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Dissertation and Defense: The Victory Lap

I used to daydream about my thesis presentation. I would be sitting at someone else’s defense, listening as they dazzled the room with science they understood better than anyone else in the world — science they had discovered themselves. And at the end, they would launch into this involved series of acknowledgments, almost as many slides as the presentation itself, with collages of smiling advisors, lab mates, friends and family. Sometimes the presenter would cry. It was that big of a deal!

a closeup image of a microphone on a stageI used to be in awe of graduating students writing their dissertations too. It boggled my mind; I couldn’t imagine producing enough publication-quality research to fill up 50, 60, even 100 pages. You have 95 references? You’ve read 95 papers?! I thought, you must be so proud of that beautiful document you’ve created.

I used to think that graduating was the point of graduate school. (To be fair, it’s an easy mistake to make.) I thought that half a decade or more of struggle, anticipation, failure and perseverance all served as preamble to that brilliant, glorious moment at the podium in front of colleagues, family and friends when you got a leather-bound dissertation the size of a textbook, meticulously formatted and beautifully printed on crisp, white, heavy paper.

It’s not glorious, and it’s certainly not picturesque, but here’s the truth: The real main event of grad school — the actual point of it all — is everything but those last few months when it all comes together. Your dissertation defense is a victory lap; it’s the gold medal placed around your neck. But the part of grad school that actually matters is the time spent training for the race — the years you struggled, experimenting and failing and learning in the lab. When you apply for jobs that say “Experience Required: Ph.D.,” those employers care about the years spent slowly but surely accumulating knowledge and experience, not the champagne toast at the end.

And, likewise, the dissertation defense may be a good show, but the celebration isn’t for your presentation — it’s for so many years of blood, sweat and tears without which that presentation wouldn’t be possible.

Writing a dissertation, defending it, graduating. Once upon a time, these things seemed like such a big deal. And they are, in their own way. It’s horribly cheesy and more than a little narcissistic, but I can’t wait for the first time someone addresses me as “Dr. Laskey.” But to be honest, the more time I spend in these final stages of my graduate career — final stages that seem to be about paperwork as much as science — the more I realize that these graduate school coups de grâce are not the main event. Not even close.