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Charlie Hatton
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Howdy, friendly reading person!
I'm on a bit of a hiatus right now, but only to work on other projects -- one incredibly exciting example being the newly-released kids' science book series Things That Make You Go Yuck!
If you're a science and/or silliness fan, give it a gander! See you soon!

Three Prongs for a Doctor

One of my friends is a graduate student. He’s in a PhD program, and he’s defending his thesis next week.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the ‘thesis defense’ process, I’ll tell you — it’s a grueling and inhumane ordeal. I know, because I watched my wife go through it a few years ago. I could see the gruelery. And oh — oh, the inhumanity.

“She’s more of an ‘I know how to read DNA, and I will kick your everloving ass at Scrabble’ sort of doctor.”

And if you’re wondering — yes, that makes her a doctor. Not an ‘open up and say ah’ sort of doctor, nor a ‘drop your pants and cough’ sort of doctor. She’s more of an ‘I know how to read DNA, and I will kick your everloving ass at Scrabble’ sort of doctor.

She doesn’t really use the title much, though. For one thing, many people she works with have advanced degrees, too, and who wants to spend the first ten minutes at the office every morning sounding like a Marx Brothers sketch?:

Morning, Doctor.

Hello, Doctor.

Coffee, Doctor?

No thanks, Doctor.

G’day, then, Doctor.

See you, Doctor.

Without Harpo honking the horn in the middle of all that, it’d just get damned tedious. So none of them worries too much about titles. Mostly, she uses it to dissuade telemarketing weenies:

Her: Hello?

TeleWeenie: Hi there! How are you? Me, I’m fantastic! Is this Mrs. Charlie?

Her: This is Doctor Mrs. Charlie, yes.

TeleWeenie: Oh. Doctor, eh?

Her: That’s right.

TeleWeenie: You’re probably too smart to buy sixteen subscriptions to ‘Llama Fancy’ over the phone, then, aren’t you?

Her: Quite. Good day, then.

TeleWeenie: Good day. Any chance you could forward me to a trailer park, or retirement home nearby?

*click*

Awfully handy.

(Oh, and I apologize if my shortening of ‘telemarking weenie’ into ‘TeleWeenie’ has given you the same queasy mental image I just got of some sort of bastardized perverted TeleTubby clone.

That wasn’t my intention, really.

I’d pitch it to Spice, if any network execs are out there reading, true. But that’s not where I meant to be going with that. So sorry.)

Now, where the hell was I? Ah, right — my friend, the graduate student. Peachy.

So far, my buddy’s survived the first of the three-pronged virtual colonoscopy that is the academic thesis defense: he’s written the thesis. One hundred and twenty pages of it, last I heard. You’d think that would be enough, that the profs would say, ‘fine, you’ve written a novel-length bit of work that most people couldn’t read, and many more wouldn’t want to; congratulations, you’re in the club!

But no. The writing is just the beginning.

Actually, I suppose the five or six or nine years leading up to the writing is the ‘beginning’, technically. But that doesn’t really count. The early parts of that time involve sleeping through classes, and there’s a murky haze of drudgery, desperation, and doozy hangovers clouding the rest. Graduate school is not for the faint of heart, the timid of spirit, nor the weak of liver. But none of that really counts towards the ‘defense’.

So, here’s how it goes: when the writing’s done, the beast of a manuscript is handed in for review. That gives the thesis committee a couple of weeks to really sink their slavering fangs into it. What else could have been done? Shouldn’t there be a comma in the ninth sentence on page forty-one? Why, in this experiment, did you blithely assume that the force of gravity would be present that day? How lazy can you get?

Meanwhile, the victim student prepares for a presentation. If the actual paper is ‘the dogs’, that still leaves ‘the ponies’ in the show to be accounted for. So right now, less than a week before his big date, my friend is feverishly slapping together PowerPoint slides, pasting in pictures and data and fancy bulleted lists.

Will the presentation appease the committee? Will a sufficiently silvery tongue and a wily waltz of hand waving keep the academic wolves at bay?

No. Not a chance.

Because the presentation isn’t for the committee, you see. That’s the cruel irony of the preparation — you can’t not present your work. Certainly, the committee will be there, in the room, to ensure that.

But they’ve already seen the script — they know what you’re going to say, before your first snazzy slide goes up on the screen. And they’ve already got their probing questions and alternative theories ready for you, no matter what you say in your big moment in the spotlight.

The presentation is for everyone else — the family, the friends, the other students who thought you’d never get out of this place. They’re the ones who pile in to watch the last half-dozen years of your life unfold in the space of an hour’s chat.

(And don’t think the irony of that time-collapsing slice of humble pie is lost on the candidates, either. I think it’s the main reason they get so damned snippy leading up to their defense.

Personally, I don’t see what they’re so upset about. I don’t need anything close to an hour to describe my last six years. Here, I’ll prove it:

Bought a house. Lost a job. Got a job. Performed some standup. Blogged. Lost a lot of Scrabble games. The end.

Hardly degree-worthy, but at least I don’t have to defend it in front of a group of grumpy judgemental types. Unless visiting the in-laws over Christmas break counts. Meh.)

The real fun of a thesis defense comes after the presentation. That’s when they lock the candidate in a room with the committee, and let them grill the living shit out of him or her. That’s the third and final prong, and usually lasts about an hour, too.

(But not always. It’s like a visit to a mechanic — an hour, more or less, is par for the course. Far longer, or far shorter, and you’re probably in for a lot of pain. Grease guns and jumper cables may well be involved. And it’ll cost you.

Oh yeah, it’ll cost you.)

There’s no real way to prepare for the defense proper. You can’t know what those devious, demented academia lifers might get into their heads. You just have to know your own shit, forward and backward, and hope they don’t throw you a curveball you haven’t considered. All while revising your manuscript, building an hourlong slideshow of ‘What I Did With My Young Adulthood‘, and trying not to cry, throw up, or throw in the towel and move to Tijuana. I don’t envy my friend right now.

On the other hand, he’ll be fine. Soon, it’ll all be over but the shouting and the obligatory tequila bender. I have faith that he’ll nail the questions, quell the fears, and walk out of the room a free and relieved man. Make that a free and relieved doctor man.

Just don’t listen to him if he asks you to drop trou and cough. I don’t care how many people he fools with that stunt — he’s not that kind of doctor!

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