Paperless Dissertation 8 – Inspiration from Carl Sagan

I am presently reading Carl Sagan’s 1996 ode to science, Demon Haunted World. I’m not too far in yet, but I am completely enthralled. Among all that Sagan talks about, there was one early passage that caught my eye. In it, Sagan discusses the Ph.D. student and the dilemma of the Dissertation. In particular, he mentions that prior to the final defense of the dissertation, the Ph.D. student must get into a new mindset, and train him or herself to think in a completely different way, and to be prepared for everything by anticipating questions the committee might pose.

Indeed, I couldn’t agree more. Much to my wife’s consternation, I probably (literally) coded something on the order of 300,000 cells of data more than what I needed. Beyond the demographics of each case, the cells were coded with scores from neuropsychological tests. Rather than code each case for only the data I needed, I coded for each instance of every score from every test that had been administered. This served three purposes: (1) I would be prepared to speak to variables that I did not include in my analyses. This might be something like “Did you ever think about looking at X? Why yes, I did, and because of Y, the data were not appropriate/germane to the hypothesis.” (2) Since the data were archival, and existed in banker’s boxes in a very hot storage shed, it made sense to collect all of the data, in the event that my committee asked me to include more/new data or analyses. That shed was really, really hot during the summer, and I did not want to go back and have to pull any, never mind all of the files again. (3) I would be building a massive database that I could draw upon for at least two years for other publications. These publications, because of the breadth and depth of the data, could be completely unrelated to my dissertation.
As it turned out, I did get a massive curveball question during my final defense. Because of my extra efforts aimed at making my research as bullet-proof as possible, I was able to take what might have been a question leading to a crippling flaw, and answer it with almost casual aplomb. At that very moment, I knew that the endless coding, analyses, and mental preparation had paid dividends.

It would be impossible to predict every permutation of every question your committee might ask. To be sure, that was (as far as my interpretation goes) not Sagan’s point. The underlying message is that you must be serious and invested enough in the dissertation to ensure success. No one will ever care as much about it as you do. It is in your best interest to make sure that you care as much as you can, even if it means excessive and redundant work. Remember, you’re going to have to go toe-to-toe with seasoned scientists. They may not all be experts on your particular topic, but they more than likely have a sound understanding of the scientific method. That is more than enough to take the legs out from under your work. Sound scary? It can be, so go in with the added confidence that comes from thoughtfulness and excruciating preparedness.

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