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My PhD defence: The icing on the cake afterall

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Topic: Science  |  Series: My Journey to PhD
I can’t believe six months have passed since my PhD defence! Life has been pretty busy since then, despite my brave plans of taking long holidays. During the last half a year I managed to move over to the other side of the planet into a semi-self-sustainable house on an island (Bruny Island) of an island (Tasmania) of an island (Australia), which was on itself quite a big task. I also ventured off to Auckland, New Zealand, took part in a plant identification course, submitted a research proposal and learned heaps about native Tasmanian flora. And perhaps most importantly, I managed to submit a major visa application. Before starting to reflect on what it feels like living in the bush and commuting to the nearest (40km) town by a ferry, on the practicalities of bringing dreams to reality and connecting my passions, I must have one last look back to the PhD land: To the day of my defence.

I have described the months preceding the end of my PhD in the previous two blog posts. While the last few months before my defence were super-manic and very stressful, the day D itself was actually quite serene. At least from my perspective; my partner and my family were much more nervous than I was. I am not sure where it came from, given the preceding intense times, but I felt pretty confident towards the big day. I am one of the weird people who enjoy giving presentations and talking about their passions in public. The defence was thus a perfect opportunity to do what I like – plus to gather my family and some of my friends at one place and savour a couple of beers with them afterwards.

I find it strange, how the PhD defences differ a country from country. While it is common to hand a thesis in without much of a notice in Australia, in the UK a PhD candidate must go through hours of interrogation during a defence, which is closed to public. A Dutch PhD defence lies between these two extremes. Yet, there are slight differences based on the university it takes place at. For example, at Maastricht University a PhD candidate is interrogated by the academic opponents for 45 minutes following her 15-minute wrap up presentation. At Utrecht University, on the contrary, a candidate is not even allowed to present anything and "only" answers questions of the academic committee, again for exactly 45 minutes. The word in italics is essential: After this time, a pedel walks in the room and interrupts whoever is talking at that moment with a loud "Hora est!" (Meaning "It’s time!"). This announcement marks the end of the time reserved for the defence of a thesis. I could not wait to hear those words!

Another specific feature of a Dutch PhD defence are the Paranymphs. They are two close friends / colleagues / family members of the candidate, who help her throughout the day. They stand next to the candidate during the defence and in the past they could have helped when the defendee was stuck with an answer. Alas, the latter role of the Paranymphs has become obsolete nowadays. I could not have selected better Paranymphs for my day. My friends Berta and Felipe did fantastic job helping me throughout the stressful days preceding the defence, organizing my celebration and were amazing support on the D day itself.

As I said, the day felt quite calm. Perhaps except the 15 minutes that I was waiting with Berta and Felipe in a claustrophobic room without windows. The environment of the cell was softened only by thousands of signatures of the previous successful Maastricht University PhD candidates. We were to be picked up from the "waiting room" by a procession of the academic committee who we walked into the Aula with. There I was to get into the one-hour defending business. Maybe the source of my confidence was a TED talk I had watched the previous night. The talk was about how our body language influences our emotions and the way we act. I followed the advice in the video and was standing straight with my fists pierced into my hips (an image of confidence itself) the whole fifteen minutes that I spent waiting in the small room for the defence to start.

I must admit feeling a hint of nervous energy when I was walking into the Aula. However, once I opened my mouth to kick off my 15-minutes wrap up rant, this anxious feeling was gone; my power posing started to pay off. I enjoyed my "presidential speech" and was looking forward (!) to answer the questions that were to come from my six opponents. We had 45 minutes to play. Even though some of the questions were not mega comfortable, not a single once did I feel a moment of panic not knowing what to say. It was all very natural and being engaged in pleasant conversations, time passed very quickly. Before long I heard what I was waiting for: "Hora est!" after which the committee members left the Aula to ponder my performance.

That’s it?!

I almost started to laugh hysterically.

This was so cool. I would not mind doing it again!

Before jinxing anything, the academic procession returned to the Aula to announce that the committee decided to award me the PhD degree. Ron, my supervisor, handed me my fresh-from-the-oven diploma and had a short speech summarizing my 3 years of PhD research.

Despite being extremely tired, I spent the rest of the day in moderate celebrations with the committee members and my colleagues, my partner, family and some of my friends. The following day found me and my partner in a whirlwind of tasks yet again. To add to our leaving-Europe-to-do-lists I was invited for an interview for the Maastricht University magazine. I had one day to pack up, say goodbye to my family and to celebrate my partner’s birthday, so the interview did not come in handy. Despite the time constraints, however, I managed to squeeze it in. And I did not regret: It was a perfect wrap up of my years in the Netherlands.

Two days after the defence day, me and my partner set off from Maastricht to Amsterdam, where we were to stay with my friends for a couple of days before embarking a plane to Australia two days later. And Tasmania, Australia, is where I find myself now; on a new Journey of connecting my big passions: pharmacy, medicinal plants, research and mass spectrometry! Stay tuned for my new adventures!

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