The Day I Became Dr. Humphrey

As I pulled my creaking thirteen-year-old Ranger into the driveway, Kyra stepped onto the front porch holding a “Congratulations!” banner.

Hold it. Sorry. That’s not the day that I became Dr. Humphrey.

In order to understand that day, I need to tell you a few things. First, even though you most likely already know this, I’ll say it anyways. In order to earn the title of “Dr”, a PhD candidate has to defend their dissertation. And, at Washington University in St. Louis (where I earned my PhD), the dissertation defense went something like this:

The PhD candidate gives a short presentation. It’s usually about 15 minutes or so. The candidate’s advisor and committee members sit and listen at the big table. Friends, supporters, and interested parties sit in the chairs lining the walls. Upon conclusion of their presentation, the candidate fields questions from members of their committee. The questions do not surprise the candidate. The difficult questions have already been asked and answered before the candidate even enters the room. When there are no more questions, the candidate’s advisor asks everyone to leave the room so that the committee can deliberate. The candidate waits outside with their friends. And, after about 10 to 15 minutes of deliberations, the candidate’s advisor steps out of the room, extends their hand and says “Congratulations, Dr. So-and-So!”.

That’s it.

It’s all over in about 45 minutes or less.

I witnessed it again and again.

The dissertation defense is mostly a friendly, ritualized affair.

Why?

Because, you never defend your dissertation without already knowing you’ll pass.

And, how do you know that?

You go to your advisor and each committee member and ask:

“Have I done enough?”

If the answer is “no”, then you get back to work.

It is only after everyone answers “yes” that you schedule a date for your defense.

I did that.

Hell, I did more.

Here’s why.

There was one faculty member that I was keenly concerned about. He was not on my dissertation committee. However, his area of interest overlapped with mine. And, on occasion, he reviewed my work. His name was Norman Schofield. Norman was a political economist, holding a joint position in the Economics and Political Science Departments. He was this huge Scottish-American man. Gigantic. Both physically and intellectually. His office was dark. Always dark. Stacks of papers and books towered around him. On the few occasions that I met with him, he would puncture my work with piercing questions. My insecurities would ignite (all too easily) and I would struggle to hold my own. The words I needed to articulate a defense would not come forth. He would smile and chuckle, a chuckle that was laced with gleeful malevolence. I would leave (flee is a better term) as quickly as possible. And, if our paths ever crossed in the stairwell of Elliot Hall, my body would instinctively plaster itself against the wall to let him pass.

Norman scared the hell out of me.

I did not want Norman at my defense.

So, when it came time to schedule the date of my defense, I went to his administrative assistant, asked for his calendar, took note of the days that he was out of the country and chose one of those days as the date of my defense.

Done.

So, on the day of my defense, I arrived extra early (of course) to set up the room. I filled up a cup of water and set it next to the overhead projector (this is before PowerPoint). I opened my pen and positioned it alongside some scrap paper for taking notes. I reviewed my presentation and rehearsed my gesticulations. Doug (my dissertation advisor) arrived first. My committee members followed (Gary, Suko and John). My friends filled in the chairs lining the wall. Doug gave me the go-ahead to begin. I turned to the overhead projector and flipped the switch. The light bulb burned hot illuminating the title of my dissertation. I took a deep, quiet breath. And, as I turned back around to face my committee, Norman strolled into the room. He gave me a wicked smile and anchored the end of the big table. Trying not to act surprised or horrified, I greeted him, started my presentation and concluded on schedule. Doug asked if there were any questions. There was a couple. That was it. Nothing I could not handle. There was silence. Doug looked around and right as he was about to excuse the room Norman began to speak. And, what followed was an unceasing and withering interrogation of my work.  

It was brutal.

I looked for support from Doug. I looked for support from my committee. I looked to my friends. They could barely hold eye contact with me.

I was left alone to spar with an intellectual juggernaut. It was no contest. I was way out of my weight class. This went on for almost an hour before Doug reasserted his authority and excused the room. Norman stayed with them. I sat outside with my friends. We waited. We waited. And, we waited. Finally, the door opened. I stood up. Norman stepped out first, walked past me, flashed me a smile and gave out a chuckle. Doug followed behind and said:

“You have more work to do”.

There was no handshake. There was no threshold-crossing. I did not pass.

I got into my truck, drove home and slowly pulled my creaking thirteen-year-old Ranger into the driveway of our duplex apartment. I met Kyra at the top of the concrete steps, shook my head and said “No”.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

I tried to explain; but I had no words.

Graduation was a week away. I had family asking for and taking vacation days to drive in from Ohio and Kentucky to celebrate. Like my sisters, I was a first-generation college student. And, I was on track (at least I thought I was) to becoming the first PhD in the family. It was sort of a big deal. Even Kyra’s family was flying in from Virginia. And, on top of that, I had already accepted a job offer from Cal State University San Marcos. Kyra and I were a month away from moving to San Diego. Everything was contingent upon the successful defense of my dissertation.

The day after my disastrous dissertation defense I got back to work. I drove to campus, opened up Elliot Hall, got a 25 cent cup of coffee from the vending machine, sat down in the main congregation space and began revising my dissertation. About an hour or so later, the lights started turning on throughout the building as staff and faculty rolled in to start their day.

Doug walked into the main congregation room. He knew where to find me. And, he said.

“Shawn, I’m sorry about yesterday. It should not have happened. Re-write the first sentence of your dissertation and meet me in the main office.”

He turned and walked away.

I did what he said and saved my first-sentence-revised-dissertation to a floppy disk and went to meet him in the main office.

Doug was standing with Fanny and Karen (the office administrators). They were giving me reassuring smiles. And, I handed him the disk.

Doug extended his hand.

I shook it.

“Congratulations, Dr. Humphrey!” he said.

That was it.

That’s the day I became Dr Humphrey. The day after my dissertation defense.

The family rolled in from all over the Midwest and Virginia for my graduation. Doug hooded me during the ceremony.

We attended the after-party at the Economics department. Where, over at the punch bowl, I’m pretty sure I saw my Grandma flirting with Doug. And, later that day, the family gathered back at the duplex on Amherst where we took this magnificent picture.

A few months later, while Kyra and I were making our start in San Diego, I received an email from Norman inviting me to come back to WUSTL to present my work at his lecture series. He’d cover the expenses. I was surprised and honored. My schedule would not permit me to participate. However, a few months later, I saw him at a gathering of alumni at the annual American Economic Association meeting. He invited me to join him and others at his table. I did. And, he was jovial, slapping my back, and laughing that laugh.

I recently learned that Norman passed away last fall.

You know, I’ll never know why what happened in my defense happened. However, I do know that I missed out on an incredible opportunity to work with him and learn from him. I was not intellectually or emotionally ready to collide with a human like him. I was too timid, intellectually fragile at the time. I wish I could go back as I am now and meet him in his office. I bet his office is full of sunshine. I bet those towering stacks of papers and books are not so intimidating. Maybe (just maybe), I would have the courage to invite him to be on my committee. And, maybe (just maybe), if ever our paths were to cross in the stairwell, I’d give him a lovingly shoulder bump.

The opportunities we miss.

I will miss you Norman.

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Questions or comments? Just fill out the CONTACT form on my ABOUT page and I will get back with you right away.

Thanks. – shawn

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