In my career so far, I’ve helped prepare hundreds of students successfully move through an utterly terrifying moment in one’s life: The thesis defense.
The Standard Advice:
Most of the advice around preparing for a thesis defense comes in bullet point form.
- Get a great night’s sleep!
- Review your notes!
- Have a great breakfast.
These are all nice prescriptive, tactical things you can do.
A pleasant little skim along the surface of personal and professional effectiveness.
I can’t tell you how many presentations I did early in my career with this type of ‘standard advice.’ As I clicked through the bullet points, and handed out what I thought were little gems of insight, I could see (or sense) students rolling their eyes, and I’d watch eye contact break as they checked their phones instead. Inside, I could feel my own eyes rolling. I was fresh out of my own thesis defence and the chokehold of fear and anxiety was tight. I went to all of these types of presentations and still struggled.
As I clicked through the slide deck, I knew exactly what it felt like to be on the other side, in the seats.
Tell me something more. I already know this! It doesn’t help!
Well, here I am, about 3000 appointments later with a lot more knowledge and practical experience as well as coaching knowledge.
I am going to tell you what actually works with students when it is layered in with the above techniques (among many others.) This is a tool you can use whenever fear is activated. I have to caution that the most effective techniques are ones that aren’t a quick and simple fix. They take a deeper, courageous dive into fear. Just as your supervisor will pick apart your thesis, you must pick apart your fear.
THE ANTIDOTE TO FEAR AND ANXIETY IS FOUND INSIDE OF YOU, NOT IN AN EXTERNAL ANSWER.
The solution to your fear isn’t found in a quick google. It’s inside of you but it is buried deep, because the part of us that deals with fear is a rather primordial part of the brain. To really nip fear in the bud, you have to commit to exploring and discovering where your beliefs activate fear, and what exactly that fear is about. Then, you have to be willing to trust and do the work to disable old thinking processes and patterns.
(By the way, this deep work is where coaches live… we get involved when a client realizes that googling and a few ‘action items’ are not getting them the results they want.)
WHAT ARE YOU SO AFRAID OF?
What are the emotions of fear and anxiety about?
Fear and anxiety are the anticipation of future suffering or pain.
So what is the impending suffering or pain that activates fear and anxiety around thesis defence time?
The story of someone writing a thesis year reads like a greek tragedy of triumph and failure. Love and heartbreak. It’s twisty-turny and an adventure. There is deep personal growth in the graduate school years. When you finally submit that freshly bound and printed thesis to the defence committee, you are handing over so much more than a bunch of papers.
Wrapped up in all of those papers is a few years of your life and everything that happened in those few years. When I sealed the envelope with my thesis inside and popped it in the departmental mailbox, I had a movie reel of highlights and lowlights flashing in my mind. In a deserted University hallway, I acknowledged the profound few years I’d had as not only as a scholar but also a human being.
When the thesis is submitted and the waiting period begins, you are riddled with fear and anxiety. You are left hoping it will be accepted, and then there is the knowing that you will be scrutinized and questioned in a few weeks at a boardroom table. That’s intense. There’s fear there.
Will they accept me and what I have created?
This is a question each and everyone of us has been asking since we could write the first letter of our name. We’ve been trained to associate the acceptance or rejection of our school work as the acceptance or rejection of us as people.
That is a very, very long time for our brain to observe and collect evidence that our worth is intertwined with what the world tells us our worth is (in grade form.)
We grew up in families and educational systems where we were steeped in opinion. We were rewarded for good performance, as indicated by a teachers’ grade scale and punished for bad performance.
Of course, as adults, we know it’s silly to base of our worth on someone else’s opinion and something as simplistic as a grade, but we still do. Why? We can’t help it! It has been wired deep within us. When we experience situations that cause pain or pleasure, our brain locks that stuff in its memory banks and creates defence mechanisms to keep us away from pain. It will freeze us from moving forward because there is pain in an uncertain future. The brain’s job is to keep us safe and risk free. Fear and anxiety are its best mechanisms to stop you when it senses what you are about to do is going to result in massive change. It activates our egos because it knows the ego is a fantastic tool for keeping us in line. It reminds us to get caught up in “what will they think?” “Will they accept me?” because that thinking keeps us safe and stagnant.
I hope this point has your brain churning. Let’s go further with it. If you feel fear or anxiety, look at it as a sign your brain is trying to stop you with impending visions of doom. The first thing it will throw out is “what if I fail, what will happen to my entire future life? My career?” But if you keep asking “but why” (My 3 year old’s favourite question) the answer will keep shifting. When I work with clients and they go down the “but why” process, they always come to an end point of pain versus pleasure. Acceptance versus rejection.
My clients don’t remember their 3rd grade curriculum but they DEFINITELY remember the kid that didn’t want to be friends with them in 3rd grade.
When we fear failing a thesis defence, it is because we fear a future anticipated pain. On a deeper level it is a pain associated with acceptance or rejection, a pain that we all know, and have experienced.
The brain remembers that pain and activates all of the systems it can to prevent you from going back to any situation which even remotely assembles whatever kind of pain you have experienced in previous parts of your life.
HOW DO WE REMOVE THE TENDENCY TO ‘ANTICIPATE’ FUTURE PAIN?
There is no greater pain than having someone not choosing you. Not accepting you. Not being acknowledged. It is hard to separate from your thesis after it has been what you have slept, eaten, breathed, researched and written and perhaps even cried over for a while. You’re a package deal when you hand in that thesis.
But… is that useful?
That approach means that rejection of a thesis runs the risk of activating other senses of rejection. We’ve got lots of those in our memory banks that are just waiting to bubble up to the surface. Our brain is very happy to show us those memories with a spotlight because it will stop us from changing.
We need to stop connecting thesis rejection with personal rejection. In other words, dissasociate yourself from your thesis and start looking at it as a separate entity.
In coaching we call this “gentle indifference.”
When I defended, I got a conditional pass with edits, I was definitely NOT indifferent. I was crushed even though I passed.
My thought pattern was: “Well, I guess that means I’m not good enough because clearly my thesis didn’t meet the requirements.” Cue cycle of self pity, story of failure and underperformance in all domains of my life. It was not a great time for me. And I made it worse by not addressing the edits right away. I stalled. I was afraid to move onward and upward and submit the final edit and move forward into my future life, bringing to bear the unplesant stressful situation I had so much fear around in the first place. Even when I resubmitted my thesis, even when it was forwarded on to national security agencies and recognized as an excellent body of work, I still was afraid to own it, and own my research voice. I didn’t publish anything, I didn’t take the results and distribute them, or even share my work with the world. In my mind, I wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough.
By buying into my fears, I created exactly the pain and suffering that ironically, I thought fear and anxiety was trying to keep me safe from. Does that sound paradoxical? To me it does.
Fear and anxiety around failing thesis and failing life
Avoiding work on thesis, poor preparation for defence, and continued mindset of “not good enough.” which leads to greater suffering and greater fears of failing life.
Well that was a self-fulfilling prophecy, wasn’t it?
And even though my thesis passed, I activated the painful loop of outright rejection. That level of pain leads to inaction. It leads to avoiding our own potential and not owning our voice. I won’t even go into the anxiety prescriptions and Doctors visits that took place in the months surrounding my thesis.
How could I have disassociated from the thesis, became gently indifferent and removed my source of suffering? By knowing my mind is simply trying to block change. By embracing fear as growth. By adopting new perspectives that make me see things from a different angle. By seeking out people who have those different perspectives. By deciding to ignore the messaging borne of another time and place in my past. Expired messaging.
One of the first (and easiest) of these items is to simply steep your mind in a different tea. Listen to alternate perspectives. Let them settle in your mind.
Here’s an alternative (and TRUE) perspective that I offer students:
“The people around the table have an academic interest in your subject and are asking pointed questions to give you the opportunity to strengthen your position and create a body of research with impact. They are offering you opportunities to add data, relevancy and clarity because they enjoy it and it should be expanding in intriguing areas. They enjoy this meeting of the minds and this is why they chose this career. This is what they like to do, and they are glad that you are sharing your work with them.”
Another great thing I heard from a friend was “Carina, this is a table of people who share the same interest as you in a topic, and this is finally your opportunity to share your work with people who want to talk to you about it and are interested on the same level as you, which truthfully, most of the people in our lives are not. In fact, they are interested enough to spend a few hours of their day with you, helping you to explore the structure and arguements that you’ve put together so far.”
(How many times have you tried to talk shop with family or friends on your thesis research and you’ve been met with blank faces?)
Do you feel resistance when you read these perspectives? Did you find yourself wanting to argue against these paragraphs and leave a comment below? Were you thinking they were too positive and not realistic?
That is your brain resisting these new perspectives. It likes the old way of thinking it has. It will tell you it has way more evidence to back up your old way of thinking.
So, to further disempower your brain, ask yourself:
Did I say that I wanted different results?
Which line of thinking is more likely to lead me toward taking action and moving toward a different future? My old thinking, which led to the problem I had? Or taking a chance on some new thinking?
After all, we are working on bringing a new future down the pipeline. New futures require new thinking. We cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them, as Einstein said.
Want to kick anxiety and fear? You have to remove your unique brand of future anticipated suffering. You have to gently acknowledge that suffering is steeped in past experiences, and the approach that you have taken up to this point has expired. It had an expiry date.
You have to choose to be indifferent, to ignore fear and anxiety messaging, and know it won’t come to pass if you don’t engage with those thoughts.
You need to find proof that your thinking is faulty, collect evidence to the contrary and rewire your brain. You need to tap successful people for their stories and understand the different mindsets they have around a thesis defence.
Can I say something brutally honest? If you are stuck in old habits of fear and anxiety, you are designing your own self-fulfilling prophecy.
What you fear (suffering and lack of results) is what will come to pass if you engage with, and buy into the fear and anxiety messaging that your brain is throwing at you.
The brain cannot tell the difference between imagined danger and real danger. The brain in ‘danger’ mode operates with a different system and that system definitely is not optimized for action or happiness or even growth and fulfillment.
Simply put, your brain won’t work in the interest of your desired future, if it is steeped in the chemical, hormonal and emotional tea of fear. By buying into your own story, you boiled the kettle and put the tea bag straight in.
When fear and anxiety have taken over, you’ll stall or worse, sabotage your progress.
Those are the actions to be that are found in fear and anxiety. NOT the actions of progress.
This is what I see people do all of the time and when they are here, no powerpoint is going to be effective.
Even after I overcame my procrastination, and defended my thesis, using all of the ‘tips and tricks’ I continued to struggle. I hadn’t fully shaken off my own messaging and limiting beliefs.
I DID pass, with conditions to edit. Yet, I decided to still interpret through my old fear based framework. “It wasn’t good enough. It didn’t pass standard. I suck. I could have worked so much harder. You’re an idiot.” I stalled. I procrastinated. I sabotaged myself.
I couldn’t even see the evidence in front of me that I passed and my work was worthy, and I connected that with not being worthy myself. I slipped into a poor mental state after that defense when it should have been a great relief.
Through thought alone, I designed an exquisite type of pain and imagined future outcome. Failure. Inadequacy.
“The people who doubted me are right. What am I going to do with my life and career now? I almost failed. “
“This is proof I don’t belong here in this career and never will be accepted.”
No Carina, IT DID PASS. There is an x in the pass box. Your stories are so powerful you can’t even interpret evidence correctly. Fear is tinting your perspective and actions. You aren’t even sharing your work with the world because you buy into this old dialogue.
So once again, more work… I told you that deep introspection and inner exploration is not for the faint of heart. Below I’ll tell you the other insights I had and how I disabled some very old, very painful beliefs.
Here’s something interesting, do you know what word I used a lot in these sentences above?
(As a coach you become trained to hear patterns in people’s speech and now I can hear my own.)
Interpreted is different from observed. Interpreting something means taking a neutral event or object and then assigning it a meaning based on your own background of knowledge and mindset. I assigned meaning to my defence. Meaning of low self worth, low confidence, and suffering.
What was behind my tendency to interpret things in such a way? This invites exploration, because we pick them up somewhere, they get wired in, and repeatedly reinforced. We then in turn reinforce them by looking for evidence, and then repeating the same patterns. Hello, self-fulfilling prophecy.
I had powerful limiting beliefs around not being smart enough to be in grad school. It was a huge struggle in my masters’ degree and it had deep roots earlier in my life. Those beliefs were wired in strongly by trusted people (you’re not smart, you’re a silly girl, etc.) and were reinforced by constantly working (and achieving) from a narrative of “I’m scared that I’m not good enough.” For these deeper pain points, and sources of suffering, I worked with a wonderful therapist to help me unravel the power of these beliefs, and one by one, disempower them. I felt resistance at first in the psychologist’s office, but gradually, I saw the holes in my own beliefs and then decided I was done with them. I gained the clear understanding of what kind of life I would have if I continued this dialogue.
You, too can decide that you are done with your old beliefs and your old narratives. You can kick to the curb the fear and anxiety cycle that has you imagining false futures.
You can move from stalling and start acting, so that the future coming down the pipeline is the one that you want, and it doesn’t have to be about suffering. You can design a future instead of accidentally stumble into it and realize it is already here.
You can walk into a thesis defence with gentle indifference and the sense that it is a fun chance to explore the hard work you’ve done and “mastermind” with experts in the topic at hand. You CAN believe that this part of the process is a celebration of all that you are capable of. And guess what that future is going to look like? It’s pretty bright.
If this the fear of public speaking or #thedefence is a struggle for you, and it is preventing you from showing up and living into what you need to do, send me a message, I’ll be happy to help you break through your own sound barrier.