This past week, 3 years and 4 months after moving to Switzerland, I defended my PhD. It was a pretty great day, I have to say. Better than any of my other graduation type days. I’m still flying high and it feels somehow cathartic to write about it.
I didn’t think I would be nervous, given the many other much more nerve wracking presentations I’ve been through. I had to count it up for an award I’m applying for, and I’ve presented on my study 20+ times over these past years, most of those to international researchers much less disposed to be kind to me than my own institute (not even counting internal presentations). In fact, I was feeling cool as a cucumber until I woke up the Wednesday before my Friday defense in the midst of a nightmare about failing and getting booted out of the building. I then had to stuff these fears away and hurry off to Basel for my orientation + a day of work there, but I devoted all of Thursday to rereading my dissertation and reviewing my slides.
Friday morning I went on a jog to let off some energy and Benno and I had lunch together. He really generously took the whole day off from work without asking me, and MAN did I end up being grateful. He was able to keep me calm and grounded. At that point there isn’t much more to do to prepare, but true to my usual form there is plenty of overthinking to do. Every university seems to do it somewhat differently, but here’s how it went at University of Zurich:
2pm-3pm: I present my work (40ish minutes) and then field public questions. Around 30-40 people came (my supervisor took a picture of the left half of the room). There was a spirited discussion. One thing I really enjoy about my study is that it is easy and compelling for many people to understand, so there is always an interesting discussion when I present. I really appreciated that my new supervisor and also two of the PhDs on my new project came to watch as well!
3-4pm Private closed questioning by my PhD committee members and any other faculty members who want to join. This was not nearly as scary as I was anticipating- they didn’t ask me tough statistics questions, but instead focused on methodological approaches. Given how much I’ve thought about the study over the years, it seemed pretty straightforward. They then sent me out of the room, which was a bit awkward given that all of my friends and acquaintances were milling about outside waiting for the apero. They then summoned me back in and told me that I passed, and with no revisions! That means I am totally done!
At 4pm the fun part started. The institute hosts an apero (champagne and food event) to celebrate after a PhD defense. First my two main supervisors gave 2 very very nice speeches about me (it was strange to get SO much positive feedback at once, as this is not at all the usual style of my Swiss supervisors), then I gave an impromptu speech. It was hard not to cry at this point, but I kept it together. I was also presented with the traditional hat, which your fellow PhDs decorate with symbols that represent your PhD.
A few highlights:
Swiss, US, and Thai flags: my adopted country, my home country, and my study country
A tree: I used regression trees in the main paper of my dissertation
Beach chair and umbrella: study is about Thailand
Pumpkin: this one made me laugh. two years ago I hosted a Thanksgiving celebration at my apartment with a good 15+ people. One of the dishes brought by an American friend was this traditional sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on top. My friends were so surprised by this combination that they remembered it two years later for my hat! Except they thought it was pumpkin and not sweet potato 🙂 Also I didn’t make it, haha.
Plane: both because I like to travel and my study is about travelers?
Skiing and mountain photos and paraphernalia: obvious for anyone who knows me 😛
Swiss cheese, chocolate, and prosecco: duh.
We had drinks plus snacks for a couple hours at the institute, then headed to the bar where I had reserved apero part 2 for the evening. I was so so amazed by how many of my good friends in Switzerland, from work, from running, from every other sort of place, stopped by to wish me well. Benno covered our first round of drinks and made sure I ate (I have a tendency to forget to eat when I am drinking long term like that) and was overall just the best. We celebrated until around 11pm, when I hit a wall of exhaustion and we headed home.
THANK YOU AGAIN to everyone who wished me well or congratulated me. I am so happy to have had a successful conclusion to this last chapter of my education.
I’ve had mixed feelings about the whole PhD process over the years, but I have to conclude at last that it works and I feel overwhelmingly positive about the experience. It has truly made me into a scientist. I complained sometimes about the salary, and don’t get me wrong- I am excited to have a full salary again this month. But in terms of life goals, it is so rewarding to have the luxury of asking your own questions and finding your own answers, to be given years to ask a question of the world and get the answer back. This week wraps up a period of intellectual growth and freedom to indulge my curiosity that I will always remember with gratitude.