This blog was titled "The Road to My Dissertation Defense" until I successfully defended my dissertation yesterday, but I am far from done. The purpose of this post to share my 3-day emotional ride before, during, and after the defense. For your reference, I defended on Friday, May 2nd from 10am to 12pm.
The Two Days Before
On Wednesday, my employer provided me the opportunity to practice my dissertation defense presentation with my colleagues. I started the day in a good and lighthearted mood. Because I was surrounded by supportive colleagues, the practice or "rehearsal" went well, and I left it feeling even more confident than when I started. The rest of the day on Wednesday went smoothly with little worry about the defense.
Thursday was a different story. Although I wasn't consciously worried about my defense, I didn't sleep well. I didn't think it was my nerves that prevented a good sleep. I thought it was more the weather, which was rainy and colder than average. It was more likely the pollen, which gets pretty bad around this time of year. Many people I knew in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids were suffering from colds and/or allergies. I thought a cold may dampen my defense, but it won't prevent me from defending well. I was determined to get a better night sleep. I feel asleep early and quickly.
Friday, 4am - 10am
Unfortunately for me, I woke up at 4am worrying more about my job than my dissertation defense. The atmosphere at my place of employment has been quite tense this week. I believe this is because the semester is winding down and the anxiety of the teachers and students feeds off on everyone else. Additionally, our department has been hosting big year-end events at least once a week. This drama will end with our last event on May 16.
Sometime between 5:00 and 6:30, I managed to get a little bit of sleep. I only realized this when I woke from dreaming. My dreams were not anxiety dreams, which resembled The Grand Budapest Hotel, so I was sleepily entertained.
I officially awoke at 6:30. My anxiety probably made me feel more alert than the previous morning. The anxiety was most about the unknown as I had no idea what was coming, and I did not bother anticipating any of the committee's questions. As the time drew closer to 10am, my anxiety turned into excitement as in "I'm finally getting this done" and to borrow from Phil Collins, "I've been waiting for this moment for all my life..in Iowa City."
Listening to Chris Joss' album You've Been Spiked, I calmly drove to the university with under an hour left. I got a good parking spot in the parking garage, and I had plenty of time to make sure my paperwork was in order, to buy some bottled water for the committee, and to set up the room including food, drink, and technology. I was thankful that several of my colleagues attended to support my defense. Their presence made it easier, especially when I saw nodding, which I think meant I was answering appropriately.
Although I believe I handled the defense well, there were times in which I had periods of extreme anxiety based on a committee member's interpretation or misreading of my dissertation. None of these were too bad, but I panicked internally more than I needed to. I blame my adrenalin. This unnecessary stress is perhaps the main cause of my emotional exhaustion immediately following the defense.
My emotions also differed for each committee member who was asking questions or providing feedback. I am aware they were playing roles with how to approach or attack my defense, and I hope I responded appropriately. I tried to stay good-humored all the way through. Compliments were also a necessary breath of fresh air or burst of sunshine.
Friday, 12pm - 2pm
After the defense and all the committee members left with their congratulations, I felt wiped out but not relieved. This defense was scheduled earlier than usual in the process, so I still have a lot of revision to do. For the first hour, my mind raced on how to make all these revisions in the next seven weeks. I wandered around downtown Iowa City looking for food, but my mind was often distracted by dwelling on a revision plan.
Back at home for the second hour, I had to coach myself to calm down and to take a break. Earlier, I had promised to do no work for the rest of the weekend. But I felt guilty because I didn't do too much with my dissertation for the past two weeks, after I submitted the dissertation to them. To relieve myself of some anxiety, I wrote out a revision timetable to convince myself that I could get it done. However, I was not too happy with the first draft of my timetable.
Friday, 2pm - 6pm
I had the opportunity to go back to work and join in a celebratory event for two teachers associated with our department, but I felt like the reminder of work would cause work-related stress to replace dissertation-related stress. I need a healthy distraction, an escape. My daughter provided the best suggestion, "Let's go on an explorer trip." So my daughter and I convinced my wife to join us on a sunny afternoon hike through Hickory Hill. Walking has always been the best stress relief for me, and walking through the woods is even better. We took a long, long walk through the woods. And my daughter was showing us how much she has been learning and growing since the last time we walked through the woods about a month ago. My mood had completely changed.
After our walk, we drove straight to a local pizza place for dinner that the whole family enjoys. And we had a stress-free dinner with great pizza and excellent service. As I was leaving the building, I was surprised at how many strangers were smiling at me as they walked (and even drove) past me. I know it was probably the sunny and warmer weather, but I felt like I had a post-defense glow.
The afternoon ended with lots of love and support from friends, family, and colleagues on social media. Their emotions finally overtook the stressful emotions that built up for and welled up in the defense. It was happy, but not an ending.
In my next post, I will describe more about how I got to this point through writing and revising, and why I need to revise more than the average person who defends successfully.