Thursday, December 01, 2005

Grad school & dissertation defenses

Anybody have any experience with dissertation defenses? I've been thinking about what it would actually entail and...

Have I mentioned before that I have horrendous, petrifying stage fright? The only "D" I ever got in my entire life was the direct result of my outright, steadfast, obstinate refusal to stand in front of a class to do my French oral exams the entire last semester of my high school Freshman year because I was so traumatized by the first one I had to do. My teacher, Dr. Groux, tried to embarrass me into capitulating by announcing to the entire class each time I elected to take a zero and publicly detailing the consequences of my actions, but I still wouldn't do it. Mind you, I got an A on that first one, but I just *couldn't* do it again. People said the entire morning that I was looking like I was about to be led to my execution or something, all white as a sheet, glassy-eyed and shaking. My heart was also pounding so hard I thought it would burst and my throat felt like it was closing up, and when it was all over, I went back to a desk at the back of the room and cried for like 20 minutes. I actually scared my classmates. My whole class talked about it for like *days* afterward, people asking if I was okay... people I didn't even know... Three people *in another grade* came up to me on the bus even, saying that they had heard about it and had been praying for me. But that's all the details I can give about it without having flashbacks (not as hyperbolic a statement as I'd like it to be).

Even before the horror stories I've heard from Zinzi and some of my professors, just the thought of doing a dissertation defense made me feel nervous as hell... Now, I just feel like I'm going to burst into tears, faint or have a nervous breakdown, or all three, every time I think about it. Unfortunately, I'm not the kind of person who can ignore the unpleasant eventualities and focus on the other details right up to the last second... like the reason why I'd have to go through that in the first place... to get those nice little letters added to the end of my name, "MA" and "PhD," to increase my monetary earnings by a significant percentage, and just to get to do all the things one with a PhD gets to do (one must admit it opens a lot of doors). No, no, I've got to dwell and brood over my worst fears...

Mom keeps saying that I need to just say to myself that "my dissertation committee would just be trying to help me" over and over again... She thinks that even if it's not true, if I convince myself of it, I'll be able to to it. That works up to a point... Then I remember what certain profs have said about ripping apart candidates' dissertations at the defense just to see if they can get them to flinch and that argument starts to loose merit... and the mantra turns into "my dissertation committee is going to kill me" or something like it. In addition to the mantra, Mom has also suggested anti-anxiety meds, but I have, as some would delicately put it, personal "opinions" on medication for non-organic problems... She would have suggested therapy too, since she seems to think it's one of the best things *ever*, but she knows better, having suggested it a few times before for other issues of my adolescence and, as a result, didn't hear the end of it for *weeks* afterward. Needless to say, I took the very suggestion as a grave insult, nevermind that she was just trying to help. Though intellectually I know that therapy has helped many people through problems and some people even *need* it in order to function, I can't help but insist that I don't, come hell or high water... I could detail a number of reasons why because I am self-aware enough to know why I think this way, but that might be getting a little too far inside my head for my own peace of mind in such a potentially public venue.

Now, some might say I should worry about finishing my BA first... or maybe worry about getting into grad school first, or even topics, before worrying about a defense, but I just can't seem to worry about any of those things. I'm going to get my BA, it's just a matter of when. And there's going to be *some* grad program *somewhere* that will take me, even if not one of my top picks, though I don't even think that will be much of a problem, so I'm not worrying about that. And I have a list as long as my arm of topics I'd like to research and write on, and narrowing research topics and academic writing has *never* been a problem for me. It's actually one of my strengths. So my next thing to worry about is the defense... Enter my extreme performance anxiety, et voila! The problem and I panic. Because what would be the point of going through all the trouble of grad school and dissertations if I couldn't get my degrees because of this? 'Cause until I convince myself emotionally that it's not going to kill me (cause while intellectually I know it won't, that really is the level of gut-wrenching fear I'm dealing with here), I don't see all that much point in trying. And yet, it's still something I feel I need to do... to bide my time 'til I figure out what I'm going to do with my life and/or I get my "MRS degree" (a suggestion and term I first heard in a Sociology class much to the horror of my Sociology prof. She was even more scandalized that no one in the class found the idea particularly offensive, but that's a whole 'nuther subject), if for no other reasons. But I'd also just generally like to get at least an MA with the possibility of going on to my PhD, just to have it, if one can understand that.

So, what I think I need to know is people's practical advise and first-hand experience dealing with this sort of thing, grad school and dissertation defenses... procedure, preparation, how much of it is just the formality of arcane & archaic tradition, etc. Not sensational exceptions to the rule, which I'm hoping is all I've heard thus far, but rather, what one would generally expect... Anybody out there willing to help me out?

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