A milestone-induced illness is alright with me

tiffany-yangI passed a pretty significant milestone in the PhD process two weeks ago: the data meeting. I thought this was a standard part of the PhD process, but it wasn’t until I started asking my non-EHS friends what their experiences were like when I realized that this staging point is erected only in some departments.

Within EHS (and Nutritional Sciences, which is the newly-minted department that I am now part of), there are a few “checkpoints” in your PhD trajectory before the final defense: the doctoral qualifying exams (DQE), the oral preliminary exam (colloquially known as “prelims”), and the data meeting. The DQE, which I’ve written about before, is a written exam meant to test your general knowledge about the classes you’ve taken, as well as integrating it all into writing a mock research proposal. The prelims, mentioned in a previous post, is based on your research proposal; you give a presentation and write a proposal detailing what, how, why you’re doing the research you’re proposing. You also get lovingly grilled by your “committee” – your advisor and several other professors who critique, contribute, and make you a better researcher.

The data meeting, then, is the final checkpoint before you actually formally defend your dissertation work. This meeting involves putting together all the research/results you’ve done so far and outlining whatever future analyses that will need to be done to round out your thesis.

This is stressful.

Your research aims, proposed at your prelims, change as you progress through your PhD. Maybe something didn’t work out, or you were over-ambitious, or new things come to light. Regardless, you need to make sure what you present and what you propose are solid.

What isn’t solid is your state of mind as you second-guess your choices in life. How much data is enough? Should you have used different methods? Why didn’t you use different methods? Did you account for x, y, z in your models? Why or why not? Frantic readings and many tables, figures, and curses later, you end up with a product you’re excited and proud to show off to your committee at the data meeting.

I had tunnel vision for weeks before this thing; it takes quite a bit of calendar-wrangling to get everyone together in the same room, on the same day, at the same time. Not to mention actually getting a room reserved at that time that isn’t already booked by a class/seminar/study group. The days leading up to the meeting itself were a blur of presentation-fiddling, practicing in front of peers, and re-reading literature to make sure I got my ideas right. On the day of, I was nervous as I stood in front of my committee, but once I started in on the presentation, I felt good about what I had already accomplished and excited for what I planned on doing.

No one wants you to fail and everyone is rooting for you to succeed, but this particular idea can be hard to acknowledge when you’re in the swamps. My committee gave me some great feedback and I walked out feeling like I could finally breathe again. Which is funny, since in the following days I developed a not quite fully-functioning respiratory system (thank you, stress-induced sickness!) and a renewed sense of motivation to bash my data with the statistical software stick.

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