I failed my dissertation defense. But I am not a failure.
Note: This narrative originally appeared as a series of posts on Lorie’s blog and has been republished here with her permission.
No one prepared me for the worst possible outcome of a dissertation defense: Failure. Yet, after waiting outside in the hallway for over 90 minutes, I was certain of it. My advisor summoned me back into the room with a wave of the arm as he shook his head and glibly said, “You’re going to have to do it again.” The remarks made by the committee sounded to me like Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice; I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. After they left, I recall staring down at the table as I heard my advisor admit, “This was as much my fault…” The tears welled up, but I refused to let a single tear fall in his presence. I took a deep breath and spoke. “I… would… like… to… leave… now.”
When I regained the ability to think lucidly, I began to assemble the events that led up to this debacle. My advisor (let’s call him Dr. X) had taken a laissez-faire approach to my doctoral candidacy. He refused to look at individual chapters of my proposal (“I have to see the whole before I can render judgment.”) and acted similarly with my dissertation. He never read a single page prior to my submitting a full draft. He provided no written feedback to my writing, but offered broad questions and general comments. I attempted to correct the perceived shortcomings, or what I understood them to be, but I never quite knew where I stood. As we drew closer to my chosen last semester, I pressed Dr. X for a defense date. We set one up, yet it was not until two days before that we had a sit-down and he offered some clear questions and concerns. I did not read these remarks as a request for revision; after all, the committee members had this draft. I made a few pages of notes to respond to his remarks and hoped for the best.
Onto the defense: I sat across from the committee. Just me facing the four of them. Everyone had their spiral-bound copies of my dissertation in front of them. Two of the four had Post-It notes marking pages. Too many, if you asked me. Dr. X’s copy, by comparison, looked pristine, like an unread book, with a tell-tale unbroken spine. As the others began posing questions (Dr. X had deferred to them, saying that he’d add his questions and comments at the end), I attempted to answer them, but quickly descended into a “deer in the headlights” panic. My feeble meanderings led me to look across the table at my advisor for clarification or help. He offered little to no eye contact, let alone commentary. As questions drew more and more specific, it became obvious to me that Dr. X had not read the dissertation in its entirety. He could not find sections others on the committee mentioned as they queried me. His random flipping through his copy of my dissertation caused my chest to tighten and the acid to flow in my gut.
I had never failed in any academic endeavor, until this one. It was a broad, powerful slap in the face. It would be three months before I stopped wallowing in my depression and began the process of revision. The first order of business was to stop blaming Dr. X. Surely, he bore a share of the responsibility, but dwelling on that would not get me my degree. As I read the notes provided to me by the other committee members and notes I had nervously scrawled during the doomed defense, I realized the dissertation was not defensible. Wide gaps yawned in the articulation of the methodology and in linkages of theory to my data. Errors of omission screamed from its pages. My face flushed as I internalized the mediocrity I had assumed was ready to pass muster. At that moment, I could finally begin again. I wanted desperately to be a member of that exclusive club, terminally degreed in my discipline; I had to earn it.
Immediately following this debacle, all I could think of was going home. I rushed out to my husband who was waiting for me outside. As I approached his van, my husband came out of the car, broadly smiling, ready to bestow hearty congratulations. I just shook my head and pointed back at the car. Sensing my distress, Dan said, “Clean up your face and let’s go to Barcelona” [Our favorite restaurant/bar where a few friends were waiting to congratulate me]. “No! Just take me home,” I pleaded, while fiddling with my phone, attempting to notify my friends that the celebration was not to be. I wanted to get this suit off, change into my pajamas, and wallow in my bed for eternity.
“Okay, but I think it would be good for you to get out.”
“To celebrate what?! That I’m a failure?”
Softly, Dan said, “You are not a failure,” and drove the rest of the way home without saying a word.
I couldn’t even muster enough energy to unlock the front door, so Dan opened the door and I pushed past him, intent on entering my wallow phase.
“Ping! Ping! Ping!” My phone beckoned me with its incoming texts. I ignored them for a while, but once I had washed my face, I read them.
“We’re not here because you’re a doctor. We’re here for you. Please come.”
“None of us have PhDs. We don’t care.”
From downstairs, Dan made another go at it, this time without asking: “Get dressed and let’s go to Barcelona and hang with your friends!” I silently complied.
When I arrived, six hearty hugs brought me back to myself. Their words reminded me that PhD or no, I had loving, supportive friends and family. We laughed a lot that evening, and I escaped the dark cloud threatening to drive me into deep depression.
One comment in particular moved me: Janie, putting one arm around me and then the other around my husband, Dan, whispered in my ear, “You didn’t get marriage right the first time, what made you think you would with this? And look how great it turned out when you finally did get it right.” My husband beamed at the compliment and I felt light pushing out the darkness. Dan and I both had failed marriages in our past, but ours had been “meant-to-be” from our six and a half hour meet-cute at Starbucks.
I did get past this failed dissertation defense, too.
I failed, but I am not a failure.