Don’t be afraid of the hard questions. This thought came to me this week as I’ve been talking with students about preparing for their doctoral defenses, and based on conversations that we’re having as part of the PROMISE Dissertation House. I’m reminded of a scenario from my past involving one of my mentors. When I was in graduate school, one of my M.S. thesis committee members was from MIT and we (secretly) nicknamed him “Darth Vader.” I respected him, but I was so scared of him at the time. Even though he was on my committee, I once saw him in a restaurant when he was in town for a visit, and I left the restaurant because I was afraid that he was going to ask me a question. Of course he just wanted to eat! I later ended up working with him in a professional organization. He taught me a lot and asked great questions, I was just terrified at the time. On the other hand, my doctoral defense was a piece of cake; it was like a conversation among colleagues. My PhD defense had been delayed for several months, but I took every chance that I could get over those months to talk about my research to anyone who would listen. After a while, I was very used to hearing myself talk (which was good, because I used to be a bit shy), and soon I could think of good questions to ask myself before they were asked of me. If the questions were new, I wasn’t as intimidated because it was now easier to think through the problems and consider solutions without being nervous about it.
My husband now jokingly calls me “Vaderette” when I get into the mode of prepping students for presentations. But I encourage you to hold your head high and begin to talk about your research. Have conversations about it with others in your department, with other faculty, with other students, and with colleagues outside of your school. You’ll begin to have a much better handle on your work and you’ll be able to talk about it and (and answer questions) with confidence!