March 22, 2006

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In graduate school, defence makes the difference

Being a grad student is nothing like the crowded, confusing process I connect with being an undergraduate. On the contrary, as a grad student you occupy a happy place above the fray.
Never underestimate the power of boredom. It may not move mountains but it can certainly provide the impetus for a career change.

Since my 20s I have been a freelance writer. I began by writing comedy and TV scripts. Later I moved to print and during the last 12 years largely wrote on health and medicine. With time, though, changes in both medicine and publishing had begun to blur the distinctions between science and commerce, public relations and patient care, and the work had become less interesting, more rote. Those catchy headlines my editors wanted (Genetic research promises to cure cancer) felt vaguely inappropriate and it seemed that there was little comment on the patterns and problems which were evolving. In fact, all we seemed to consider was cost. The time seemed right to shift course - as Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

As with most things, it is the first step that is always the most difficult. Not simply because change is never easy but because applying to grad school after years in the work force is complicated.
I came up to the SFU campus on a cold snowy winter day and it looked grey and bleak. It still felt good to be back (I did my undergraduate work at SFU) and the dean of graduate studies was charming and welcoming. SFU has no department of interdisciplinary studies so if one wants to work with or around several disciplines (in my case medicine, health economics, pharmacology, ethics, communication and social anthropology) the work goes through special arrangements. The dean listened attentively and then told me something I found surprising at the time. It would be relatively simple, he said, even the thesis and comps. (Comprehensive exams, or comps, took me a long time to figure out. In essence, when the university bestows a degree they need to know that you know more than merely what's covered in your thesis, that you are a well-rounded historian, economist or whatever. Most departments have a set exam, which may be oral or written or both. In interdisciplinary work one has to be creative.) All I really needed to worry about was the defence, that final point at which I would have to prove to the world that I knew what I was talking about.

Nevertheless, putting together a committee was no picnic either. I called the people who were recommended to me and they recommended others. I spent hours on the phone and days writing emails. But gradually, through the morass of scribbled notes and emails I slowly pieced together a group who could guide me through the next few years. The first person to come on board was business professor Mark Wexler, who has a wealth of experience with special arrangements. Then, I asked an acquaintance, a health economist in New Zealand, John Fountain, and he agreed. But I still needed a supervisor, ultimately the person on the committee who matters the most. Not only must this person be a good match academically, but in my case I had to convince a perfect stranger to take me on as their project for the next few years. Plus, they have to like you and at least agree with the thrust of your research. If your supervisor doesn't believe in you, or like you, you reduce your chance of success. (Plus you'll wake up shrieking in the night.) Eventually, after several people mentioned her name, I approached Pat Howard, a professor in the school of communication whose work somewhat mirrored my own and amazingly, she agreed to supervise. (Later, after the senate accepted me into the program they asked that I include someone more overtly medical and Morley Sutter, a  pharmacologist, agreed to sit on the committee as well.) I feel fortunate to have had this eclectic and gracious group as my guide. Incidentally, the value of graciousness and civility cannot be overemphasized. Too often the academic world, like others, is rife with rivalries and politics that have all the subtle dynamics of a nursery school.

Then, it was time to write the proposal. Here, one outlines the planned academic work, explains its rationale and introduces the committee. Because interdisciplinary work does not fit neatly (or otherwise) into any existing lexicon or discipline it's important to be as specific as possible. This also forces one to focus one's own thinking. (As Samuel Johnson once said, when a man knows he is about to be hanged, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.) That ephemeral body known as the senate needs to know you are capable of doing what you propose and that the university can, eventually, acknowledge you as one of theirs without swooning with embarrassment. At this point you also need to provide references - three letters from community leaders or other impressive sorts, waxing poetic about you and your potential. (This may involve buying people drinks.) 

But once this is over, you can relax. Being a grad student is nothing like the crowded, confusing process I connect with being an undergraduate. On the contrary, as a grad student you occupy a happy place above the fray. Faculty treat you as a near-equal and generally speaking, people leave you alone to get on with your work. I can see why the university sets limits as to how long you can do this - it could become a way of life.

I opted to have the office of graduate studies be my home department. Most of my work was self-directed course work and I had no desire - or aptitude - to deal with a department. The dean (now Jon Driver) and his assistant, Vivian Blaker are founts of knowledge and their help has been invaluable. At times it is difficult to know precisely what to do. The advice one gets is often department-centric and the dean tends to understand interdisciplinary work. After I had done my courses and the comprehensives, I then researched and wrote my dissertation which was actually a lot of fun. It's not often a writer gets to write what she wants, at as great a length as she wants. The work was approved and then (drum roll), we hit a snag.

The defence involves an internal (from SFU) and an external examiner, from outside. This latter person wields an inordinate amount of power (too much, some people think). We asked various people, they unfortunately were all too busy, too booked, etc. So we got, for want of a better word, lazy. We asked someone, a health economist, who seemed as though he might be all right. In retrospect, we ought to have realized that his expertise simply did not match. He actually told us he was not qualified - and I can't believe that we talked him out of it.

(Memo to self: when someone tells you they are not qualified, believe them.) The result was a scathing report and a flurry of emails and frantic meetings. On the plus side, that dissent made me re-examine and solidify my position. To cut a long story short, this gentleman eventually withdrew from the process and, in due course, we asked a UBC professor who is also a physician to step in. And, in the end, the defence went remarkably well and the dissertation was accepted without revision, apparently a somewhat rare occurrence. So, as it turned out, that first dean knew what he was talking about - it really is all about the defence.

Susan Baxter recently completely her PhD in the faculty of arts and social sciences under special arrangements. Her dissertation, Medicine, Metaphors and Metaphysics, analyses a single aspect of pharmaceutical policy, reference-based pricing, with a particular focus on patients and patient information needs.

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