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  • Writer's pictureBecca Dzombak

corona-tine dispatch 14: I'm a doctor now

It's been over a week since I defended my Ph.D. and, quite suddenly, became Dr. Rebecca Dzombak. It still hasn't sunk in.

I know it's not actually sudden—it's the logical culmination of five years of work—but it felt sudden. A couple months ago, I sent a scheduling email to my committee members and suddenly had a date: May 20 at 10 a.m. I called my mom, unexpectedly shaky and teary, to tell her and my dad to save the date. Then the mad rush of writing, writing, writing to submit a frantically-compiled dissertation (which, as a naïve first-year, I swore I wouldn't do) on May 6. I sat in the sun on my front stoop the morning of May 7, drinking a slow hot cup of coffee and feeling the lack of stress slowly stretching my shoulders back out. I felt light, human, like myself again. I closed my eyes and turned my face up to the warmth, the clear blue spring sky cloudless above me. I could only imagine the sheer relief I would feel once I defended in two weeks.

The week before I defended, I was a nightmare, reduced to a ball of stress and anxiety and cynicism. I think Nik has a video of me practicing my talk where I'm hunched over my desk, running flatly over slides, sentences punctuated by my trademark deep sighs. I was powered mostly by Häagen Dazs (salted caramel cone) and coffee. I sweated over what my committee would ask me—and the fact that I felt like I couldn't satisfactorily answer what felt most likely, which were the weak spots I'd recognized as I wrote. Imposter syndrome loomed large.

All in all, not a great time.

But, at Nik's gentle prompting (his helpfulness irrationally enraged me), I ran through it again and again, on repeat until I could spin through my entire 45-minute talk in a 15-minute speed run. I had my introduction down and had even gone over my acknowledgments (did I need to practice sobbing into zoom?). I slept great the night before, woke up early for a shower and a little coffee, and had time to go for a walk before I sat down at my desk. I dressed up a little, put on shoes, and made a cup of nighttime calming lavender tea.

Deep breath.

I started the zoom meeting. At my invitation, family and close friends began popping in ten minutes early. Seeing their faces and chatting definitely helped things feel a bit more casual, more approachable—I'm giving a public talk for them. I can do this. I have to. Then, suddenly, it was 10:01 and the department began filtering in. I watched the participant count tick up: 30, 40, 60... 80... 88... Suddenly, it was quiet, the expectant lull. No going back now.

My advisor gave a lovely and long introduction, including both heartfelt praise and a gentle mockery of my ability to consume mass quantities of chocolate (something I couldn't hide when we were in the field together for a week). It put me at ease and helped my heart rate drop—with my POTS, I was genuinely worried about nerves and caffeine spiking my heart rate, making me lose feeling in my extremities or my face and needing to lay down. But thanks to my hours of running through my intro, it felt smooth and natural, and suddenly, I was giving my talk. It wasn't quite an out-of-body experience, but I definitely felt like I was on autopilot to a degree. Most of that time is a blur; the only thing I really remember is wrapping up my intro and thinking, I still have to do the whole rest of the talk!, then suddenly I was taking a deep breath and clicking through my concluding points. Pause for the choppy zoom applause. Acknowledgments that went on far too long and were just as emotional as I thought they'd be. A few questions, then I was on my own again.

One perk of defending virtually: home turf advantage. I met Nik in the hallway and got a big teary hug, topped off my water, pet my cats (who were thankfully quiet during my talk) and took a few steps outside before I sat down to my committee. They asked all the questions I thought they would, needling directly into my weak spots and calling into question the same things I still questioned, but it was over pretty quickly (or it's all a blur, too). They dropped me into a breakout room for ten minutes or so before calling me back, awkwardly in the middle of a conversation about construction at field camp, and congratulated me.

"So I passed?" I had to ask.

One faculty member finally said the words I was waiting to hear: "You're Dr. Dzombak now." And with that, it was true. Dr. Rebecca Dzombak, Ph.D. It didn't feel real—and now, a week later, it still doesn't. Yes, I updated every part of my online presence to reflect my new fancy letters, but I feel like more of an imposter now more than at almost any point in my graduate school career. They gave me a Ph.D.? What did I even do? I don't know most things!

But that's how you know you have a Ph.D. (beyond, you know, doing it): the Dunning-Kruger effect is in full swing. You know that you don't know most things. I barely feel like I should sit at the adults table in my field, let alone have a Ph.D. in "geology." But today my dentist was asking about my thesis and let on that he thought the Earth was about 80 million years old. So that put things in perspective.

After my committee meeting ended, we took some photos, some friends came over, and later, my family and I sat in the shade in the yard. I was feeling surprisingly upbeat and chipper, still energized and ready to go. I took a risk and sipped some champagne. But over the next few hours, the adrenaline rush wore off and by the time my partner's mom arrived as a surprise, at nearly 10 p.m., I was completely beat. The flare-up I'd worried about earlier was hitting: all I wanted to do was eat some dinner and sleep, and I found myself unable to do either (should've skipped the half-glass of bubbly). The joys of chronic illness, putting a damper on what should be only a celebratory day. We spent the rest of the weekend tearing up and slowly rebuilding our kitchen while hosting his mom—not exactly a relaxing post-defense. The new counter and sink, though, are lovely.

It's been over a week now since I became Dr. Dzombak. I still don't feel particularly... happy, or relieved, or light. I thought that I would, suddenly, as suddenly as I crossed the finish line. Instead, I feel tired, and not just because of the kitchen renovation. If grad school is a marathon, defending is sprinting an entire marathon while being chased by an angry swarm of bees. (There are probably people—other, more successful, more organized, more academic people—who can more or less saunter into their defense. But I have yet to meet one.) So I'm tired, and also stressed about moving across the country in a few weeks and sorting out a career and health care and dragging myself through revisions and paper submissions and also writing some articles for my own work in the meantime. I'm still waiting for the sense of relief and release I thought would come. Maybe it's because I defended in a pandemic, maybe it's standard defense stuff. Probably both. Whatever the reason, I think it will actually be a while before it sinks in and the stress wears off.

It doesn't feel real yet, but I can wear the hat. (Does 'fake it til you make it' count even after you've technically made it?) Even if my life is still filled with uncertainty and anxiety, at least I've got that. I'll let you know when I finally process that I do, in fact, have a Ph.D. Until then, catch me stress-writing on the couch in my grandfather's hood and working my way through the bags of chocolates people gifted me. I earned it.

I borrowed regalia for the day, since the full kit is, like, a grand. The tam is my cousin Rachel's—the other Dr. R. Dzombak, confusingly—and the hood belonged to my grandfather, Dr."Wild Bill" Dzombak (below), for his Ph.D. in chemistry from Purdue in 1948.

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