Keeping Your Sanity Pre-Defense


Photo taken Fall 2014, courtesy of the NC State University Crafts Center. Chess set, board, and box in the photo designed and built by Adrienne Wootten.

The past three months have been the most hectic for me in quite awhile.  In August, I started on the final stages of my dissertation, putting everything together to finish my Ph.D.  All of it culminated right at the end of October with my defense.  Thankfully for me everything came together, and I passed!!  Yes, I was nervous and stressed out (and occasionally frustrated) in the weeks prior to my defense, but I didn’t lose my sanity. What got me through it? Three things: balance, support, and perspective.

First tip – find a balance.  It’s really easy as you’re working on your research and writing to get completely wrapped up in it.  That’s not always a bad thing, but sometimes you can get absorbed into your work and miss simple things (such as what your advisor might be trying to tell you).  Even when it comes down to the wire, always find time to do something for a little bit of each day or each week that is not your thesis / dissertation.  Particularly if it can get you to stop thinking about your research for a little while.  For example, aside from the work for my Ph.D., I’ve been a stained glass artisan for seven years.  During these last few months my glasswork was my balance against my dissertation, and let me release frustration in a positive way.  Find something to do that’s not your research and gives you that balance, it helps you be more productive when you return to your research.

Second tip – don’t be afraid to ask for support.  Always rely on your support team, and I don’t mean just your committee either.  Who these people are varies a bit from person to person, but for me it was my family, my committee chairs, my friends, other graduate students, and my church group.  Your support team are the people in your corner who are willing to listen and let you vent.  They also challenge your perception of a problem you’re facing, getting you to think about it differently.  Your support doesn’t have to be people who know what you’re doing either–my family had no clue what I was working on!  I’m beyond thankful for all of them though, because I could vent my frustrations and get ideas from a different viewpoint.  Those two things and more from my support team helped me keep my sanity, particularly in the last couple months.

Final tip – try to keep some perspective.  Successfully defending your Master’s or Ph.D. is a great achievement.  At that point, you’ve finished the major requirements to earn your degree, and you can move onto bigger things for your career.  Knowing that, it is easy to amplify your stress when things aren’t going right.  For me personally there were moments when I was so frustrated that I thought for sure I’d never finish, that I’d never earn my degree.  In those moments of intense anxiety, keeping perspective was what kept me going.  About 48 hours after passing my written prelim in summer 2014, my mother was admitted to the hospital.  In the three weeks that followed she almost passed away from complications connected to a heart condition. Prior to that summer 2014 her condition was unknown, so it came as a big surprise.  In the moments of intense anxiety pre-defense, remembering that period in 2014 gave me immediate perspective – an instant reality check.  You may not have an example like mine, but when you hit those moments of intense anxiety pre-defense, take a breath. Remember that there are definitely tougher moments in life.  You can handle your defense.

There you have it! Three basic tips from me on how to keep your sanity pre-defense: balance, support, and perspective.  There are more things that can help you pre-defense, but these are the basics from my experience that I thought would be useful to all of you with defenses in your future.  For those who’ve already defended, do you have more tips?  Feel free to share them in the comments, or over Twitter and Facebook!  I’d be curious to hear how you all made it through your defenses!

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