As my big day approaches (April 1st! No joke!), friends are asking, "What does it mean to defend your dissertation? You're done, right? Aren't you graduating in May?"
Yes and no and maybe.
In short, I'll find out on Friday afternoon if I'm graduating this year. It depends on how my defense goes.
Every school handles this a bit differently. Here's how it works at Wheaton:
First we think up an idea that needs further research. It has to be a project that hasn't been done yet. We write up a 20-page proposal for the project, plus another 10 pages of bibliography for sources we plan to read to get us started. When our day comes, we have a "proposal defense" or "proposal hearing," in which all the PhD faculty and students gather. They will have read our proposals beforehand. After a brief introduction, members of the faculty ask questions and make suggestions for how to improve our research agenda. Usually this involves narrowing the project considerably so that we're not biting off more than we can chew. At Wheaton this happens during the spring of our first year in the program, while we're in the middle of taking classes. If we pass, we're cleared to begin work on it. I passed my proposal defense on April 11, 2012.
We spend YEARS researching and writing a dissertation (in my case, four years). In the end, the body of the project needs to be under 100,000 words long (roughly 300 pages), plus bibliography. (Yes, I know. That's long enough to be a book. It is a book, and most of them get published.) While we're researching and writing, we work closely with our doctoral adviser and our "second reader," another member of Wheaton's faculty who agrees to read and respond to our work. When the project is complete and both readers are satisfied that it's ready to "defend," we turn in a "defense draft." I submitted mine last month.
While that's a major milestone, it is not the end of the process.
Copies of the defense draft are sent to all the committee members: the doctoral advisor, the committee chair, the second reader, and an "external reader" from outside the Wheaton community who agrees to travel to Wheaton for the defense. Another copy of the defense draft is placed in the PhD seminar room for students and faculty to read (in all their spare time). Forty-five days later, all the PhD students and faculty gather on campus for the defense (no visitors allowed, including family). Except for the doctoral advisor, who must remain silent, the student's committee members are seated in the front of the room with the student, facing each other. They are given 90 minutes to ask questions and offer critique of the student's dissertation. The student "defends" his or her work by offering explanation, clarification, push back, etc, or in some cases, agrees that something needs to be changed. After 90 minutes, the students are all dismissed to wait outside while the faculty deliberate and decide if the student's work is rigorous enough to earn a doctoral degree.
Most students who make it this far in the process pass, but many are required to do more revisions before they turn in a final copy. So even if my defense on Friday is successful, it won't be the end of the process. I'll need to take the feedback I receive and incorporate it into my project until the committee members are satisfied. Then I'll need to send it on to a "technical reader" who carefully checks for compliance with the style guide and identifies typos. All that back-and-forth can take months, after which I'll finally receive my diploma.
If I pass on Friday, I can walk in the May graduation even if I have more revisions to do, but I won't get a real diploma until the revisions are completely finished and I've submitted a final copy.
Who are my readers?
Daniel Block - my doctoral advisor (or doktorvater)
Karen Jobes - my (former) second reader, now retired, but still planning to attend the defense
Sandra Richter - my (new) second reader
Richard Averbeck - my external reader
Marc Cortez - my committee chair
Why is it such a long and complicated process?
If a PhD were easy to get, it wouldn't be worth much. Extreme pressure yields more learning, and it helps to ensure that anyone who has those three letters behind their name has truly earned the right to teach adult students. If I could turn back the clock and someone offered me the credentials without having to go through a program like this first I would say "NO WAY." This has been a really important (long) season of growth and learning. I've come to know and love the scholarly community that I am joining, and I'm so grateful for the journey!
So how do I feel about the defense?
Really grateful to be so close to the end. I feel like I'm pregnant and just days away from my due date. I fully expect the next part of the process will be painful (defenses usually are, at some level), but in a matter of days, I'll have my baby and I can be done with this pregnancy and leave the pain behind. Let's do this!