Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Just Call Me Dr. Sara....On Second Thought Please Don't Because It Weirds Me Out

Since the end of February, the plan to move to Ireland has been slowly but surely coming into focus. One pretty significant contingency for the whole plan was the need for me to successfully defend my thesis, graduate, and receive my doctorate. This entire blog would be completely unnecessary and irrelevant if I failed to do all of that (no pressure!). After all, you can't be a postdoc without first receiving the doc...

The whole graduation process for a Ph.D. requires several months of preparation, paperwork, and meeting a series of deadlines. After spending several years carrying out thesis research, it is no small feat to chew, swallow, and digest the huge bolus of data into a story that is clear and concise. In January I started writing my thesis full-time, a task that I fortunately had a jump-start on because I had already prepared portions of my data as manuscripts. One is already published (yay!) and the other is currently in review (fingers crossed!).  The full ~300 pages of thesis (with about 100 pages of that consisting of data tables and references) was submitted in late March.

A word cloud made from Sara's thesis with the outline of a rotifer body drawn around it
For those wondering what my thesis is actually ABOUT, this will provide some hints.
It's a Word Cloud I made from my thesis inside an outline of a monogonont rotifer,
which is the system I used for most of my research.

Submitting the thesis is about 3/4 of the battle--the rest is the defense. The defense consists of presenting a 45-50 minute public seminar describing your thesis research followed by a meeting with your committee members in which they grill you with questions about your work for as long as they see fit. It sounds really scary, but you have to remember that your committee is not composed of strangers. Rather, it is a set of faculty mentors that have guided you and provided input on your research throughout your career. They have invested in you and want you to succeed. It's hard to imagine a circumstance in which you could botch the defense so badly that they would not pass you--it is the purpose of other hurdles in grad school to ensure you don't graduate if you are ill-qualified (like your comprehensive exam). That said, you still want to do well, so you have to invest a significant amount of time in preparing for it and making futile efforts to anticipate your committee's questions.

My defense was on April 16th. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous--I slept terribly the night before and I did not have much of an appetite on the day. Luckily, I have an amazing family, some of whom could make it there in person, while the rest were there in spirit. My public talk was at 2:00pm, my committee meeting immediately followed at 3:00, and it was all over by 4:30. It was a strange feeling. I mean, I worked toward this degree longer than I did my Bachelor's. It's still weird for me to think that it is over. It's even weirder to think that I have a doctorate. I don't know when the title will feel normal. Anyway, that hurdle is now cleared. My committee requested some revisions to my thesis, which are all but finished now, and my final thesis draft will be submitted very soon. Then all that is left is getting my hood (I'll be sure to post pictures when the time comes)!

Cory and Sara celebrating after Sara's thesis defense
Post-defense hug from my perpetual cheerleader.
I think he was just as relieved as I was that it was finally over!

After hearing she passed her PhD defense, Sara celebrates in lab with her friends and family
One last thing: I want to make sure that my family knows how much I appreciate them and all of their support while I worked toward my degree. I included them in the Acknowledgments section of my thesis, but since only five people on this planet will ever actually read it, I want to give my folks a shout-out here too. Here is the excerpt:
I have had the incredible fortune to never experience a day of my life in which I did not feel unconditional love and support. For this, I am forever grateful to my wonderful parents, Brad and Mary Reiva, who always allowed me to pursue my passions and follow my instincts. I am also grateful to my beautiful and incredible sisters, Jennie, Annie, and Elizabeth, for a lifetime of playfulness and encouragement. Finally, I would not be here without my amazingly talented husband Cory. Your creativity and positive energy continue to inspire me. Thank you for sharing in life’s adventures with me, always making me laugh, and generally making life easy and fun. I love you and I like you.
Seriously, my family is fabulous, and I would not have made it to the finish line without them. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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