The day of defending my doctoral dissertation, I arrived on campus several hours early to go over my notes and calm my nerves. I had planned to spend a few hours practicing my talk in my private library study room. I walked in and noticed that someone else’s things were in the room. While the rooms were designed to accommodate two people, I had had the space to myself for years. No problem, though, I just figured I should grab a second chair in case my new roommate came to use the space. Even after completing a defense, there were still several months of revisions that were possible, and I wanted to be prepared to continue using the space during that time.
I walked down the hall to the library administration office and introduced myself to the administrative assistant. I asked for a second chair so that my roommate and I could both be accommodated. She seemed confused by this, and looked up my room assignment.
Her demeanor quickly changed to one of accusation. She said her records showed that I graduated several years prior, so clearly I had been using the room and my key card against regulations all this time.
Now I was confused. Obviously, I’m still here, I pointed out. I have not graduated. I am using the room as assigned.
She insisted I was abusing the privilege of using the room and was not supposed to be there. Meanwhile, I had a dissertation to defend and no time for this nonsense.
We left it with her saying she would follow up later, and me going back to the study area to complete the preparations for my talk, and to calm down.
This encounter was not, unfortunately, unusual at my institution. In my years there, I had encountered numerous instances of poor processes, rude individuals, and red tape with the library, financial aid, registration, my academic department, the graduate school, my dissertation committee … the list goes on.
Bottom line: the school should have offered support of my preparations for my defense, not obstacles. And yet here I was, on the day of my defense, the day to which the university had a vested interest (one would think) in encouraging me to meet with success, and I was dealing with yet another argument, yet another difficult and incongruous situation.
As annoying as the library experience was, though, I had no idea of what kind of obstacles were waiting for me at the defense.
I walked into the conference room prepared to give my talk. My dissertation advisor, Professor K, came in. A few of my classmates joined us. One by one, my department chair arrived, then the program advisor, then one of my other committee members, who also happened to be the Dean of the Liberal Arts department.
My third reader was missing. The hour was upon us. No sign of her. The air in the room was getting thick with tension. What professor is this kind of late to their student’s defense?
My advisor went to find her. More time passed. She came back in, whispered something to the department chair, and they left the room together.
An eternity passed. It got awkward, as my classmates and I all knew something was wrong but didn’t know what and had no clue what to say to each other. The department chair finally came back in and asked everyone other than my second reader and the program advisor to leave.
Finally, my third reader, Professor N, came in the room. She sat down across from me and looked uncomfortable.
I found out later that she had told my advisor earlier in the day that she wasn’t going to attend, and that she had no intention of signing off on my work. My advisor opted not to warn me, thinking that she only needed a majority of signatures on the dissertation for me to pass, and so she was going to let Prof. N. abdicate from signing.
So there I sat, with no earthy clue why one of my committee members was so rudely late or so awkwardly pulled into the room.
Prof. K told Prof. N that she needed to explain herself.
“I’m not going to sign your dissertation,” she said. She didn’t feel it was scholarly, and wasn’t willing to put her name on it.
Remember, that also at that table were the other two members of my committee – one of whom was the Dean and the other was my committee chair, who was a tenured, senior professor – along with the department chair and program advisor. These were exactly the people you might expect to speak up for a student in such a situation. Yet not one of them said so much as a word. They simply looked at me and waited for me to respond to this bizarre news that – for me – came out of nowhere.
I distinctly remember a moment of absolute clarity during that silence when I realized this one thing: no one in that room was going to speak up on my behalf. The only person in that room who was going to speak up for me was me.
There was a time in my life when confrontation like this would have sent my crying out of the room. I would have simply retreated, having known no other way to respond.
But in this instance, it was as if the last seven years flashed before me. In my third reader’s refusal to sign my work, I saw everything I had done to get to that point. I saw the years of lost earnings while I worked part-time and gave up a career in marketing, along with the years of increased salary that staying in that field would have brought.
I saw the time after time that I was told my work was good, that I was getting close, that surely I would graduate next semester, only to be yanked back again and again because someone else had decided that the work just wasn’t ready.
I saw the end of my marriage, which had crumbled during my years in graduate school. The relationship didn’t end due to my being in school, but my earning a degree that he wanted while not being able to get into a program himself slowly chipped away at our partnership and began revealing the weak places.
No. Just, no. She did not get to take away the last seven years of work, and stress, and isolation. She did not get to take away my ideas, and my writing, and my progress. She did not get to erase my scholarship.
I looked her square in the eye and said:
“I have been working with you for years. I have made every change you have asked for. I have read every book you suggested. You wrote me a glowing letter of recommendation, praising my ideas. I consulted you on scheduling this defense and you approved our meeting today. If your feelings against my work were this strong, why is this the first I’m hearing about it?”
More silence. She was stunned. I think everyone else was, too. She then had to explain herself, and really couldn’t, because there was simply no acceptable explanation for her behavior.
She tried to say that the problem was the font that I had chosen. That’s right: the font.
The graduate school had a list of acceptable fonts from which to choose, and I picked one off the list that several classmates who had graduated before me had chosen. She had recommended I choose a different one. That is the one and only change she had suggested over the course of years that I did not implement, because I had followed the rules and, frankly, had had it with being jerked around here, there, and everywhere doing everything my committee members said I should do instead of being expected to think for myself. I picked an acceptable font, she said her suggestion was just a personal preference and not a requirement, yet here we were.
I was then told that I had a choice: I could accept that she would not sign my dissertation and be ABD forever, or I could start over from scratch with a new topic that would likely require a new committee.
I said neither of those options was acceptable. I had done everything required of me. This was insane.
She then said the other option was for me to replace her with a different third reader, potentially making the changes that person wanted, and risking that the new third reader would not be happy with my progress. My chair had some names in mind of who might be a suitable replacement. Fine. If that’s what I have to do, I’ll do it. Prof. N was officially excused from serving on my committee.
I somehow made it through that entire ordeal without crying. To this day, I don’t know how. I know my voice wavered. I know I looked upset. But I did not cry.
I did not cry when I got to my car and started texting the friends who were going to meet me at a restaurant to celebrate, telling them that the party was off.
I did not cry the entire hour drive home.
I walked in my front door, grabbed the mail, and saw a card from a dear friend. She had timed mailing it to arrive on just that day, to congratulate me on my hard work and for finally, finally finishing my degree.
That’s when I broke down. I’m not sure how long I stood there in my living room, sobbing. I eventually got myself together and realized that one friend who didn’t have a cell phone and who was driving from a different state, was probably at the restaurant. She was. I met her there. I’m glad I did. The whole party was not something I could handle, but a drink with a close friend was the perfect thing.
I took a deep breath, and then another. I had come this far, and I was going to finish that degree.