The Heat of Scrutiny and Praise

Yesterday I successfully defended my thesis to my committee, which was comprised of: Dr. Troy Glover (Reader), Dr. Sanjay Nepal (Committee Member), and Dr. Bryan Grimwood (Advisor).  I began my 20-minute Powerpoint presentation with a video that took my examiners on a virtual hike of my research on the trails, then had to respond to two rounds of questions from everyone present in the room. Lastly, I was asked to leave the room while my committee deliberated over my status. I was subsequently informed that I had ‘passed with minor revisions’. To complete the process, I must submit those revisions to my thesis advisor and the Graduate Studies Office (GSO).

When I woke up this morning, I expected to feel a joyous relief and exuberant energy over having completed this goal. I instead woke up to a paralyzing sense that the thesis – a project in which I have been heavily invested for two years now – is coming to an end. In both the busiest and most relaxed times, I always had this guiding project to which my life would return. My online profiles focused around my work on this topic, and its centrality to my personal identity. The realization is now sinking in that it’s over.

Additionally, the thesis defence was a process meant to place me in a situation I now think of as “the heat of scrutiny and praise”. Questions were asked to test my ability to verbalize my understandings, actions, and goals within the research project. My thoughts were prodded and evaluated for flaws – thankfully, no major complaints were uncovered in this 3-hour process. I was then praised and congratulated profusely for my efforts and accomplishments.

It is my knee-jerk reaction to feel undeserving of credit – often referred to as the imposter syndrome. I feel overly grim when friends and family praise me and I note that “it’s too early to celebrate” or “I was just lucky”, but recognize this as an essential part of my character that I will always struggle with. It’s also a common issue affecting graduate students (alternatively, see these blogs by PhD students).

It was incredibly wonderful to feel the swelling of support from loved ones and friends in advance of, and during, the thesis defence. Even though this aspect of my ‘identity’ is going to slowly dissipate with time, I have been lucky to meet many new people and build up stronger friendships with existing loved ones during my thesis experience. Two years ago, I never would have thought myself capable of standing up in front of three professors and talking about a research project that was entirely mine. So foremost amongst my emotions right now is a feeling of grateful relief and the anticipation of switching gears into the next phase of life.

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