I passed my dissertation defense unconditionally. No biggie. As a refresher, a dissertation defense is when a group of professors asks tough questions of a student about their research. It’s the last test before getting a PhD.
I had a practice presentation scheduled for the day before, and it was suggested that I should practice the first four slides 10 more times. This would permit me to be much smoother in delivering these first slides and put my committee at at ease. The repetition didn’t turn out to be as unpleasant as I thought it would be, and I think it was very helpful.
Also shortly before the dissertation, my grandmother sent me a card with her phone number on it. I called her and she wished me good luck. My friend’s mother Emilie sent me a metal coin with an angel on it for good luck. My mother saw a heron fly by just as I was starting to talk, which she interpreted as good luck. I can’t imagine what would’ve happened without all this good luck!
Unlike the written qualifier, my dissertation defense was not a softball. I was definitely asked tough questions. My advisors took aim at the heart of my dissertation. It turns out that as dissertation questions go, there are an effectively infinite number of variants of the dreaded “who cares.” Fortunately I was prepared for these questions. Even questions that felt a little strange or unfair, or times that my initial answer was rebuffed without explanation of what they didn’t like about it, I simply had to scramble for a different answer, which I somehow always found just as I needed it.
My professor emailed me afterwards to tell me how thrilled he was with my performance. I have heard stories of students reduced to blubbering incoherence under fire in their dissertation defenses, so I think for once I’m going to try to accept and enjoy this success. I shouldn’t get too cocky, though, because in the future I won’t always have triple good luck.
I might be graduating this semester. Then again maybe I won’t. Y’see I have this paper. There’s a lot of writing to be done but that’s not the problem. If it were just writing, oh, it would be heaven. My kingdom for it just to be writing, but no. I can’t just write stuff and pass this. I need results and these results are very slow in coming.
What’s more, it matters how good the results are. If they’re good enough I’m home free. If they’re not, I may have to take some extra time. At the moment it’s looking like they’re not.
Fortunately, the difference between graduating this semester and graduating during the summer session is largely symbolic. Although of course every day that my dissertation isn’t finished is another day that I have to be working on my dissertation, the deadline itself is all a matter of whether I will be walking in May or in December. I’d rather walk in May, but it’s not so bad walking later. There’s more to it than that, though.
I really understand now what is so awful about a dissertation. You see, my oral prelim was ambitious. I had big plans, but in the end I was able to accomplish only a small fraction of my goals. Now it comes down to whether my committee will pass me despite my underwhelming achievements or if they are in fact so underwhelming that my advisor will not let me present at all and sends me back to the knowledge mines. Work until the work is done, indefinitely, until it gets over the hurdle between unacceptable and mediocre. I think it’s this feeling of fighting and fighting for mediocrity that is so hard when finishing up one’s PhD. After the kind of academic success that someone usually has leading up to a PhD, it’s humbling.
The good news is I understand that this is common. So common in fact that it’s generally understood to be the experience of graduate students finishing up their dissertations. The bad news is it doesn’t make it a lot easier or rather even if it makes it much easier, it’s still hard.
More good news though. Since the main bottleneck is the computational ability of my computer, even if I get slowed down too much and don’t make my deadline, a large portion of the extra work will be done by my computer, and I can just live my life while I wait. There will be a cloud hanging over me, but oh well. I can handle clouds.
Another break from “The Cleaners.” If you’re worried about what happens next, I’ll just tell you right now, William Cleaner is Diane’s Father. Also, Diane was a ghost the whole time, Henry Whicker is just a projection of the other side of Diane’s split personality, and Walter was never Diane’s late husband, just an ordinary conman from Omaha, Nebraska. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” he will protest just before Diane reveals him and we find out that we were on Earth the whole time.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t take another break at this point, but my own real life has become rather dramatic as of late. I’ve got another big presentation for the high ranking executives of SAS, and I’ve been working twelve hours a day to prepare and stay on top of my other duties, which have not abated. My paper has been accepted to Artificial Intelligence in Education, which meets in Madrid this year, and there’s an unusually short deadline on the camera-ready version. At the same time I have a flurry of paper reviews, two of which were self-inflicted, that I have to complete. I spent most of yesterday writing three of them. Other tasks, such as arranging to get forty-eight symposium and workshop papers added to the Intellimedia paper database, have been put on the back burner.
Now it’s time to put aside wastes of time and get work done. I’ve declared web browsing to be banned. No more going on the web without an explicit purpose, and then once finished, I go back offline again. Also, just in time, my Soylent arrived. Now I, too, get to enjoy the only food in America with an eleven-page instruction manual complete with a version number, changelists, and a page dedicated to warnings. It tastes like pancake batter, but is probably better for me than any other breakfast food I could eat. Certainly better than an Eggo waffle or any other such pre-processed quick-make breakfast food that often characterize the diets of busy graduate students. I don’t replace all my meals yet, but I have been known to replace as many as two meals in a day as the need arises. One fun thing about Soylent is that now that I’m also wearing a facemask to avoid spreading a head cold I have I look like a poster child for the dystopian future. I also have a device I wear on my wrist that keeps track of my life signs to report to a server in an unknown location and I’m working extremely hard to develop advanced artificial intelligence. Maybe I am living in a dystopian future.
This is the story of a paper with no good results. I took a system I hadn’t made, tested it on a dataset that was only half-finished, and ended up with data that said things, but not very impressive things, and not very convincingly. These results had no business being in a paper, but I really wanted to submit something to an upcoming workshop – Building Educational Applications using Natural Language Processing (BEA). Workshops are generally known for being easy to get into, but BEA is different. Some of the most able professors I know have had papers rejected from this workshop.
My results were so bad that I was convinced it would be an insult even to ask people to review any paper I wrote on it. I hesitated to send my paper to someone who had volunteered to read it for fear I was wasting her valuable time. I confided in my roommate, who prefers to be referred to as J, and he said that even if I don’t expect the paper to be accepted, it’s important to make submissions and that early in my career people won’t be offended to look at ones that might be less than amazing. So, still feeling selfish and awful every step of the way for making people deal with such mediocre work, I wrote the paper as well as I possibly could and submitted it.
Last Thursday I got a response from BEA. The reviews focused mostly on the same issues that I had been concerned about myself. They were generally positive, though, and I was invited to give a poster presentation. I hope that this story helps anyone else who may feel that he or she doesn’t have a really great result be more confident in making a paper submission. It’s often worth it.