I spent pretty much all of last week preparing for yesterday’s thesis defense, culminating in a “practice run” which took place last Friday afternoon. I had originally intended to deliver this exclusively to a group of my fellow graduate students, but my supervisor wanted a chance to critique my presentation before the final event, so I wound up inviting him as well.
I had been worried that if the practice had gone badly, I would wind-up psyching myself out for my actual defense; thankfully, it did not go badly. My fellow students gave me some helpful pointers on making the presentation more comprehensible, while my supervisor helped me to clarify some of the details on the physics, but for the most part, it was already pretty good. I took to implementing these editorial changes on Friday afternoon and then resolved, wisely I think, not to look at either thesis or presentation again until the actual defense; I did not want to spend the weekend picking at certain mathematical “scabs” to the detriment of the whole.
It was a wonderful idea, but in practice, a number of concerns started metastasizing in my mind, until I simply needed to go to my office late on Sunday night just to shore-up my bases with a little fundamental research.
Now, I should say that I have this thing about my office: I kind of hate being there late at night. This is mainly because it calls to mind all of those unfortunate nights during the first year of my Master’s program when I would gargle tea until my brain felt like it was on fire, all in a vain attempt to complete all of my assignments by the deadline. Mercifully, this did not happen on the eve of my thesis defense, but even do, the memory of all of those brutal presentations in years gone by started to chip away at my confidence.
As it turned out, though, there were two crucial differences between my thesis defense and all of those presentations I had run in the past. The first, obviously, was that when it comes to my thesis project, I am the number one expert. The second was that it was scheduled in the middle of the afternoon, late enough that I could prepare for it on my own terms.
I slept fitfully the night before, through the studious avoidance of all caffeine products. The next morning*, I attempted to quash my anxiety and centre myself emotionally through an hour of vigourous exercise, followed by a delicious, hearty breakfast consisting of bacon, slices of lemon**, and tea. I then dressed myself in a stylish and delightfully androgynous suit***, and proceeded to the University to meet my fate at approximately half past noon.
Two hours to go until my defense and I made some last-minute preparations; I drew-up a cheat sheet of answers to what I considered to be the most likely questions I could be asked****, and ran my slideshow through my memory.
One hour to go until my defense and the minutes were crawling-by like years. I’ve often commented that time seems to pass me by too quickly, but honestly the opposite is even worse.
Half an hour to go until my defense and I was a nervous wreck: my preparations, my hearty breakfast, my swanky clothes, and my hour of exercise were all for naught. My god, how am I ever going to answer any questions? Suddenly, I turned to find that the Angel of Mercy had stopped-by in the guise of one of my friends from Pride: they gave me manna in the form of a slice of chocolate cake, with rainbow sprinkle. As I devoured it, my nervousness disappeared; suddenly, I became convinced that I was invincible, and that everything was going to be alright.
On asymptotic approach to my defense, and everything was ready to go. My old laptop (busted-up display and all) was attached to the projector in the reading room, and my committee had filed-in. My supervisor, the lanky physicist, and the mathematician who served as my external, together with the Faculty of Graduate Studies representative (an old biochemist who my friend later claimed to have looked like Q from Star Trek, though I can’t for the life of me seem to recall his face) looked on expectantly.
Finally, the clock struck three. Time to begin.
By that point, I had had my presentation well and truly memorized, so I just went through it once more, purely by rote; I didn’t even need to look to see what I was talking about. This lasted precisely twenty minutes (and I know, I timed it out before hand) and by the time I was done, I knew that I’d nailed it. But I’d already known it wouldn’t be a problem: the questions were the real concern, and they were what immediately followed.
The External was first. “I am not a physicist,” he boomed in his thick Romanian accent. “But I can follow the mathematics in your thesis, so I’d just like to ask you some very fundamental questions: first of all, I would like you to explain, in terms of these ‘Einstein Field Equations,’ just how we know–theoretically–that black holes should exist?’
For a second I froze, not sure how to respond. My marker trembled in my hand as I stood at the white board. Is he asking me to prove that there are singular solutions of the Einstein equations!?! I wondered in a panic. I hadn’t prepared for that! In fact, I realized, he couldn’t possibly be asking that, because there’s simply no way that anyone could demonstrate such a thing a white board within two hours and still have time to answer any other questions. So…it’s not that. He must just be asking in very general terms…
Cautiously, I scribbled the Schwarzschild metric on the board, and began to explain how time and space switched places within a certain radius. I looked into his eyes, and saw his satisfaction; in a single, wonderful instant it occurred to me that I had answered correctly. Of course I’m answering correctly, I admonished myself. I know what I’m talking about!
He proceeded to pitch a serious of questions my way concerning my mathematical methodology.
He asked about perturbation equations: Bam! I knocked it right out of the park!
He asked about separation of variables: Bam!
He asked about the Frobenius method: Bam!
He asked me about series convergence at infinity: Well, this one was more of a “bunt,” to be honest, but it got the job done.
It was only much later that I realized that I had just systematically answered every single question the external had asked.
Next was the Australian physicist; he focused mainly on conceptual questions (which I nailed, with only minimal leading), and some questions about units, which I didn’t get quite as well as I’d wanted, but you can’t win them all.
Finally, my supervisor. Apparently, its a tradition, in other departments, for supervisors to defer their questions in order to make their students look better, but my supervisor would have none of it. He asked me questions about my choice in boundary conditions: I nailed these.
I stood there sweating. I’d made it through the first round.
Now, I should point out that, during my presentation, I had used the example of a tapped wine glass in order to illustrate the idea of quasinormal modes. For some reason, my committee apparently seized on this during the second round, and therefore asked me questions about the damned wine glass, only tangentially related to the actual black hole. It didn’t matter though, I answered them all, and by that point was comfortable enough to joke about it.
Finally, I reached the end. My friends and I were forced out of the room as the committee deliberated; I was once again so nervous I could puke. But then, no more than three minutes later, the Graduate Studies representative stepped outside and told me that I had passed in the strongest possible way. They didn’t even recommend any revisions*****!
And anyways: that is the story of how I became Jaime, Magistra Scientiae. From now on until the day that I die, I will be able to truthfully say that I have an advanced degree in Theoretical Physics from a major Canadian University.
The only remaining question is: Now what?
*After getting medication for Nominatissima, who was bed-ridden by a bad back
**I’d forgotten to buy oranges.
***I’m still not officially ‘out’ to the faculty, but frankly, everybody knows that I’m transgendered by this point, to the extent that no one even comments on it anymore when they see me wearing women’s clothing. In any case, I find that wearing formal wear is a wonderful confidence booster, and I would never be able to be one of those people who can operate effectively in (for example) a sweatshirt.
****Not one of these questions was actually asked: just to show the futility of trying to prepare individual responses to an infinitude of possible problems.
*****Well…my supervisor did, but not as part of the committee.