A story of significant challenge – Retreat, Retool, Return

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We asked you to share a significant challenge during your PhD : Dr. Christopher Rock’s challenge

Illustration credits – Sonia Bhase

Sparing a lot of the more tedious backstory, I’ll set the stage: I’ve been several years into my PhD, recently changed advisors so was giving my first update to my PhD committee under my new advisor. It had been a while since I met with the committee and wanted to get things in order. Thus, this meeting was to give a much-needed status report as well as lay down a roadmap for finally finishing up.

What happened was probably one of the poorest presentations in PhD history. So bad, in fact, that my committee asked me to step out so they could talk. When I got back, I was informed that it seemed I would need a huge amount of work; they had reviewed my classwork and pointed out that I could finish up things right now with a master’s degree. At that moment, I felt almost like I was in a “push your luck” game where you can either leave now with a washer and dryer set or keep in the contest to win a new car. I tried to keep my composure for the rest of that meeting and said I would get back to them.

That was such an incredible blow, especially when trying to kick things off with my new advisor. Was my work really of such little impact that it would take several more years to get to the finish line? Once the dust settled a bit from that, I met with advisor and he helped me go over what went wrong. My advisor was confident that the fault lay not in the content of my work but rather how I presented it. After going in detail with me as to all the issues with the presentation (many), he suggested I take a technical writing course offered at the school. Now, I always thought talking and writing were strengths of mine not weaknesses, but at this point I would do anything (but quit) to avoid a repeat of what happened at that previous update meeting.

When I went back to my committee, things were very different. I wrapped up the technical writing course that tackled all the major forms of communications from personal emails, to presentations, to manuscripts. I also used the time to talk with many of my friends who either had finished up or were working on their own doctorate. While each gave very valuable feedback and advise, two bits I found especially helpful. First was the importance of polished presentations from the actual slides to my own actions. As my friend put it: “when something is off about a presentation, they [the audience] get distracted; when they get distracted, they get annoyed; when they get annoyed, they get angry; and when they get angry, they are not going to be listening to you.” Second was about the attitude I should be bringing; I had previously designed my presentations almost like a lecture to my committee. But that is a mistake and I refined my stance to engage my committee like that what I sought to be, a colleague. The change was a bit more subtle than fixing alignments on powerpoint figures but of no less importance. To keep the story from going on too much longer, that follow up meeting went well and my committee was confident I would be ready to defend.

The message I would like to share from this story is twofold: first, communication is a skill that requires development just like any technical skill and I strongly feel is the most important one to acquire by the end of your graduate skill, it IS what differentiates you as someone with a Doctorate of Philosophy; second, the challenges that occur along your journey are the steps for how you grow so embrace them as opportunities (I dread to think what would have happened had I not been informed by my committee and advisor and was still using the same writing skills I had since undergrad). Oh, and the committee member who told me that perhaps I should quit now with a masters? He was the first one after my defense to shake my hand and call me “Dr. Rock”.

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