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Most people don’t know what a doctorate or a dissertation entails, much less a dissertation defense. I’m almost finished with my doctorate, my defense is coming up in a week, and I want your sympathy. So I shall enlighten y’all, and add in some notes about how bipolar disorder has affected my doctoral studies.

Before any of that, I’ll warn you that a PhD is not for everyone. In fact, it’s for less than 1% of the US population. Only about 50% of the people who start a PhD actually finish, and there still aren’t enough jobs to go around. It’s a research degree built on an apprenticeship model of education, i.e. masochism. The degree qualifies grads for a very specific and limited set of overworked-and-underpaid jobs. Do not believe what the TV and Internet say about how cushy professors have it. They work 60-hour weeks and summer vacations are a joke.

The structure of doctoral studies in the US is pretty consistent across fields, though there are plenty of variations in the specifics from one discipline to the next and between institutions. First, you have to get in. Average admission rates to good programs hover around 10%. The magical combination of accomplishments that leads to selection is mysterious and secret. I spent two years on a doctoral committee and could tell you more, but then I’d have to shoot you.

Next, you spend about two years doing coursework. This is different in the US than other countries, where there is often little or no coursework. I learned about subject matter, research methods, and pedagogy. The expectations are staggering: a 9-credit courseload plus assistantship duties translates to a minimum workload of 60-80 hours a week. I’ve literally read 3,000 pages of books and articles in a single semester for just one class. I stopped counting after that.

After backbreaking coursework comes Exams. Their name and style varies. In my school, it requires a document demonstrating completion of requirements and mastery of your field of study plus a research prospectus, followed by a closed-doors oral defense to The Committee. Each student has their own Committee, comprised of 4+ faculty, who are a difficult set of masters to please and a scheduling nightmare.

Once released from the bondage of coursework, you are magically transformed into a Doctoral Candidate and start work on The Proposal. This is the main drop-out point. Being able to get through coursework does not mean you can design an independent study that addresses a novel research question. The Proposal is your contract for your dissertation. It specifies what you will deliver in completion of your degree and is a highly structured document. In my field, it’s around 100 pages long.

The Committee (supposedly) reads the whole Proposal prior to a public oral defense. My proposal defense was a 20-minute presentation on why my research idea is awesome and how I’d pull it off. The Committee grills you for as long as they want. After they’ve gorged themselves on your tender hopes and dreams, the audience can demand satisfaction as well. Then everyone is shooed out of the room while The Committee confers, and when they’re good and ready, they invite you back in to render their decision (usually favorable.)

Copies of the dissertation manuscript for my committee.

At that point, you start “dissertating”. It’s different for everybody. It took me two years, mostly because I did a qualitative study with multiple case sites in organizational settings, all of which adds time and complication. Bipolar disorder also added at least six months. I had several depressive episodes that lasted several months each and made it impossible for me to work, which was a big part of the reason I went in for diagnosis. But I persevered and my committee is currently wading through my 380-page manuscript. My dissertation defense is finally almost here. This is the big one.

The dissertation defense is run almost exactly like the proposal defense, except my 20-minute presentation has to sum up everything from the proposal defense plus the two years of work in between. It has to show off how I did everything right and my brilliant contributions to Science. The Committee, now a whopping 7 people, will again poke as many holes in me as they can, followed by audience questioning. I will not cry, panic, or vomit on my shoes. At least, not in front of everyone.

This time, after they confer, my Advisor will come out of the chambers, say “Congratulations, Dr. Chickadee,” and shake my hand. Everyone who has waited in the hallway with me will cheer. Then I’ll go in and hear how much I have to fix before the Committee will sign off. Afterward, there will be a small celebratory reception and a talk by my external reader. If all goes well, I’ll be able to finish my revisions in the two weeks between my defense and the university deadline for May graduation. Fingers crossed.

Bipolar disorder shaped so many of the twists and turns of the last five years that I hardly know where it was and wasn’t. My illness presents itself with seasonal patterns that match school year cycles, which made the problem much harder to detect and easier to rationalize away as “winter blues” despite being so much more vicious. Naturally, depressive episodes made it incredibly hard to keep up the pace. Academia can be brutally unforgiving and rewards are rare, so you have to be strongly internally motivated. Try that when you feel utterly worthless, stupid, and hopeless. It was horrendously demoralizing to want desperately to work on my dissertation while being completely unable to make myself do anything.

The hypomanic episodes helped make up for extended nonfunctional periods. I’d crank out two months worth of work in two weeks. I’d have brilliant insights that really did advance my research. Odd hypomanic behavior is most worrisome during professional travel, but mostly people just think I’m brilliant, witty, and engaging because they only ever see me when I’m larger than life. It’s a hard charade to keep up now that the awesome faucet has been mostly turned off.

So there you have it. The bipolar doctoral student tells it like it is. I’d be lying if I said that it hasn’t been one of the hardest challenges I’ve ever undertaken. I’d be lying if I said I loved every minute of it. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t worth it. This is one of my greatest accomplishments, and I’m really proud of my work.

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