The PhD defense: “disaster” avoidance strategies

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The date for your PhD thesis defense is approaching. In many ways you have already started your preparation: the thesis writing and submission, going through the administrative procedures, verifying conclusions, refreshing your knowledge and rehearsing for the big day.

It is likely that you have already been there through the eyes of another student. First: A stuffy room, the presentation that is seemingly a mere formality, those yawns from the audience, the nervous smiles from your supervisor.

And then, here comes the part you really have been waiting for. The moment when the thesis committee is no longer a list of names: it is question time.

Questions: The ceremonial ones, the easy ones, the “good” ones, the difficult ones. What about those harsh questions? The dry mouth, the perspiration, someone playing drums with a pen and desk, the laser pointer moving like crazy all over the screen. Also you have wondered: What’s with the little tapping on the microphone? Is she about to have a stroke? Give that man a glass of water please!

Until now you have hoped for the best.

But are you adequately prepared for the worst?

Trying to anticipate all possible types of situations during your PhD defense is a wishful, almost hopeless, task. But envisioning “worst” possible scenarios and considering the actions typically leading to such undesirable situations are both feasible and necessary. These are relatively common and preventable mistakes that students can make, time and again, in different doses and combinations. A selection of them and accompanying advice follows.

1. Huh? I don’t know. Here is the question, and you may not know the best possible answer, or you think that it is outside the scope of your research. Nothing wrong with it. Unfortunately, your gestures, words or even tone can tell the committee a more troubling story: you are not sufficiently concerned with the point made by the examiner.  A simple “maybe, I don’t know” or “this is outside the topic of my research” are more than unsatisfactory replies. Although honesty should be at the center of your responses, such simplistic answers are also different ways to say: I do not care enough.  A rephrasing of the question may make things clearer to you, and at least it will buy you some time to think about what to say next.

2. The dog ate my data. Gone are the days when you could blame the dog for eating your homework or announce the death of your grandmother for the third time.  During your PhD, blunders or omissions may rightly be explained by different factors: Lack of funding, “unforeseen” mishaps, supervision problems and family issues. But regardless of whether or not they represented major obstacles to your work, never use them as an easy way out of your individual responsibility or to shift it on to others. It is alright to explain the conditions that influenced a particular outcome, an obstacle that you had to overcome or a difficult turn that you had to make. However, even if you are still recovering from these complications or you feel that you were treated unfairly: focus on the problem and your approach to dealing with it. Even better, tell the audience how you adapted to new circumstances, and outline the lessons you learned.

3. Nah, it is not so bad. An effective way to piss off committee members is to downplay the significance or seriousness of their concerns. If something in your work looks to them “surprising” or “weaker”, then for a moment consider that there must be some truth to their criticism. If you disagree with the reviewer’s position, then respond to it as you are expected to do: through argument based on the most solid evidence available. All of this without forgetting that in research there is always some room for improvement.

4. Duh, obviously.  Even if you think that a reviewer asked you a trivial or obvious question, never express this view (either in words or mannerisms) to the committee. It’s the reviewer’s job to assess your knowledge irrespective of whether you or anyone else believe that you know the answer. If you have the impression that the committee is testing you, well that’s right, get over it.  This is also related to another not less common situation: the candidate displaying hints of exasperation or amusement when asked questions that, at least in the candidate’s opinion, have already been addressed during the defense. These reactions not only may be seen as impolite to the reviewers, but also they offer a negative glimpse at your intellectual maturity.

5. I showed it in the thesis. It is not unusual for students to answer a question by simply indicating that a particular point was already explained in the thesis. Never assume that the reviewers will remember everything from your thesis. Even if they have amazing memory powers, the reviewers are there to ask anything considered relevant for evaluating the quality of your research. In some cases, they just want you to refer to a specific thesis section to obtain further clarification. So, focus on the question and answer it, even if the answer is impeccably clear in the thesis.

During and after your PhD defense you may feel that you did not offer the best answer to one or several questions. That could be especially frustrating if you are confident that you had the necessary knowledge to make it better. This is perhaps unavoidable and will represent a recurrent theme in your research career. Moreover, error and failure are inescapable realities in science. However, what you should not contemplate is ignoring basic recommendations that are known to be conducive to a professional, and hopefully less painful, discussion.

Keep up the hard work on route to your PhD defense. Celebration will be coming next.

Thinks like a poet, works like a bookkeeper.

“Pattern 9” by F. Azuaje

Someone who “thinks like a poet and only later works like a bookkeeper”1. This is how American biologist Edward O. Wilson defines the ideal scientist.

But what does one thing have to do with the other?

According to Wilson, who is also a novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner, the main point is that innovators in science and literature are “basically dreamers and storytellers”. Both types of innovators begin their creation processes with a story. For the scientist, such a story may initially represent a vague explanation of a particular phenomenon, a set of assumptions to extract meaning out of something.

At an early stage of their work, scientists conceive a beginning and a potential end to their story: its possible paths, twists and complications. As in literature, the early drafts of a scientific story may only reside in the scientist’s mind: an act of imagination that is informed by previous research and fueled by yet-to-be shown possibilities.

Works of literature and science incrementally evolve as different parts of their stories are adapted, enhanced and excluded. And such changes can lead to new competing “plots” or “scenarios” in the form of alternative insights or unexpected findings.

At some point there is an end to the story: a discovery, possibly a breakthrough, or the falsification of a previous idea. And yet, it is not always possible to know for certain that this is truly the end of the story. New opportunities for problem-thinking and exploration, as well as fresh questions, will continue emerging.

Wilson’s view of the ideal scientist, which may also apply to engineers and entrepreneurs, however, becomes problematic when the “bookkeeping” part is not sufficiently emphasized. It is not only problematic for the purpose of communicating the outcomes of science to the general public, but also for that of training new generations of scientists and innovators. This is actually a core issue in the implementation and exploitation of scientific research.

From the get-go, scientific research and technological development demand rigorous analysis and verification. Regardless of their stage, scientific advances not only depend on demonstrations of their novelty or utility, but also of their methodological soundness. The latter also includes established notions of testability and reproducibility. This is particularly critical in an age when science and entrepreneurial activity are increasingly becoming intertwined, and when the “marketability” of ideas appears to occupy the limelight. A time when hearing a “great story” seems as important as judging originality and relevance grounded in factual evidence.

Beyond Wilson’s analogy, and notwithstanding its potential interpretations, there is at play here a more fundamental commonality. In principle, works of literature and science aim to make sense of our worlds. In their own ways, they represent approximations to how we see within and outside ourselves. With their own limitations, they help us find meaning, and even purpose, in our lives.

And of course let’s not forget, scientific progress will always require sufficient doses of individual creativity and imagination. A capacity to dream and envision what has not yet been seen or explained. All of it joining together with an unremitting focus on testing, contrasting and disproving ourselves. A relentless fight against fallacies, including those sold to us as well-crafted products of our imaginations.

1. O. Wilson. Letters to a Young Scientist, 2014, Liveright.

This post is also available at Medium.

Mentoring young researchers

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Confidence nurturing

Around the time I entered the second half of my undergraduate studies, I joined a research group as a trainee or sort of apprentice. Despite my eagerness to become more involved in research- and teaching-related activities, I was entirely ignorant of the day-to-day dynamics of a research environment. Soon I learned that the links between advisers and advisees, or between mentors and mentees, were more complex than those between conventional teachers and students.

It rapidly became clear to me that our advisers led the group, first and foremost, through their moral authority. I learned that advisers can positively impact their teams without relying on an authority given to them solely by hierarchy. They interact with younger researchers with courtesy and consideration, even when facing stressing or demanding situations. Such advisers do not trash talk about their advisees, or expose their vulnerabilities to others in an attempt to downplay the adviser’s responsibilities.

Even when they express their most critical assessments, inspiring advisers possess the ability to make you feel free and secure. Responsible advisers do not have the need to control through fear. Truly good advisers thrive in large part because they promote accountable freedom, and because they earn the trust and loyalty of their teams.

Long after graduation I came to more deeply appreciate another guiding principle: Effective learning requires an unavoidable interplay between progress and failure.

When a learning opportunity arose my advisers did not give me reasons to doubt the potential value of the new experience. They did not ask me to overthink whether I was worth it or not. They told me to go for it and get it done to the best of my abilities and resources available.  When the challenge became bigger than one could have anticipated, they did not regret it or tried to find excuses in preparation for a possible failure. If failure occurred, we were allowed and guided to try again, harder, better. Repeating mistakes learned from previous failure was the only mistake to be afraid of.

At a relatively early time in my research experience, I was asked to give a presentation for the group. Initially I thought that I did not deserve such an invitation. I felt that I was wrongly appropriating a place that only graduate and more experienced researchers were entitled to. Fortunately, those thoughts gradually became irrelevant. My mentors did not use this presentation as a mere test of my work performance or skills, they did not ask me to do it just to satisfy some internal procedure, and they never questioned the significance of the occasion. They had simply given me an opportunity to advance my learning experience, to strengthen my connections with my work and that of others.

That first presentation provided me with a profounder message though. An explicit reminder of something that had been encoded around me all the time: I belonged and was welcomed to a community. Furthermore, all those student presentations and discussions allowed us to understand that mutual respect and support were the glue that kept such community advancing together, despite material obstacles or other difficulties.

This was confidence building as a patient nurturing of intellectual growth. Mentoring seen as the unselfish gardening and sculpturing of young minds. Those were our advisers. Incessantly, almost imperceptibly, exercising an unpretentious brand of leadership based on ethical conduct and professional integrity. A generous exemplification of respect for the efforts and capabilities of others, in triumph and in adversity.

For that and more, I will always be grateful to the mentors of my early years in academia: Gianfranco, Guillermo and Fernando.

This post is also available at Medium.