Dissertation Defense

Looking much like I sat waiting to see the middle school principal about some infraction, I sat in the hallway waiting for my committee’s determination. I glanced at my phone — 4:30 pm. Listening to the muffled voices behind the door, I walked, skipped, jumped through the people, decisions, and serendipity that landed me outside that SD Mines conference room on a Friday afternoon in Rapid City, SD.

During my senior year of college at PLU, I worked for the Dean of Student Life, Dr. Erv Severtson. I do not remember the context of the conversation, but he asked me my ACT score and I shrugged, telling him. He cocked his head, “people who earn a score like that usually go on and earn their Ph.D.” I guffawed and waved my hand, “I’m finishing my business degree and that’s it. Then I’m going to work.” What is it about bold statements that tempt the universe into mocking us? Or, as I read in Proverbs the other day, “A man’s heart plans his steps, but the Lord establishes his way”?

That planted the seed. Never once growing up did I give thought to pursuing my doctorate, but there Dean Severtson put it twenty years ago.

Time passed. I finished my master’s degree in theological studies. During my time in Divinity school, I relished studying dense theological texts. Despite not having the language skills — koine Greek, ancient Hebrew, Latin — my mentor, Dr. Ellen Davis, offered to write a letter of recommendation for my application to the Th.D. program. A very attractive offer, I could not see how I would make a living on that path, never mind a career, so I declined.

More time passed. I started my master’s in petroleum engineering. My advisor and mentor, Dr. Burt Todd, agreed to my demand that I be treated not as a master’s candidate, but as a doctoral candidate. I knew I would pursue my Ph.D. after finishing at MT Tech and I wanted no surprises. Burt held me to a rigorous standard.

Separately, Burt and my doctoral advisor, Larry, both agreed that a defense presentation should only be 20 minutes. Most conference presentations run 10-15 minutes so the time limit did not surprise me. The volume of material to be covered did pose a challenge: field work, sample preparation, porosity & permeability tests on four batches of samples, geologic history of three rock types, development and results of the tensile test, and the theoretical numerical model simulating changes in pore pressure as the test progressed, in twenty minutes.

Larry introduced me to a room full of friends and colleagues. I set my phone timer for 20 minutes and speaking at 1.5x, covered four labs, three states, and two years worth of research in 20 minutes, 3 seconds.


The public asked questions for about 15 minutes and was then dismissed. My committee asked questions which fell into one of two categories: clarification or possibilities for future research. There may have been a few comments regarding my manuscript format.

And then my committee dismissed me to sit in the hall while they adjudicated. Mentally reviewing my dissertation in the quiet, “Did I miss anything? Were there any gaping holes?” I sighed. “No. I followed every standard, sought guidance from experts in their respective fields, used every resource I could muster. I put it all out there.”

Larry opened the conference room door, grinning. “Point number one, you passed.” He shook my hand. “Point number two, you need to fix your table of contents.”



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