CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lessons Learned from a PhD Defense

Posted by: Alison O'Connor, horticulture agent, Larimer County Extension

Today was the defense of my PhD dissertation. I'm happy to report that I passed. (YEAH! CELEBRATE!) But it was also a lip-biting, stressful and smack-your-forehead-in-stupidity event. Let's set the tone. There was me. And five highly educated, accomplished and smarter-than-whips professors...all with their PhDs. All who've been in your seat. All who want to kinda-sorta make you squirm like they did on their defense day. That in itself should make you break into a cold sweat. Which I did. For 2.5 hours.

The Professors ask you questions. A lot of questions. Questions that you SHOULD know on any regular day, but don't when you're being grilled. Questions like, "Alison, what is another possible cause of "air root pruning" besides air?" Or "What soil has the greatest total porosity? Clay or sand?" "Can you explain what the difference is between potential and actual evapotranspiration?" No, I can't. Google, where are you when I need you???

So what did I learn from today? And what does this have to do with a horticulture blog? Well, let's see if I can tie the two together...

I learned that I need to learn more. Just like gardening. We learn every year. We learn from each other. And when you think you can't learn any more than you already know, there's someone who can silence your smarts with a simple question ("Why is water important to a plant?").

I learned that the professors I admire (and respect) most are my allies. They want to see you succeed. Squirm, yes. But ultimately succeed. They want you to grow and flourish. Let's just call them "fertilizer for the mind."

I learned that being considered the expert can be uncomfortable. Theoretically, I knew my research better than anyone in the room, but when the questions started coming, I realized I might not be the expert I thought I was. And that's ok. There is always more to learn and that's why the field of science is so fun to work in.

I learned that my extensive knowledge of the Beatles and rock music history was not helpful in my defense.

Finally, I learned that doing any degree takes a lot of perseverance, sacrifice and dedication. There are times I wanted to give up, much like when your garden is hailed out and everything is smushed to smithereens. There are ups (getting published!) and downs (losing data). But ultimately, the journey is worth it. Biting into your first juicy tomato of the season is the gardener's reward. My reward is receiving an 8.5"x11" piece of paper with my name on it, followed by the letters "PhD." Both rewards are equally awesome (though some would argue the tomato is more tasty...and useful).

And actually, the Beatles did come in handy. Because I couldn't have done this without "A little help from my friends." Thanks to all who've helped me, supported me and cheered me on. I promise to blog about my research soon, since we found some really incredible things. Stay tuned!


  1. Congratulations! Who knew there was a connection between getting a PhD and gardening. I'm hoping to never personally experience the connection myself, but thanks for the insight!

  2. Congrats Dr. Alison Stoven-O'Connor, PhD! All the craziness will pay off, just wait. But now that you have so much extra time- you can help me decide what MS program to go after! Or you can start post-doc work :). Great job with the blog topic and your research. Which I think you should go a CMG conti Ed class explains your research- gather the usual counties and do a class at the Ranch.... Many are interested in what you found. Great you can spend some time with the chickens ��

  3. Congratulations Alison on earning your PhD!

  4. Congratulations Dr. O'Connor!

  5. Congrats!
    Been there, done that ... different field.
    Glad your experience was so positive. Now comes the fun part: living life again!