Thoughts by Richard Bleil
For some reason, my thoughts are heavily on my doctoral defense today. I’ve written of it before, but for those of you who don’t know, after four to seven years of research and work, you are required to write a thesis (a book of your work basically), send it to you dissertation committee (typically three people who already have their doctoral degrees in the field, although I had five) who read it, and then you must defend your work. This defense means that you stand in front of them, give a very brief (less than ten minutes since they’ve all read it already) overview and then stand answering questions. There are no restrictions as to what these questions can be. They can cover questions about your work, or about the field, or basically anything at all. This process usually lasts less than an hour, but for me it was an hour and a half. Then they toss your butt out of the room while they sit around and gossip about you. What they discuss is if you sufficiently defended your work to graduate or not. Then they file out of the room, one at a time, shaking your hand, but nobody will tell you if you graduated until your adviser, the very last person to leave the room, comes out and tells you how you did. Even the wait for me was longer than usual, but the discussion was not about whether or not I succeeded, but rather, whether or not I should pass with honors. I did not.
I don’t remember much of the day. I remember standing in the hallway looking at a display outside of the conference room where I had my defense and trying to force myself to think naughty thoughts just to keep myself from panicking about the discussion. It didn’t work. I also recall being frantic before the defense. I don’t even remember what it was, but I remember making a bunch of copies of something just before the defense. But the main thing that I remember (and the actual focus of this post) is an article that my adviser thrust into my hands about half an hour before the defense, saying, “here, read this, I’m going to ask you a question about it.” My discipline is statistical thermodynamics, a rather complex field to begin with, and all research articles in it are densely written and always takes me about a week to truly understand what they are doing, even today. What he handed me was a newly published article, typically written, and there was absolutely no way I could have possibly understood anything about it at that point in time. True to his word, one of his questions was “were you aware of an article written by…” He went on to ask me how I would have modeled the system (or chemical reaction or molecular structure or Thanksgiving turkey or whatever the article was about). It was, honestly, the one question that I could not answer, and that includes some of the supposed “whoppers” they hurled at me that really didn’t seem difficult to me at all. I suspect this was the question that knocked me out of the “graduation with honors” category (but apparently not out of the running).
For years, I’ve punished myself for not forcing myself to just sit down and read at least the abstract. Was I really unable to do that much? The abstract is just a paragraph at the beginning of an article explaining what the article is about, a synopsis of the approach and a line about the results. It’s just not that difficult, but I’ll be damned if I could read it. Now I realize that, no, I really could not have read even that much.
Our state of mind is a fragile thing. I was frantic, and under excessive stress. I’m sure that my adrenaline level was through the roof. When one is in danger, as I’m sure my nervous system was preparing for, your breathing is off, even your eyes do not see the scope they normally do. Your body physically changes so much that it literally sacrifices your peripheral vision to focus on the danger ahead. I don’t know what my adviser’s goal was. Did he want to throw in a ringer question to try to impress this group of professors with whom I was working (including one from Harvard, my “external” professor), or was he trying to ascertain if I could think in stressful situations? I wonder if he does this with all of his advisees, or is it a common practice for students facing their defenses across academia? I know that if he had done with my good friend who graduated before me, she would have handled it brilliantly because she is so much better than I am, but for me, no, I couldn’t do it. And frankly, it isn’t a fair practice. I was so focused on my own research that there just wasn’t anything left for new research.
And yet, I suppose in a way this is how our educational system works. Every time we give an exam, we expect students to perform in high stress situations, to synthesize the material they’ve been studying and use it to process new problems and applications of that information. I’m not going to pretend like I have a solution to this, but it just now occurred to me that this is the model of education. My defense was really just a hyper version of this. I had the background to understand that article, but not the ability. I suppose this is why students far prefer tests of repeating memorized information as opposed to problem-solving which, in the sciences, is exactly what we want. The reality is that the situation, the stress level, the challenge of the task all factor into an individual’s ability to perform well. I wonder how many supervisors are aware of this. How many of them make the work environment more stressful than necessary, then criticize their employees for not doing as well as expected?