My PhD Defense was successful!

It’s official: I defended my PhD dissertation, and now I’m Dr. Manahova! Crazy…

The defense itself was a great experience, actually. I was nervous, for sure, but more than that I was excited. While I was a bit anxious to find the right answer to each question, I also enjoyed the dialogue. And at the end when I was awarded the PhD degree, it was exhilarating!

Practice makes progress

I will stay away from saying, “practice makes perfect” because my defense certainly wasn’t perfect. But I think the reason I was able to feel excited instead terribly anxious is that I had practiced and prepared.

At the beginning of my defense, I presented a 10-minute summary of my work. Oh, had I practiced and practiced it! For one week before the defense, I practiced my presentation once a day every day. In fact, I really don’t like practicing presentations; I don’t know why, but I never have. However, I made a promise to myself that I’d practice it every day because I knew it would help me stay calm and feel prepared, and I kept that promise.

On the day of the defense (this past Monday), I practiced my presentation three times one after the other. It felt very silly to practice the same talk three times in a row, but I felt myself improving with every repetition, and that boosted my confidence.

During the two weeks prior to the defense, I also read up on some recent papers related to my work. This gave me a feeling that I was up to date with the field (to some extent), but there was also another unexpected benefit: during the defense itself, some of my answers were inspired by the papers I had read in the previous two weeks. These were new ideas that went beyond what I had written in my thesis, so I believe they contributed to a more interesting discussion with the committee members.

The end of a massive chapter

My PhD defense marked the end of a long, important chapter in my life. I began my master’s in cognitive neuroscience in September 2014, then started my PhD in the same area in October 2016, and now finally defended my doctorate in October 2022. Wow, that’s eight years of my life! I truly can’t believe it.

I’ve learned so much during this time, and I’ve had so many great experiences. My supervisors were amazing, and my colleagues were so, so cool. I didn’t quite figure out the mystery of the brain, but I’d like to think I advanced our understanding, albeit a tiny bit.

Now that this chapter has come to an end, I am ready for the next one. There’s something bittersweet about transitions, and there’s something exhilarating too. It feels like everything is possible. I can’t wait to see what comes next. At the same time, I think I’ll take a little break and rest for a few days–it has been wonderful but intense!

By the way, if you’d like to check out my PhD dissertation, you can find it here.

How I Completed My PhD Thesis

I just received my books from the printer–my PhD thesis printed as a book! It’s truly an astounding moment. I can leaf through this book and know that I wrote every page of it… crazy.

It was certainly a journey of perseverance that got me here, and I’d like to share the main steps along my writing path.

My PhD thesis describes my empirical research in neuroscience, which includes reading papers, coming up with a research idea, creating the research design, getting feedback, carrying out the experiment (collecting data), analyzing the data (lots of analyzing…), getting feedback, writing a paper, presenting the results, and getting more feedback. (Do you see a pattern with all the feedback?)

What’s in a PhD thesis?

I started my PhD in October 2016, so I did research for five years before beginning to put together my PhD thesis, and fortunately I already had two published papers, which became chapters 2 and 3 of my book (you can find them here and here). I finished another experiment towards the end of 2021 and wrote that up to become chapter 4. (I’m glossing over this part a bit, but writing a chapter or a paper is a lot of work on its own. However, I’d like to focus on something else here…)

Then came the hard part: writing the introduction and discussion. The introduction became chapter 1 of my thesis, and in it I aimed to summarize the main theories in the field and explain how my research answers an important question. It’s a difficult part to write because it starts out very general and all-encompassing (e.g., what is visual perception), and yet it needs to become very specific (e.g., explaining how my experiments inform the field).

Break it down

I felt that writing the introduction was daunting. It felt like a big thing looming over my head. Could I do it? I decided to apply the approach I advocate to other people: break it down. Identify the small parts and focus on one at a time. A small part is much less daunting, and I felt like I could handle one small part to write.

I broke down the big introduction into paragraphs, and I tackled one paragraph at a time. In order to do this, I created a detailed outline, where one sentence indicated one paragraph. The text color was black, and as I completed a paragraph and moved on to the next, I changed the color of the completed paragraph to gray. Early in the writing process, my outline looked like this:

An excerpt from the outline of my introduction.

In the end when my introduction was complete, the whole outline was in gray. Ah, was that a gratifying sight! Then, I received feedback from my supervisor and edited the text, after which the introduction was DONE!

In the flow

It was time to write the discussion. This is the part where I bring my research findings together and integrate them with the rest of the field. Basically, I explain what my work has contributed to our knowledge and how it fits with the rest of the research. I approached this in the same way: I made a detailed outline where each sentence indicated a paragraph and tackled one paragraph at a time.

Wow, was this part fun! The reason we do research in the first place is because we want to expand our knowledge, we want to contribute to the understanding of the brain, in my case. And in the discussion, I had the opportunity to go wild and explain what we know now, what we don’t know yet, and speculate about what could be the ground truth… exciting!

The fact of the matter is, though, I had time pressure during this part. My husband’s father was very ill at that point, so we chose to visit Jacob’s family in South Africa. We booked our flights, and I had five days to write the last 2-3 pages of my discussion. This may not seem like a lot, but it involves lots of reading papers, thinking, and synthesizing information.

I experienced laser focus during those 5 days. I wrote my conclusion (the final part of the discussion) on Saturday morning (our flight left on Sunday). I wrote for 4 hours straight in the bedroom, occasionally uninterrupted by William who was curious about what was keeping mama so busy on the laptop. Finally, I was done! It’s crazy how circumstances can truly cause us to focus sometimes.

Practicalities

This was hardly the end of the process, however. There are lots (and I mean LOTS) of practicalities that need to be completed after finishing the writing part. I compiled a Trello board with all of them and checked them off one by one as I completed them (this is only an excerpt and by no means the entire list of tasks):

Some of the tasks I had to do after completing my PhD thesis.

There were lots of little tasks to keep track of, and I’m glad I used my favorite Trello boards, lists, and cards to keep track of everything. I am still doing this now as I am organizing the defense and the events around that. It’s exciting to be organizing my defense, but I could also easily get worried about forgetting some small but crucial step. Fortunately, this method allows me to stay calm as I take care of tasks, one by one.

It was a true joy to receive my books! Wow, what a process it’s been to get me here… Now I get to enjoy the end product and defend my thesis, of course!!! More on that coming soon!

Me, super happy, holding my book.

How I motivate myself to work on my PhD

If you haven’t heard, there’s a pandemic going on, and now the holiday season is also upon us. These things are timely and feel immediate (i.e., they are here right now), while my PhD doesn’t feel so urgent.

I noticed a few months ago that I didn’t feel much urgency related to my work. I thought, “I’m getting back in the groove of things, I still have 1.5 years until I need to finish my PhD, it’s all good, that’s loads of time.” That’s all fine, but time is ticking away. If I don’t focus and work now, I’ll be pressed for time later.

I needed to make my PhD work feel more urgent. But how to do that without any pressing deadlines? While February 2022 (the end of my PhD contract) keeps gradually coming closer, it’s still too far away to give me a tangible feeling of immediacy.

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