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On the benefits of pre-doc stress, and how I prevent “post-doc traumas”…

January 14, 2014

One happy graduate! A friend gave me the red cap for a Cousteau...esque appeal...

One happy graduate! A friend gave me the red cap for a Cousteau…esque appeal…

It’s the day you’ve been preparing for, dreading, looking forward to, tossed-and-turned and lost sleep over for the past few weeks and maybe longer. It’s time to defend your PhD-dissertation…
Is the pre-dissertation stress really useful? And what happens when it’s all over? Does it feel like it’s been worth all the agony? 

Pre-dissertation stress

The PhD dissertation defence is of-course always a big deal, but the Norwegian version of this process (more of a ritual really) seems to induce more stress than the practices in other countries – or so I’ve been told…

Two weeks before THE DATE the PhD committee decides on a topic that lies within the field, but still outside the research area of the candidate. The candidate then has two weeks to prepare a lecture on this topic. On the day of the dissertation defence, the lecture must be given in public and approved by the committee before the candidate is allowed to present his/her thesis. Two opponents present (well prepared) critical reviews of the scientific work and make the candidate sweat while defending it in front of friends, family, colleagues and folks that just happened to notice the press release…

This sounds frightfully intimidating, right?
In the few weeks preceding the “final test”, most candidates are in an awful state. I certainly was. I spent two weeks on the verge of a nervous break-down trying to find the focus point, narrow down and structuring my lecture on “Marine Biogeography – The impact of climate change on species distributions”. Just two days before THE DAY, things started to fall into place, and I convinced myself that no matter what happened I would be able to present SOMETHING and that a poor performance was unlikely to cause deaths. Sounds crazy, I know, but I actually took some comfort in that.

Now that it’s all over, I’ve learned at least one great lesson. All this agony and stress actually comes with great benefits that make it all worth it:

  • First of all, I was so stressed out that I prepared for the lecture like I’ve never prepared before. When the day came… – I’m telling you, I’ve never been as ready for anything in my life. I usually hate standing in front of people, but on that particular day I found myself actually enjoying it – A LOT. I had a story to tell that I found interesting, and a message I really wanted to get across. Seeing people responding to my story and message was immensely rewarding.
  • Secondly, I spent so much time worrying about the trial lecture that I didn’t have time to worry about the opponents and the dissertation itself. And when the lecture was done, I felt like I could handle anything. Even though I struggled with some of the critique raised by the opponents – to my surprise – most of the defence was actually great fun. These were the moments in which I realized that I had accomplished something worth being proud of. And THAT was a great feeling!
  • Thirdly, knowing that I’ve successfully walked through a symbolic fire once has greatly improved my self-confidence. Now, interacting with the scientific community out there and preparing for important job interviews seem far far FAR less intimidating…

What then? Post-dissertation trauma?

Stories of post-dissertation trauma fills the air surrounding most graduates as they approach the final date. I was prepared for the worst of post-accomplishment “vacuums”. I was prepared for feeling deflated, having some sort of post-doc depression sneaking up on me, and for getting sick. None happened. The truth is that I’ve been too busy to even think about it. I’ve been working on the design and blogging for Marinbiobloggen, writing a bunch of other stuff and thinking about what I want to do with my life. Although I worry about the future and getting a job sometimes, FINALLY getting my PhD (my ride has been a LONG one) felt like a ton was lifted off my shoulders. My PhD-work has been a constant struggle, some are luckier, but I think most graduates can relate one way or another:
I’ve walked through a fucking fire. I know I’m able.

Post-doc conclusion: Yes, the stress was useful. What happens next is really up to me :) AND YES – it was so fucking worth it!

Advice for pre-docs: Don’t be afraid, prepare well and getting it over with will be a rewarding experience – perhaps even fun! :-) Plan what you’re going to do when it’s done.
Advice for  nu-docs: Stick to the plan and keep busy to chase the dreaded vacuum away. You’re done! Celebrate!