Last week I had the privilege to defend my thesis and obtain my PhD degree. I haven’t had any peace of mind to write new book reviews or to concentrate on new movies. But that will come back in the coming weeks. I was just totally occupied by a feeling of impending doom, as if I was dragged upwards in a rollercoaster, only to be thrown into a void.
The PhD defense is something that you know is coming, but while you are busy doing your research it has little relevance for your daily work. It sort of hangs over your head like the Sword of Damocles. For 5 years of work, it is hanging there. But in the last weeks the tension was mounting. What was especially stressful was all the organizing and bureaucracy surrounding it. I didn’t sleep well for days. Body and mind were breaking down. In the end, you want it to happen just to get it over with.
The thesis wasn’t perfect, of course. No thesis is ever perfect. On top, it was about controversial topics, and involved many fields of research such as ecology, economics, psychology, sociology. I wouldn’t want to call myself an expert in any one of these, but I know a bit about each. So, the danger was great that specialists could easily prick holes in my essays, and attack the thesis from every angle.
I told myself that I was still the expert on the thesis that I had written, and I tried to stay calm and see the whole thing as a friendly discussion. But even in the final minutes before the defense, while I was listening to the rules of the procedure, I couldn’t find any absolute confidence that I could do this. As I walked into the room, I smiled and waved at the audience (about 40 people, colleagues and family), and as I sat down for the defense I took a moment to zone out all my surroundings and get totally focused in my own little personal bubble of space-time. Then the committee entered and we all had to stand up. The only thing left to do was to have faith in my own brain, which was floating in a bowl of adrenaline, and see what happens. As it happened, it worked out fine.
Now, it is only slowly sinking in that it is done. It is taking days to sink in. There is a nothing where there used to be a mountain of work and there is a relief and happiness where there used to be stress. But during the last year I got a good perspective of what a PhD defense might mean. I spent a year looking for work outside the universities, because I didn’t see any good prospects in pursuing a post-doc position. And what I found was that outside the ivory tower of the university, a PhD has little meaning for many people, and most have no idea what it entails.
But the defense is also, perhaps mainly, for yourself. It is a ritual, and it has a transformative power. I’d like to quote Gene Wolfe here, from his The Book of the New Sun. He who speaks about symbols, but the same goes for rituals that mark life events:
“We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life—they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.”
– Gene Wolfe, Shadow of the Torturer
A PhD defense is like a ritual of a major life event, like a marriage, that has an effect that works subconsciously, even if we had not been told what that effect would be. An explanation in words would only be an approximation.
If the defense had been a choice for the student, I would not have chosen to undergo it while I was still working on my texts. I would have seen it as unnecessary. But then I would never truly have had the feeling of having finished my work, or of crossing a threshold. I would not have celebrated anything. If I believe that I am a graduated scientist, and so do my betters, then it is so.
Now I am going to try to normalize my life again. Get some rhythm back.