Many frozen moons ago, about 12 I think, I wrote about my PhD dissertation process. I drew an analogy of an American pioneer family crossing the Plains and mountain ranges to reach the Pacific Ocean. I likened the dissertation proposal and literature search to the trip across the continent and the construction of a homestead and town as the dissertation and defense. I’m not sure if these analogies will make sense but I’ve finally reached the ocean as of last week. It was enjoyable, brutal at times, exhausting, and there were setbacks. At least I didn’t end up as the Donner Party and forced to eat my fellow travelers.
After months of running simulations and learning as much as I could about meteorology on earth and the planets, I had to get going with the literature review. On Labor Day weekend, I began outlining the proposal. The general idea was already coming together as I had proposed something very similar months earlier when I submitted for a fellowship/scholarship that I ultimately didn’t get. The literature search turned out to be far more involved than I anticipated. I guess you could say that those pioneers that thought traveling through the Great Plains was going to be a quick straight trip, were sometimes dead wrong.
I didn’t fully appreciate how interdisciplinary my research was going to be, and I underestimated by ability to grasp some of the physics involved at first. It was like fording high rivers or going around what should have been straightforward crossings. By October, I was really worried since I was far behind my self-imposed timeline that I was working towards. And then a serious change to my plan occurred. My research adviser suggested I present a scientific poster at the Division of Planetary Sciences conference in Tuscon in early November. Alrighty then. Sounds like a good suggestion…to turn north instead of west and take advantage of a different but perhaps longer route to the sea.
It was more time consuming and tedious rather than hard but after batting it around for a few iterations, I got it done and off to Tuscon I went. Although the poster was only some “gee-whiz, lookie-what-I’m-working on,” it was worth it. For one, I was able to further solidify by research goals and summarize much of what I had done for the previous 4-5 months. Two, I found my people. The conference was full of planetary scientists who I could finally put a face to the name on so many of the papers I had read. It was also full of fellow travelers on their own trip to the sea. Seeing and talking to many of the students and professional scientists was both exciting and a bit of a reality check since I have a long way to go yet.
Once home, it was back to literature review and writing which dominated my November and December. My goal was to complete the first draft of the proposal by the end of the New Year’s holiday. And in my department, the proposal is often much longer than what I heard was the usual 20-pager. It is basically major parts of several chapters of the dissertation itself. I was still researching the first of five major areas of physics that I needed to cover and I was sinking into a morass of details and unable to fully understand some of the math that went into some of the papers. By the end of November, the first wave of burnout hit. I decided to then concentrate on fleshing out the plan-of-work and methodology parts and take a break from literature review.
As a mild December made for good running weather than I should have taken advantage of, I simply felt I couldn’t. I was back to literature review and moving into the background physics section. At this point with more literature in process and confirming much of the physics by double checking if I could explain it and do the math, I was definitely in the Rockies, low on food, morale, and having breakdowns on the proverbial wagon. Fortunately, I had to take some vacation days from work (yes, I’m working full time during all this)…the use-em-or-lose-em situation. Over the Christmas-to-New Years break, I worked like a dog to get over the spine of the Rockies. Except for Christmas afternoon and evening, I took no breaks. Read and write, write and read, ponder and panic, derive equations and equate decisions.
I reached my goal and submitted the monster tome. It was more of a textbook than a proposal. One of my friends, Allison, herself a professor in a different department gave me some good advice over a beers and burgers. It was all about the economy of language, she said. So the 130 plus page monster had to be trimmed down big time. As I took in both her complements and critiques, I realized I wrote the thing to myself. I wrote excruciating detail to cover my own weaknesses and to make sure I understood how to do those parts of the simulation process that had already been discovered and were standard techniques.
As mid-January came, I tore into the beast. This was the Sierra Mountains. It was painful on one hand to toss out tons of information and yet also a relief to do so. I started enjoying Allison’s economy of language lesson and saw my scientific writing improve which further motivated me. As the end of January came I was truly up against a hard deadline. In order to pull the committee together for my proposal presentation/defense and exam, I had to submit by early February as we could only do an early March date. Finally, I crossed the mountains and into California with the beast down to ~65 pages of material excluding the references and the summary of my work-to-date.
The last stage, with a failing wagon, low food, short of time, and Indian attacks, I had to stop and change course again. It was time to put together the fellowship/scholorship proposal together and I had to do it from scratch this time in order to address some NASA feedback we got and to make a better chance of getting it this year.
After that week plus of course correction was completed, I had to move on to the proposal presentation itself. Here, I also seriously underestimated the time involved. Essentially what was in my proposal had to be translated to a deck of PowerPoint slides and the ability to defend every damn word and equation. Time was short and I was losing steam and thus I took more days off to complete it. It was strange. Knowing that only one of my four committee members was a professional planetary scientist and the rest were engineers, made me want to include everything. And I did. More on that soon. During this last week of PowerPoint hell, I had to make many of my own graphics, hunt down just the right images and photos, and type tons of equations. I alternated with hours of slogging through my own proposal writing and making PowerPoint slides with the complete mental opposite – watching episodes of Family Guy. Funny how the brain can deal with mental whiplash of that sort.
At last it was done. The day before the exam, as I began to sweat bullets, my research adviser and I went over it and I made a number of changes in the final hours to exam/presentation time. By then, I knew it would be an all-oral exam and I was relieved at first.
So last week, I walked in and set up my computer. Several students came in and that through me off a bit. I was told it would just be me and my committee. Then the committee walked in with full bellies from their lunch of Indian buffet.
So I began. The first part was the reason why I’m proposing a particular approach to understanding the dynamics of polar vortices on giant planets. The second was the background on the giant planets. Next was the concept and research on beta-drift (why vortices drift the way they do in an atmosphere or ocean). Then came the section on the software I’m using and how I’m going to modify it. Next was the background physics from the governing Navier-Stokes equations of fluid momentum down to the equations we use in meteorology to describe flow over a rotating, stratified atmosphere on a planet. Lastly, I covered my plan-of-work, expected results, and potential pitfalls/difficulties. Between each of these major sections, I took questions from the committee and grad students.
So imagine this: You reach the Pacific ocean in tatters, with nearly dead oxen or horses, no food, no energy, and a wagon about to come apart. Luckily you can smell the salt water and with incredible muscular tone and fitness due to the thousands of walking. But there, at the end with the Pacific glinting is a hostile tribe of Indians with war paint and looking mean. This is the proposal defense. It is, in my field, the challenge that is often underestimated. I had been dreading it for years and was as prepared as I could be.
Some of the questions were warm ups but also could have been subtle traps. In some of the questions that followed, I began to falter a bit and immediately slipped back into teaching mode. Those grad students threw me off. I didn’t anticipate unconsciously slipping become teacher again. My progression slowed. The questions became more direct but still not defeating. Then one of the grad students started in along with a committee member. It was a problem of them not understanding a technical detail of the modeling and in the case of the student, missing a hug portion of the literature that is out there. I was able to explain things and we moved on.
Then came more presentation and then the trapping questions. I fell head first into one of those and was called out on it. I misunderstood the question and thought I explained things well only to be told not to make stuff up and how I was perceived as trying to deflect my ignorance. I really wasn’t but once I heard that, my strength was gone. Then that same grad student, an hour later, essentially asked the same question but rephrased it. I still saw he didn’t get it and was now playing, knowingly or not (the latter I think), the “my school of thought vs. the other school of thought.” Now I was exhausted and could barely think straight. This was almost three hours into the exam/proposal. And I was able to control my irritation. This is not the time, I thought, to pull this shit. I’m in the hot seat (as my advisor actually stated at the beginning). Every question at this point is a potential lethal arrow and the grad student was dragging me into a flank attack over a division within the field but not within the method in which I was proposing. It was a rabbit hole descent and I didn’t want to go down into it much further. Eventually I explained things and encouraged him to look into the other school of thought in this field and moved on.
The committee then dismissed the grad students and it was me facing off with them. But there were no more questions! Apparently I covered so much that our department chair complained that he felt he just took a complete course in meteorology. I almost quipped, you set us both up with a Indian food buffet right before this presentation! He was right that it was much too long although there was no time limit assigned. I did say that given our backgrounds as engineers, it was probably necessary to spend more time since it is a different field from what we were all trained upon. He did agree with that assessment.
Then they dismissed me to discuss my answers. As I left, I was feeling like I had failed and was thinking that they’d send me for remedial course work in geophysical fluid dynamics, probably taught remotely by my research advisor. But it would be ok, I told myself. It’s ok. A few months set back. I don’t need to drown myself in a river right at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. There are other places along the shore to settle. Then I heard laughing. Very loud laughing. Oh shit. Well wait a sec…I wasn’t a complete screw up. This couldn’t be that bad, right? The door opens and the department chair comes out still laughing. He and I meet in the hall and he shakes my hand and says congratulations. Huh, I thought. Was does “congratulations” mean? Is that a fluid flow term I should know? Oh crap. Missed another question. Did I forget to mention that word in the background section of the general circulation model software?!?
Then my research adviser walks out with a smile and congratulates me. Oh yeah…that word. The good news word. I passed but it didn’t sink in. Not. At. All. I was still so exhausted and saddened by my poor performance that I couldn’t really react except with a muttered thank you and glad that’s over, and thank you for your time.
Even at the celebration dinner with Sheelagh, and the committee, it didn’t sink in. But a glass of wine and terrific food did begin to restore my spirits. Some days later, it finally hit. I’m looking at a sunset on the Pacific Ocean. I’m in a tent and the task of building my home and my community remains before me. But I have a plan in place to complete that dissertation and in a few more days of enjoying the smell of the ocean and sunsets, I will break ground. Six months for this journey: an amazing, thoroughly humbling, rewarding, and utterly exhausting experience.