Dissertation Defense: A Book Report
The first in my family to earn a PhD, on a recent phone call I was explaining to my dad what happens at a dissertation defense. Afterwards he said, “Oh, so it’s like a book report.”
“Well, kinda.” I acquiesced.
Picking up on my disheartenment of having six years of graduate training, 18 months of data collection, and a year of writing reduced to a grade school exercise, he replied, “I know there’s more to it but to a layman’s understanding.”
On Monday, March 26th I successfully gave my “book report,” entitled Beyond Honorary Whiteness: Ideologies of Belonging and Korean Adoptee Identities. I was doubtful I could write more than a hundred pages, yet nearly 250 pages later, I found that I had much, much more to say about how Korean adoptees navigate belonging than I previously imagined. Perhaps it was the richness of the data, the enjoyment I had when talking with and interacting with fellow Korean adoptees, and the endless support and encouragement I had along the way, but I found the process of my dissertation research and writing to be quite enjoyable. I had been warned that I would grow to hate my dissertation but I never reached the point, though I did eventually have to tell myself to just write something, anything (for the final chapter), so I could be “done.”
As March 26th loomed nearer, I found myself oddly calm and confident. This was a major departure from my normally high levels of anxiety when approaching these graduate school hurdles. However, that morning those familiar feelings of anxiousness arrived in full force. Words of encouragement, hugs, and a walk around the building did nothing to calm my sudden nerves.
Heart slightly racing, I began my presentation. I wish I could say that suddenly all of my nerves disappeared, but that is simply not true. Even though I had given a version of this talk many, many times I wasn’t able to slip into the flow immediately (and I wasn’t able to in previous presentations either). A room full of staring eyes will do that.
But, as I continued on through my presentation, I was able to be present in the moment. Feelings of pride in this work that I had done and the fruition of what was once a dream supplanted any feelings of insecurity.
By the time the questions from my committee started, I felt at ease. Rather than feeling like I was being interrogated, I felt like I was having an enjoyable and stimulating conversation about my research.
More than a day to present my work, March 26th was also my mother’s birthday. She would have been 73. It is hard to imagine that my mom passed away over twenty years ago, and as I get older it gets harder to accept that she is not present for these milestones. By chance, and the near impossibility of gathering six professors in one room at the same time (and in fact one of my committee members ultimately had to participate by phone), my defense was scheduled on my mother’s birthday.
It was a beautiful way to honor her – because of her I am.