A Letter to Myself Before Defending My Dissertation

It was never about the degree.

You should remember to say that to yourself that when you start your defense presentation and again while you wait in the hallway for the committee’s decision. You have an MD. You graduated with top honors from medical school, got through a particularly malignant residency program, carved out a successful surgical practice all by yourself in the countryside, and did some pretty incredible things along the way (delivering that baby barehanded in the dark over the stick shift of a Ford Bronco comes to mind). Therefore, when it comes to intellectual grit, you know you have it.  You’ve never had anything to prove to anyone.  You are and will always be a doctor regardless of what happens on Friday.

Remember how you backed into this PhD program?  Remember when your first year advisor asked “Why are you here?” and you had nothing better to say then “Well, it’s something to do? Maybe?” He didn’t believe you even though it was the truth. After you stopped practicing medicine, you had no idea who you were or what you were meant to do in this world.  It was a very frightening time, but you had faith that the answers would come eventually, and when they did it would be through work.  You have always found what you needed through work.

You chose to engage in this graduate program very differently than you did your residency program. Not “needing” the letters behind your name and having no preconceived ideas about your future provided a certain amount of freedom.  It allowed you to delve into studenthood, embrace uncertainty, and be bold in experimentation.  You questioned authority. You made mistakes. You carefully chose your dissertation advisor, trying on more than a few before you found one who seemed simultaneously trustworthy and interesting.  You purposefully and publicly made yourself vulnerable. In doing all of this you ultimately put yourself – not the expectations of the faculty or the degree program– at the center of your education. This learning experience is dedicated to you.

Being vulnerable over the last four years has taught you a lot about humans.  Sure, you have been underestimated and condescended to by more than a few faculty.  Insecure narcissism seems to be a common personality trait in academe, and those types tend to take their weakness out on students.  You ran into some of those.  However, you ran into many more faculty and administrators who wanted to help.  Some listened, read, and provided feedback.  Others removed barriers and made safe spaces. They told you straight up that you were ok. They quietly shifted deadlines, wrote your collaborative abstracts when the timing was miserable for you, advocated on your behalf to other faculty, and allowed you to indulge in existential rage/angst right in front of them without even raising an eyebrow.   You have so many cheerleaders all over the world.  You have been so lucky, and all you can think is that they must trust you to pay it forward. You have a great responsibility to do so.

The wonderful thing about blogging through a PhD is that you are able to go back and read what you have written over the years.  You’ve changed blogs three times in four years, but it’s all there.  The first blog focused on the past – trying to make meaning from your medical career and you in it.  Even now you mention your past quite a bit, but the real struggle – the real WHY – you are done with it now.

In the second blog, you embraced uncertainty and your student experience within it; it bounces between rage, angst, uncertainty, hope, and everywhere in between. Quite frankly, it is a mess. You were a mess.

This third blog – “Messy Thinking” – looks more towards the future.  Although the posts are still unpolished and procedural, most of them have the feel of someone who knows who she is and what she wants to do.  It is as if you have gotten used to messiness and can move beyond it.  Maybe you have learned how to harness it.

Remember all of this when you walk into the Waverly Cole Dissertation Room in the School of Education on Friday.  You know what you bring to the table: an undeniable drive to create, build, and tinker; the courage to shut things down when what you’ve made is not working; and the spirit to rebuild and try again. You can answer the question “Why are you here?” with such joyful enthusiasm that no one would dare doubt your honesty or maybe even your veracity.  In other words, you’ve already accomplished what you came here to do.

It was never about the degree.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. CogDog says:

    Make a grand entrance driving that Ford Bronco right into the lobby?

    Waiting to cheer, Doctor Doctor!


    1. Laura Gogia says:

      Thanks Alan. It’s been an incredible journey.


  2. Adam Croom says:

    Catching up on some of my reading and stumbled upon this. This is strong and beautiful and all good things. You rule, Gogia.


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