Thursday, October 17, 2013

Masters of the Universe

Tam is defending her master's project tomorrow.  Good luck, Tam!  If I understand correctly, this involves giving a presentation over her material to the professors and other grad students and then, afterwards, answering questions from her committee (not the entire group).  Stressful, right?  But she'll do great and I predict she will be totally high for several hours afterwards. 

It's always good if you can get yourself to enjoy these kinds of experiences (easier said than done, perhaps) because one thing about academia -- people generally really don't give two shits about anybody else's research.  So this is one of the few times you will have the attention of people who are situationally predisposed to care a little bit and who have a halfway decent chance of understanding some broad aspect of the project if not the details (unlike, for example, your family and friends who are not in a PhD program in your particular field).

This has made me think about my master's program and the...I was going to say two but it's really four components like this -- the first year project presentation, the major area paper (just a document that was turned in for advisor's approval), the master's thesis proposal defense, and the master's thesis defense. 

I wrote about the first year project presentation beforehand, but I never blogged about how it turned out.  (In our case, all the first year grad students did their presentations during one big session, and professors asked questions after each one.)  I was nervous, but when I finally got up there to talk, my anxiety diminished a great deal and it went fine.  One of the pieces of feedback I got was to the effect:  I thought maybe she was a bit nervous at first from her voice, but she looked so relaxed and confident up there that I decided my initial impression was mistaken.  Oh, and a funny thing: I actually did get asked a question I could not answer.  I had a complex set of results, and my focus was on the overall interaction and then some specific data points, but of course one professor asked me about the statistical significance of two data points that were not germane to my argument and I totally blanked on whether they were different or not and had to admit ignorance about that in front of everyone.  But it was OK.  I was not humiliated for life, and I passed.

Apparently I never wrote about my thesis defense, but it was really low-stress and pretty much totally great.  I had already been put through the ringer during my proposal defense by the Professor of Doom (who chaired my committee) -- incidentally, this is the same woman with the total hard-ass reputation who made a totally crushing comment to one of my fellow first years during our first year presentations because the student made a slip of the tongue.  So anyway, because of Professor of Doom's thorough excoriation of my proposal (and the not-as-scary comments by other committee members), by the time I got to the final product, I had already addressed the major issues.  And both the proposal and thesis defense involved sitting at a table with my committee, talking about the document, and not a presentation where you're standing in front of a group -- sitting at the table generally feels much less stressful to me.  The Professor of Doom was even in an expansive, light-hearted mood during the thesis defense and I saw her smile and laugh for the first time in my experience, which was nice. 

This also reminds me of how nervous I get before a job interview (like crazy nervous), but how once the interview starts, I don't feel anxious anymore.

And of course no discussion of this kind is complete without my referencing my dad's oral exam for his master's degree in German.  A member of his committee asked him a question about a book that he hadn't read, and my dad (being cool as a cucumber in these sorts of anxiety-provoking situations, something I wish I had inherited) said basically: Well, I haven't read this particular book by This Author, but in his book Whatever, he blah blah blah...  And he passed his exam.

So to Tam I pass on once again my advisor's wise advice re: the research presentation:  Have fun with it!

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