graduate school

Surviving Your Doctoral Defense: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SRShaw

The defense of the doctoral dissertation, also known as the viva, is the final stage of the doctoral program. There are a variety of styles, traditions, processes, and methods of the dissertation defense process. These vary across nations, universities, and fields of study. However, there are a set of common approaches that students can apply to reduce the potentially paralyzing anxiety and stress surrounding the doctoral dissertation defense.

As is usual on this blog, the suggestions reflect my experiences and are not intended to be a substitute for real expertise in the matter. But after serving as a supervisor for six successful doctoral theses and a member of the defense committee for 49 doctoral theses, there are some behaviours of candidates that differentiate high-quality versus low-quality dissertation defenses.

Prior to Defense

Wait until the dissertation is ready. There are many candidates who have artificial deadlines and timelines due to job commitments, financial considerations, or other requirements that the defense take place by a certain date. Rushing to meet a specific defense date increases the likelihood that the dissertation is rushed. Take the time to make sure that all appropriate supervisors, peers, and other trusted reviewers have the time to read the document carefully. This is a situation where it is critically important to ensure that the document is sound and well-developed before moving on to the defense.

Presentation rules apply. The general rule of presentation is to know the information so well that you could carry out your entire defense if your computer locks up, the projector fails, or there is some other technological problem.

Select external examiners. Nearly all universities require that an expert from outside of the university reviews the document. This can be a challenge. I usually recommend the following steps be taken. Early in the literature review process, students are asked to take note of leading scholars specific to the field. Students are encouraged to email those scholars with questions and inquiries about current and soon to be published research. Those scholars who respond productively and seem somewhat reasonable can be put on the list of potential external examiners. There have been cases of unfair external reviewers giving poor evaluations because of disagreements concerning theoretical orientation or other problematic evaluation approaches. In selecting external reviewers, cultural traditions are also important. For example, there been cases of reviewers from the United Kingdom who have expectations of extraordinarily long dissertations, who have rejected North American dissertations for being too short and lacking detail. There are no guarantees, but it helps to have external reviewers who do not have an agenda or are from an academic culture are far different from the candidate.

Practice the presentation. Most dissertation defenses begin with a short presentation by the candidate. A 15 to 20-minute presentation is an extraordinarily difficult timeframe to present multiple years worth of work. This is the part of the doctoral defense in which candidates have the most control. This needs to be practised repeatedly with significant feedback. In some places, the time limitation is strictly enforced, so be sure to time all of your practice activities.

Attend several dissertation defenses. It is valuable to understand the process and dynamics by observing them firsthand. You can also find styles and approaches that candidates use that are worth emulating.

Preview with your supervisor. Asked the supervisor to share potential questions and assist in developing reasonable responses.

Choose your guests mindfully. Dissertation defenses are typically publicly open. There are some departments on lab cultures where 20 to 30 peers attend for support and others were only the candidate and the committee are in attendance. I am surprised how often parents and significant others attend the defenses. That would never work for me. Although it is difficult to go against these cultural trends, you can invite who you need for support, but not distraction.

Sleep. The doctoral dissertation defense is an extremely stressful experience, but get some sleep.

During the Defense

Enjoy the Experience. Attitudes towards the dissertation defense vary across universities, but often the experience is more of a coronation or celebration rather than a rigorous evaluation with a high risk of failure. Your supervisor would not allow you to defend the dissertation and was the project and your presentation was in good shape. You are ready and you have been preparing for this for years. Honestly, there is something that inspires confidence in a candidate who smiles and appears as comfortable as possible.

Stamina is a key. Dissertation defenses can last from 90 minutes up to three hours. Understand and prepare for your local norms. Many people will want to sit while answering questions. Have water available. It is also good to have a piece of fruit or something else to eat to prevent any blood sugar crashes. Maintaining concentration and focus throughout is a major factor.

Understand the questions. Listen carefully to the questions being asked. Most committee members are not nearly as expert as the candidate who has spent years researching the specific topic. Questions from the defense committee usually consist of: some form of a question asking why a different study was not done; specific details to the point of minutia on methodology and analysis; there will be questions about larger theory, context; and which studies you choose to reference; and there may be committee members who make long statements intended to show off for their peers. And most of the time someone will ask if you could change one aspect of your project, what would you change? My experience is that it is rare to have a committee member be hostile or extremely adversarial, but it does happen sometimes. The key to all these issues is composure. Listen carefully, take a deep breath, ask the committee member to repeat the question if necessary, and take some time to formulate your answer.

Do not BS. Some of the questions being asked are not relevant to the document at hand and generally far afield. If you do not know the answer at all, say that you do not know. Attempting a long and convoluted BS answer does not leave a favourable impression.

Depth and breadth. The secret is to have a depth and breadth of knowledge that you can marshal to answer the questions. Given that you have lived with this material for some time, this should not be too challenging. Knowing the major scholars and year of publication can be helpful in demonstrating your detailed knowledge. Understanding how your research could be applied, used for future investigations, influence theory, or otherwise placed in the larger context are also critical.

Managing impressions. It is rarely a problem if a candidate does not know an answer to a specific question or two. Overall impression counts. I have been surprised that how incredibly poised nearly all candidates are at their defense. Even students I have known to be very nervous, seem confident and poised when it comes to their dissertation defense. Confidence and poise will go a long way.

Develop a strategy if you get lost. Losing composure or getting lost under a barrage of questions for an hour and a half or longer is common. The candidate has a lot of control in setting the pace and tone of how questions can be answered. A frequently used an effective approach is to have a set script when you are stumped by a question. A decent script is to say, “That is a really useful question, I have not given that much thought before, so give me a moment to put my answer together.” If you have the script prepared in advance, then you can say it and typically buy a little bit of time to develop and articulate an answer. Likewise, it is always possible that you realize that you have no idea how to answer the question and it is best to say, “I do not know the answer to that.”

Bringing back around. Given that you only have a 15 to 20-minute initial presentation, it is unlikely that all your information will be covered during that introduction. Have several extra slides prepared with additional figures or data. If a question is relevant, then you can go to the appropriate extra slide and spend a lot more time on some of the information that you do not have time for an initial presentation, and this approach also signals that you are well prepared to answer questions.

Have a copy of your full dissertation document with you. You never know when a question or may get very specific. For example, “On page 172, paragraph three, line 4 you made this statement. Is that inconsistent with your similar statement on page 87, paragraph one, line 5?” You will need to be able to move quickly to compare detailed text. Whether this is done in paper or print depends on your comfort level.

Post Defense

Be happy. I am really surprised how rarely I see a successful candidate look happy. The predominant expression is relief and fatigue. I have seen quite a few tears of release or disbelief. This seems like a good time to be happy. Enjoy your hard-earned success.

Schedule a meeting with your supervisor. Almost certainly someone on the committee will find typos, requirement for clarification, or maybe even additional need for changes in the dissertation document. Schedule that meeting quickly so that your supervisor can guide any changes, revisions, and edits that need to be made.

Thank your committee.  Be sure to thank everyone on the committee, even those who were difficult during the defense process, after the process over. It is also good to take note of the first person to refer to you as Doctor.

Contact and thank everyone involved in your project. This could be anyone from technicians, support staff, administrative staff, undergraduates, and others. Acknowledging all the people essential to your success is a responsible thing to do. Many people who provided important services to your project may not know that the project was a success until you contact them. Say thank you.

Contact and thank personal friends and family. Sharing your success is an important part of the process. A lot of people have made sacrifices that have led to your accomplishment. They have certainly provided support and have been there for you in difficult times.

Do not be weird. I really wanted to write and gloat to my 11th grade physics teacher who told me I was “too lazy and stupid to consider college. And if I did manage to get into college would certainly fail.” I wrote the letter, but did not mail it.

Closing

The doctoral defense is a ritual that can be mysterious and scary. With the use of your supervisor, peers and others, learn as much about the process as possible to demystify the activity. Understand the specific procedures that are written in your faculty or University guidelines. Observe how other people manage this. There is nothing wrong with having a series of meetings with peers at similar stages in your degree program to share and brainstorm ideas.

If you are at this stage in your degree program, congratulations. Listen to your supervisor, take deep breaths, and you have got this. It will be a short period of time until you hear the words, “Congratulations, Doctor.”

Communicating Research: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Communicating Research: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

Advancing knowledge in all fields through research and other forms of scholarship requires much training, guidance, and experience. The challenges of literature reviews, research design, data collection, data management, data analysis, theory testing, and theory development are daunting. This is especially true in the context of reduced funding, tenure pressures, and increased competition. Most researchers in science are well-versed in writing standard formatted scientific reports. Grant reports, government reports, formatting for scientific journals in various fields, and proposals are common mechanisms for written communication of scientific knowledge to peers. However, scientists are now under pressure to communicate findings to the public, mass media outlets, and lay audiences. This form of communication can be challenging for scientists who are trained, experience, and socialized to communicate primarily with scientific peers.

The differences between scholarly communication and communication for knowledge transfer and communicating with the public are not as great as many people believe. The goal of all communication is to move the knowledge base of the audience from point A to point B. The ease of communicating to professional audiences is that there is an assumption that all professional audiences have the same point A. That is, professionals who read journals or evaluate grants have similar pre-existing knowledge, interests, and experiences. In many cases, those pre-existing experiences are the same as the scientists attempting to communicate new findings. For public audiences, existing knowledge, interests, and experiences vary widely. Moreover, almost certainly the public has less existing knowledge than the scientist attempting to communicate new findings. Empathy is required to understand the perspective, needs, knowledge, and values of the public audience. Identifying the exact needs of the audience and having the ability to meet those needs is a baseline skill for communicating complex findings to the public. In addition to empathy and knowing the audience, a formula for communicating to nonprofessional audiences can be helpful.

I am a big fan of B movies. These are usually low-budget, cheesy, and poorly written movies that are often in the horror, action and adventure, or science fiction genre. Yet, for some reason these movies never disappoint and are often hugely entertaining. The reason for this consistency of appealing entertainment is that there is a clear and well-developed formula for an effective B-movie. The ARKOFF formula (after Samuel Z. Arkoff) has six components and the most entertaining B movies contain all six elements.

Action — exciting and visual drama

Revolution — novel or controversial themes and ideas

Killing — violence

Oratory — a memorable speech or dialogue

Fantasy — acted out fantasies that are common to the audience

Fornication — some level of sex appeal

For scientists trained and socialized in communicating with peers, who are just beginning to communicate with the public, a formula can be helpful in organizing information. Clearly, I am not going to recommend that communication of scientific information to the public use the ARKOFF formula. For most types of research, that would just be too weird. In the effort to use just the appropriate amount of weird, I am immodestly proposing the SHAW formula. The SHAW formula contains four components that strongly support effective communication to the public.

Story — Information is most effectively communicated as a narrative with a strong theme, structured just like a short story.

Harrowing — The salience of the study must be communicated so that people’s attention is captured, often by explicitly raising stress or upsetting widely held beliefs. Addressing common anxiety provoking concerns (e.g., parenting, health, finances), life on earth, support for a counterintuitive idea, improving quality of life, and enhancing marital quality are often widely popular harrowing themes.

Applied — Some immediate or long-term, but tangible, application of the results of the scientific study need to be described to engage interest fully. This does not necessarily preclude advances in theory. “Completely changing our understanding of X…” is a useful phrase in describing basic research.

Wonder — The information must elicit interest and wonder in the general topic. Hopefully, some readers will be motivated to learn more about the topic. This section is analogous to the “future research” sections at the end of scientific papers.

Science communication to the public is a novel and foreign activity for many scientists. However, it is now part of the job and is expected from nearly all researchers. Understanding your audience is a large step toward being an effective communicator. At least in the initial stages of becoming a science communicator using a formula to engage your audience effectively and explain complex scientific results may make the process easier. Most scholars want to avoid the B-movie quality that often accompanies science journalism and public communication. Try using the SHAW formula. But unlike the author of this blog, use it modestly and with full descriptions of the limitations of your research.

 

Establishing a Lab Culture: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Establishing a lab culture: How not to suck in graduate school

SR Shaw

The fall term brings new graduate students, visiting scholars, post-docs, and undergraduate research volunteers into research labs. Integrating new people into the lab and re-incorporating returning students and collaborators creates new issues. It is important to establish a culture quickly, so that the work can be done efficiently, cooperatively, and even joyfully. Sometimes, as an older scholar I make the mistake of assuming that returning members of lab remember the key features of the lab culture and that new members will somehow magically absorb the values that I wish the lab to possess. My twitter account and this blog are ways for me to put the values of the lab and our work in writing, so that there is an archive of ideas and tone. But in the hustle of day-to-day work, values and culture can be forgotten or lost due to busyness. And some labs find themselves adrift and moving in a direction that the director did not intend.

There is nothing that replaces the modeling of these values by the principal investigator. They must be lived or members of the lab will not buy-in and accept these cultural touchstones. In addition, these values must be emphasized explicitly, evaluated, rewarded, and established. Building a culture is a long-term process. However, a quick overview of the established credo of the lab can be a starting place and set expectations and aspirations for all lab work. Below are the 10 components that are the most heavily valued in my lab. I will be sending these to my students over the next week so we know where to begin our work this fall.

The 10 core values of the Connections Lab at McGill University:

Strive to become a professional, but do not forget to be a human
Work every single day to become a useful professional. That is, conscientious, independent, skilled, knowledgeable, ethical, and courageous; but realize that you will fall short some days. Always focus on being better tomorrow than you were today. You will never have a problem with me if you do something every day to improve.

You will need to trust that I define my success by your success.
My job is to prepare students as professionals. I know what it takes to be a successful school psychologist and the more successful you are, the more successful I am. I welcome challenges from you. A very reasonable question that you should ask me frequently is, “how will this task help me to achieve my professional goals?”

Wellness: yours and your team's.
Consider your mental and physical well-being a central part of your graduate education and work in this lab. Feel comfortable discussing issues and concerns that you may have. Your long-term development as a person and as a professional require attention to your physical and emotional well-being. At the first sign of any issues, let me know and we will develop a plan. In addition, look after your peers. We are a team and need to take care of each other. Although it may be obvious; harassment, sabotage, creating a hostile environment, or any other behaviours detrimental to the wellness of the team, our clients, or individuals will result in removal from the lab.

Write it down or it did not happen.
Writing is an essential component of graduate school. Any thoughts, ideas, findings, notions, and other contributions are only real if they are written. This is the most effective way to communicate and to create a trail of your thinking that will have an important influence on research and clinical practice. Writing is also a mechanism of accountability, minimizing misunderstandings, and improving communication.

We all do better when we all do better.
There is inevitable competition for authorship, grants, fellowships, and time and attention of senior members. However, this lab is a team. The success of any one of us reflects on all. Share credit, be generous with authorship, listen to the ideas of others, be genuinely happy for the success of your peers, and assist the work of others. When this becomes a habit, everyone benefits.

Do more: everything takes three times longer than you expect.
Doing more than the bare minimum is an essential part of professionalism. In addition, it is nearly impossible to plan your time and work accurately. No matter how much time you devote and plan to a specific task, you need to multiply the number of hours by three. Just achieving minimum expectations will require much more time and energy than you expect.

Attention to detail.
I completely dismiss the concept that “idea people” are important and effective parts of the lab. Ideas are only important if they are paired with an intense work habit, focus on implementation, and single-minded attention to detail. The focus on detail will certainly annoy most of the lab members at some point. Attention to detail is the difference between a vague idea that is floating in the ether and high-quality research and clinical practice.

Ethical behaviour.
Too often, students and professionals gloss over ethical behaviour because they believe that they are a good person who would not ever do anything evil or wrong. Ethical violations are not usually due to bad actors. Ethical violations are usually committed by good people who are tired, emotionally overwhelmed, stressed, overloaded with work, up against timelines, or ignorant of the exact ethical standards and procedures to be followed. Ethical guidelines need to be memorized, automatized, and second nature. They will be challenged when life becomes chaotic.

Invest in preparation.
Writing activity is the tip of the iceberg. For every hour of writing there is at least two hours of planning and four hours of reading (not to mention: seemingly endless hours of data collection and analysis). Be prepared for every meeting by having questions or information to present. Investment in preparation allows you to be a better worker, have more clear thinking, reduce stress, and leads to improved overall productivity and success.

Develop productive habits.
Inspiration comes and goes, but habit remains. To be an effective worker in this research lab, your aspirational goal should be to read 100 pages per day and write 1000 words per day. This will take time, practice, and training. Whatever habits you develop, focus on being the most productive person you can be. Positive habits create professionalism.

Developing a culture is far more than 10 simple and vague ideas. This only becomes a culture when these 10 points are modeled and lived. However, starting by communicating goals and expectations is a good way to begin the term.