occurred in 2000. It is an exam where you propose a thesis project and then defend it orally to your committee, and where they also test you on your basic knowledge as relevant to points in the thesis proposal). Most general knowledge is assumed covered in the preliminary and qualifying exams, so you won't get questions like "Can you tell me the steps in the synthesis of acetylcholine", but questions more like "Do you know patterns of nicotinic receptor expression in the cortical areas you studied" as a setup question for something like "Now tell me the implications for your results, for instance how does/might the pattern of nicotinic receptor expression change with estrogen loss or replacement, and how would you expect cognition to be affected? Can you design an experiment to examine this?"

We went around the table twice, with everybody asking me a block of questions; Montag, Nadirius, Pepto-Bismol, Pizza, and Volvo. Montag wanted to know why I didn't pursue the effect I found in my first study. I didn't for practical reasons, which isn't really the answer he was looking for, so the conversation switched to more theoretical questions on the mechanisms underlying the effect I saw, and what I could've done to further explore it. He also had concerns about the statistical analyses I used, which I don't necessarily view as valid criticism due to the design of the study. Nevertheless, he made interesting points. Nadirius didn't really have too many concerns, his were primarily centered around places where I wasn't clear in the written dissertation. Pepto-Bismol grilled me on my methodology, and pointed me towards things I could do in the future as potential controls. Pizza and Volvo focused a lot on pharmacology of the systems I studied and potential studies.

All in all, it was a very odd experience. I expected a lot of nitpicking at details and pointless arguments, with a dash of prospective studies. Maybe some candles, leg irons, creepy Benedictine monks chanting from the dark corners of the room, Patrick Stewart dressed as a druid announcing "Now for the final ordeal.... the paddling of the swollen ass!" Instead it was very collegial. I'm glad it is over, but even moreso I'm glad my committee rocked.

This concludes my dissertation story. I can provide more info if anybody is interested (as if anybody reads this blog besides the scripts that automatically fill my comments with loan offers everytime I post something new).


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