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Battling the Snake: Surviving your Defense

In Luke Burn’s 2010 article entitled “The ‘Snake Fight’ Portion of Your Thesis Defense”, he describes the battle that all successful PhD students must go through. In case you didn’t know, university guidelines require PhDs to defeat a snake. These snakes are kept by your department and the quality of the work you put in determines how large of a snake you must fight. I’ve reached out to two of my friends, Heather Merla (Art History) and Catherine Dale (Biology), who have both recently battled their own snakes and come out on the other side of their thesis defense. I ask them about their experiences — mainly because I’m worried about my own snake that I’ll be battling next year and I’ll take any tips I can get to survive this.a snake

Heather Merla

Heather Merla engaged in conversation at the Grad Club, a place where she spent many long days writing her dissertation, and then enjoying grad night trivia of course

Hi Heather and Catherine! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today! To begin, can you give us a quick “Coles Notes” summary of your dissertation project?

Heather: My dissertation considered the relationship between art and nature at the court of Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco I de’ Medici (1541-87), through a study of the use and representation of four natural materials – coral, rock crystal, lapis lazuli, and shells.

Catherine: I studied variation in migratory behaviour in a common species of bird, the western bluebird.  Western bluebirds in the Okanagan Valley in BC are a bit unusual in that some of them migrate south for the winter, while others remain in the valley year round – a phenomenon that we call partial migration.  I was interested in finding out which individuals were leaving and which were staying, and why.

Very cool! How did you come up with your topic?

Heather: My topic developed slowly – it grew out of my MA research, which dealt heavily with early modern natural history, as well as my interest in unusual images and objects, such as mounted branches of coral, statues of classical gods made of shells, or paintings on stone. My topic was refined during my PhD work (the fields and dissertation proposal), but it was not until I began delving into research in Florence that I really pinpointed a subject. By working in and exploring Florence, it soon became clear which materials were ubiquitous and held the most potential for meaningful and rich exploration. Further, it also helped to clarify the need to anchor my study around a specific ruler. I settled on Francesco as he fostered a court in which the natural world was central to the arts.

Photograph of Catherine Dale

Catherine Dale performing fieldwork in the Dominican Republic. Here she holds a broad-billed tody, her favourite bird species. Catherine explains that “they are about the size of a hummingbird, and look a bit like flying neon green and pink pompoms.”

Catherine: It actually goes back to my Master’s degree, when I studied migration behaviour in Ipswich Sparrows breeding on Sable Island, Nova Scotia.  I was interested in figuring out whether where the birds spent the winter had an effect on their reproductive success the following spring.  But during the course of this project, I learned that, while most Ipswich Sparrows winter along the Atlantic coast south of Nova Scotia, each year some birds remain on Sable Island for the winter.  It almost always proves to be a bad decision (most of the birds that stay end up dying), but I was fascinated by the situation.  So for my PhD thesis, I decided to focus on partial migration.  It took a couple of tries to find a study system amenable to the question, but I knew from the start that partial migration was what I wanted to study!

What was your favourite part of the research process? Least?

Heather: My favourite part of the research process was being in Florence and looking first hand at the spaces and objects that I would write about in the dissertation. Many of the objects that I saw or observations that I was able to make would have otherwise not been possible.

My least favourite part of the research process was the fields. I also did not particularly enjoy working in the archives, as it was a significant amount of effort for very little return.

One of Catherine's field assistants fits a numbered leg band on a western bluebird. This allows them them to ID that particular bird in the future

One of Catherine’s field assistants fits a numbered leg band on a western bluebird. This allows them them to ID that particular bird in the future

Catherine: My favourite part of the research process was unquestionably planning and carrying out the field work (i.e. data collection).  I love being outside, and working outside as a field biologist often lets you see aspects of a place that you wouldn’t otherwise.  You get to know the system you’re working in very, very well.  Of course, fieldwork is also challenging – like any kind of science, things have a tendency not to work out as you planned, which is part of the reason that it took me several tries to find a study system that worked.

My least favourite part of the research process was analyzing the data.  Statistics are not my strong suit, and I found it really stressful to think that there wasn’t necessarily a ‘right’ way to approach the questions I was trying to answer.  The idea that I was generating actual science, and that there would be consequences to doing it wrong and misinterpreting the data, was actually pretty paralyzing, and the analysis ended up taking me a long time.

How did you feel leading up to the defense (or your snake battle)? How did you prepare?

Photo from Heather Merla's research from the Grotta Grande, Boboli Gardens

Photo from Heather Merla’s research from the Grotta Grande, Boboli Gardens

Heather: I was apprehensive, which I think is normal, as you don’t really know what to expect. You also inevitably hear all kinds of different accounts from different sources. The word “defense” even sounds so ominous. Overall, however, I felt confident that I had a strong and supportive committee. Some committee members knew my work well and had helped and supported me in various ways throughout my graduate work.

I prepared by reading the dissertation over a couple of times. I also compiled a series of broad questions that I thought might come up, or that I could think about and draw from in forming answers to questions that were asked. For example, I thought about how I would answer a question about my methodology, what the strengths and weaknesses of my sources were, what I would do differently, how I would transform the dissertation into a book, why a framed my topic in the way I did, etc. If there were any particularly provocative points, I considered how I would discuss them if the topic came up. I think it was a useful exercise – it made me think about “big picture” things, consider document in a different way, and really think about the choices I made in writing, researching, and framing the project.

Catherine: I have to be honest and say that I was pretty freaked out.  I was torn between desperately trying to re-read every single reference I’d cited in the thesis (as well as the thesis itself) and a weird sort of lethargy, which I think was the result of two things: feeling like I could never prepare adequately anyway, and being really, really, really tired.  (Turns out finishing a thesis is a lot of work.)  Anyway, in the end, I didn’t re-read even a tenth of the material I wanted to, and it turned out to make no difference whatsoever.

What was the defense/snake battle like? 

Photo from Heather Merla's field research of Giambologna, Appennino, Villa di Pratolino

Photo from Heather Merla’s field research of Giambologna, Appennino, Villa di Pratolino

Heather: I had a great defense experience. I was surprised – I actually enjoyed it. A friend told me I would, and I absolutely did not believe her – but she was right! It felt like everyone was there because they were interested and excited about the project and wanted to help transition the dissertation into a book.

The committee had some great insights and ideas. I think a good way to go into the defense is with the idea that your committee is there to further your project in some way. If they point out a problem, it is likely so that you catch it before moving on. If you’re asked “why didn’t you consider X” or “have you thought about Y,” it’s likely that they are curious and think that the topic which enrich your project. I’m not saying that’s always the case, but it certainly helps to go into the defense with this frame of mind.

Catherine: Most of that day is pretty foggy in my memory!  But as far as I remember, it all felt a bit surreal.  I mean, it’s a day that you spend a very long time preparing for, and you build it up in your head to be this huge event – well, I did, anyway.  And then when I walked into this room that I’d been a hundred times over the past few years – and for a second, it felt like it could have been any old meeting.

Photograph from Catherine's field research of a bluebird in flight

An angry male western bluebird descends towards Catherine’s bluebird decoy. They use a decoy and song to make bluebirds believe that their territory is being invaded, which leads to them getting distracted and ending up in the researcher’s net (which can be seen behind this bird). Catherine explains that this particular bird wasn’t caught unfortunately because he was just too agile!

I remember being intensely nervous at the beginning, as I was starting my presentation.  I also remember feeling incredibly tired when my external examiner asked the first question – just sitting there thinking, “I have to do this for the next three hours?”  And then after that, I don’t remember much at all.  I honestly couldn’t even tell you what most of the questions were, let alone how I answered them.  It was almost like someone else took over my brain and mouth, and I was just going with the flow.

The only other thing I do remember is looking over occasionally at my friends and parents – all of whom had come to see the defence, because defences are open in my department now.  At one particularly frustrating question, I remember exchanging glances with one of my friends, who smiled at me and rolled her eyes a bit.  It was a small thing, but it made me feel a lot better.  I think it’s a really great thing to have an open defence – you may not think you want people there, but during the defence itself, it’s so nice to have friendly faces in the room and (occasionally) people to roll your eyes with!


How did you feel afterwards?

One of Cat's field sites

This is a view from Kettle Valley Road which runs throughout the Okanagan Valley and has bluebird boxes on it. Catherine took this picture to show how tolerant the bluebirds are of human disturbance and will quite happily nest in man-made artificial nest boxes.

Catherine: Again, the whole thing was pretty surreal.  I think both my supervisor and I were near tears when we hugged.  (I can’t blame her; it took me a very, very, very long time to finish my thesis!)  After that, it was a blur of shaking hands with people and thanking them – and then after that, a blur induced by copious amounts of beer.  I was happy, of course, but I don’t think I could really process the magnitude of it at the time.

However, I do have to admit that I spent the week following the defence bursting into tears at random, inopportune moments.  I wasn’t crying because I was sad, but just out of years of pent up stress and sheer relief!

Looking back, if you had to redo anything, what would you do differently?

Heather: If I were to do things again, I would certainly attempt to get into a better routine with the writing process. That was difficult, since I wasn’t sure what my process was, and I’m not sure I do now. But I think persisting in trying different ways to get into a rhythm or routine might have paid off and resulted in less procrastination.

I would also trust myself more. It can be easy to default to the advice of others in regard to how to tackle the PhD, but you have to figure out what is right for you. For example, I was told by many different people to write chapter outlines. I tried repeatedly to do so. It was a waste of time and didn’t help me to work through the material and I never once followed the outlines that I wrote. Even while writing them it didn’t feel right, like I was trying to force something, but I thought “there must be a reason people are suggesting this!”

Photo courtesy of Heather Merla. Bernardo Buontaleni, Portal of the Casino di San Marco, Florence

Photo courtesy of Heather Merla. Bernardo Buontaleni, Portal of the Casino di San Marco, Florence

Catherine: That’s a loaded question!  The obvious answer for me is that I would do the whole thing a lot faster – because it took me an extremely long time to finish my doctorate.  But there are two reasons it took me a long time, and I would actually only change one of them.

Like many people (I think), when I started, I thought four years sounded like a very long time.  I wasn’t as productive as I could be from the moment I started, and I definitely regretted that later on – all the time I lost because it just didn’t feel like I was in a hurry.

However, the other big reason I took a long time is because I decided to take on a risky project – and it didn’t work.  But by the time I figured out that it wasn’t going to work, I had lost nearly two years of my allotted four.  However, even knowing how it turned out, I wouldn’t choose to change taking that initial risk.  Although it didn’t pay off for me, I think we as a society have a problem if graduate students aren’t able to take risks, fall down, and start again.  In science (and probably in other disciplines), graduate students are one of the main sources of knowledge production.  If those students are too afraid of completion timelines to take risks, I can’t see how knowledge will move forward.

Of course, I would also love to change tons of the specific methodological decisions I made when collecting my data.  I would redesign entire experiments if I could!  But as frustrating as that is, I think that’s the way I’m supposed to feel.  You’re supposed to learn and grow during your PhD.  So it makes sense that when you get to the end, there will be things you’d like to revisit and redo with the advantage of the hindsight.

Are there any tips/words of wisdom you would like to share for other PhDs at various stages of their research?

Heather: I already touched on this in the last question but – trust yourself! Also, use the SGS dissertation templates when writing your chapters! You’ll save yourself from frustrations later and potential problems if you try and copy and paste into the template. This is something you want to avoid when you’re getting ready to submit!

Be open to where your research leads you. I cast a wide net, so to speak, in my dissertation proposal and really followed where the objects and sources were leading in refining the topic. I think not feeling like you are strictly tied to a specific idea, methodology, or your dissertation proposal is important. I’m not suggesting you lack structure or focus in your work, but be ok with letting go of certain ideas or feeling the need to have all of the answers right away. I don’t know if this is applicable to all disciplines, but it may apply to some graduate students.

Talk about your ideas with friends in your department (or outside of it) and faculty about your project and ideas. You never know what insight they might have. It’s a great way to work out and test ideas or become inspired by those of others.

The PhD is a long haul, so building friendships and relationship to help get you through the process is, I think, the most important thing you can do – for both yourself and your project. Bouncing around ideas is great, but so too is making time for non-academic things!

A field site from Cat's research

This is one of the vineyards that Catherine worked on at Blue Mountain. Catherine explained that “one of the major advantages of studying bluebirds is that they actually nest on vineyards, so I did a lot of wine-tasting during my field seasons!”

Catherine: For a long time, I told people who were just starting not to do it…but I don’t think I’d say that any more.  I guess what I would say to doctorate students just starting out is that you need to be very sure that you’re doing the degree because you love the subject and learning, not because of where you think/hope the degree will get you.  We’ve all heard the stats; we all know that very few PhD students will actually go on to enter academia.  However, it’s really easy to disregard those stats at the beginning of your degree, and tell yourself you will worry about that problem later.  Unfortunately, later always arrives eventually.

For students in the middle of their degree, I would say that – to the best of my knowledge – everyone feels like an imposter.

And for students getting close to the finish line, I would say that I’m pretty sure getting a PhD is one part intelligence, one part alcohol tolerance, and three parts sheer stubbornness.  As long as you hang in there, you’ll definitely get it!

Thank you Dr. Merla and Dr. Dale! I feel a little more ready for my own snake battle now hearing about how yours went, and to those reading this – I hope you do too. 


– Isabel Luce

Note: The photos included in this blog post are all taken by Heather Merla and Catherine Dale on their various research trips. Catherine also co-manages a blog about fieldwork with two other students called Dispatches from the Field, take a look if you want to hear more fieldwork stories!

Posted in Productivity, Skill Development, Student Perspective, Thesis, Uncategorized
One comment on “Battling the Snake: Surviving your Defense
  1. Colette says:

    HI Isabel. Thanks for doing these interviews. Great insight into what our grad students are going through and the tips they have provided I am sure will help a great many fight those snakes!

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