The real steps to survive a PhD defense

and finally become a doctor

Posted by Breaking Thirty on June 15, 2019

At the end of April, after four years of work and dedication, I have finally defended my PhD. The defense consisted of thirty minutes of presentation and more than one hour of questions. Preparing that defense was a crazy last mile. Getting through it left an undeniable footprint on me. I’m not talking about the major hair loss I experienced, nor about the tiny wrinkle that the long working hours caused under my eye. Not just that at least. What I’m saying is that preparing my defense left some clues about how to cope with highly stressful and demanding situations. As always, I distilled for you those nuggets of wisdom in the list below. Because who doesn’t love lists?


  1. Stick to your old clothes. Since January, I had been practicing visualisation every morning until the day of my defense. I would sit down on my meditation pillow, meditate for five minutes and then visualise myself defending my thesis and juggling through the slides and the questions. To make it more vivid and realistic, I would also add as many details as possible. This is because you need to make something that didn’t happen as familiar as possible to your brain. One of the details of my visualisation were my clothes. I would imagine me wearing my beloved light-blue suit that I bought ten years ago and that I’ve been using for every formal event ever since. This visualisation has almost failed when my mum called me one day to say that I should buy a new suit for my defense. She was tired of pictures of me that looked all the same, which were messing up with her memory too. She couldn’t recognise whether a certain picture was taken at my birthday. Or while I was giving my first talk at a conference. Or my second talk at a conference. Or at Easter (and what Easter?). Or whether that was a picture of me helping my father at the Frankfurt exposition of 2016, or me helping my father at the same exposition two years later. She wanted completely new pictures… and I was upset. My visualisation wasn’t working because I didn’t know exactly how to imagine myself. I soon became frustrated and stressed out. I HAD to wear my light-blue suit. I couldn’t compromise four years of work like that. I called my mum. We agreed that I would have defended wearing my usual suit but that she would buy me a new one afterwards. She did. Now I have a new… blue suit for the important events of the next upcoming ten years!


  2. Move your butt… and then rest your butt. I took this line from Amy Landino, one of my favourite youtubers out there. This is how I interpreted her recommendation. Every morning I would stick to my four-minute mini-workout and do it before drinking my lemon water and doing the meditation + visualisation above. This was non-negotiable, like breathing or sleeping. On top of that, I would stick to my usual three-times-per-week gym schedule and pushed myself to go no matter what… Until it didn’t make sense anymore to interrupt my work at 6pm to go to a pilates class or lift weights. When I found myself doing the slides from scratch for the third time eight days before my defense, it was clear that I needed to work until late every single evening. I cut down my workout routine and, thanks to my self-help journey, I felt no shame nor guilt in doing so. I sticked to the morning four-minute mini-workout and kept going to work on foot. And for the rest of the time, I rested my butt on the chair and let my brain work without interruptions.

  3. Take the beautiful path home. I’m fortunate enough to live at a walking distance from my workplace. Since I’m a mathematician, I’ve always walked the shortest path connecting my place and the lab (modulo the buildings), not giving a damn about my surrounding. However, the week prior to my defense, after twelve hours of lonely work while everybody else was celebrating Easter, I felt my heart so empty that I decided to choose beauty over efficiency. Every evening, I would made a little de-tour, walk up a hill with a museum and a garden, stroll around and enjoy the spring breeze. Somehow, it seemed that beauty gave more meaning to those days.


  4. Indulge (with no guilt!). I’m definitely not the kind of person that indulges. My go-get-it personality combined with a Catholic education makes me blame people who indulge for no reason. They must be weak. Or sinners. I’m a rule-follower, especially when it comes to the rules I set up for myself. If I said I can have no more than two espresso, then when I’m offered what would be the third coffee of the day, I turn the offer down. If I said that I can have bread and Nutella for breakfast only once a week, then you can catch me taking the Nutella jar out of my secret pantry in my room either on Saturdays or on Sundays. If I said that I can watch Netflix only after having finished the twelve books per year I plan to read, then Netflix can be watched basically only during Christmas holidays. Well, it turns out that during the week prior my defence I broke all the above mentioned rules I would have three coffee breaks during my workday. At dinner, I would eat bread and Nutella while watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix because the truth is that the stroll on the beautiful hill wasn’t enough of a reward after all.


  5. Let your friends and colleagues conspire with you. I wouldn’t have been through those days and come out sane on the other side without the help and support of my colleagues. They would make me coffee when my Nespresso machine broke. They would come to my dry runs and give feedbacks on my slides. They would let me hide my cell phone in one of their drawers and allow me to look at it only twice a day. They would come for a walk with me in the park. They would help me set up my computer with the beamer in the defense room when I was too nervous to do it myself. They would convince me not to buy that 350-euro online course to get hypnotised to get rid of anxiety. They would celebrate with me afterwards and be happy for me.

There you have it. If you’re about to defend your PhD (or any other sort of defense), pick the suggestions that resonate with you the most and let me know how they worked for you. Lastly, you might think that you wont’t make it to the other side, but trust me: if you’re about to defend, then it means you’re actually capable to get to the other side.

Quote Twain

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