This is a moment I looked forward to since my very first semester when I looked at my seniors in awe as they presented their research findings and couldn’t wait for it to be my turn. Four long years and the start of a pandemic later, my moment arrived. Let me take you back.
Choosing My Thesis Topic
I’m studying for an engineering degree with honors. It being an honors degree, I am required to conduct a research study in a field of my choice, for almost a year, and then present my findings to a panel and sometimes the public.
It took me quite a while to choose my thesis topic. I would ask my friends if they were decided on what field and who their supervisor(s) would be, most of them had already decided. I wasn’t sure I fully understood what was required of me while conducting the research. I didn’t know what to expect. I had already been looking for research ideas on the internet the semester before and everything I came across either sounded like Greek to me or were more tailored to Masters students and not an undergraduate student, like me.
A week before I had to make the decision on the area of study and based on that decision, my supervisor, I decided to ask different lecturers to briefly explain what kind of research work is relevant in their respective fields or possible thesis topics. All the lecturers I asked were extremely helpful and some even gave me more information than I requested for.
At one point, I was leaning towards Environmental Engineering related work because the lecturer I spoke to really had a solid area of interest she wanted students to research in. That would make things easier for me because then I wouldn’t have had to look for a topic myself. However, what put me off was the fact that I had a track record of not performing well in my Environmental Engineering courses. Additionally, I was not genuinely interested in the topic the lecturer told me about.
The second field I was interested in was Structural Engineering. I had two options for supervisors under this field. It came as no surprise to anyone that I settled for Structural Engineering. Out of everything I have learnt in my (almost) four years of study, I enjoyed structural courses the most and that is where my strength unarguably lies. I asked my now supervisor to supervise me and she agreed.
Choosing the thesis topic wasn’t so difficult for me. I knew I wanted to do something that connects structures and the environment. After reading a lot about the relationship between the environment and structures and also asking my friend for her thoughts, I settled for my topic and presented it to my supervisor. She tweaked it a bit and then I finally had a title. I settled on a title two days before the deadline for the proposal submission. I didn’t get enough sleep during those two days which is nothing new for me at this point.
After choosing a research topic, I got to work. It was a whole year of reading countless journals and theses related to my topic. I read more academic papers this year alone than all my years of study combined. It was not fun reading up to ten different papers just to find something to support one sentence in my report.
My research involved conducting a software analysis. I have read and seen some dissertation horror stories so naturally I thought of all the ways things could go wrong. Everything went smoothly until the last few weeks leading up to my final presentation.
To summarise, I designed 12 building models on the software I was using for the analysis, applied specific loads and then got the information I wanted. About two weeks after doing this, I felt compelled to clarify some of my numbers so I opened the software again. I selected one model, checked the numbers and discovered that they were completely different from what I had gotten the first time. Completely different. I quickly opened the other models, checked the numbers and had the same result. I cannot find a mouth with which to tell the story of how I panicked and almost cried. I had spent so many days modelling and analysing the structures. Up to this day, I don’t know what happened or what changed when my laptop was closed.
I had to restart everything because I couldn’t identify what was causing the discrepancy in values. When I was starting the structural modelling, I barely knew how to work the software but by the time I was doing this, I didn’t even have to look at the tutorials. Surely by the time you’re doing (almost) the same thing for the 13th time, you know what to do. I re-did the models and in the process discovered that I didn’t have to model all 12 structures individually but could simply model four and then change the loading conditions three times. I got the new values I needed and then went ahead with writing my results and discussion chapter. I drew all the graphs, inserted all the images from the software and wrote the first draft of my discussion. This time, I didn’t bother looking at the values from the software again because I was going to lose it if I saw anything different. I decided that what I didn’t know wasn’t going to hurt me.
A week before my final presentation, I had a meeting with my supervisor after all this. We had so many meetings before this but none of them nearly as significant as this one. She looked at my results from the analysis and then asked to look at my models. The manner in which she asked to see them told me everything I needed to know. Something wasn’t right. I’ll explain.
Three out of four of my structural models were braced frame structures. Each having a different type of bracing. The problem with my structures I had designed them in such a way that they had bracings on the entire structure (on every floor). Now, in the “real” world, bracings are only put on every other floor mostly because it isn’t cost effective to place them on every floor. Additionally, putting bracings on every floor is far from aesthetically pleasing and creates challenges when it comes to wall openings for walls and doors.
My heart dropped because I had so many months to at least notice that the models didn’t look very pretty. My supervisor gave me the option to remove some of the bracing members on all the structural models and then re-do the analysis or just proceed with what I had because I only had a week to complete and submit my first draft. Her job at the end of the day was simply to advise me. What I decided to do was up to me.
Being the person I am, I always want to do my best when I can and me settling for what I had done wasn’t going to be my best. I told her I would do my best to change everything and still submit the draft on time. She asked me if I was sure and well, I was. I knew I would be working extra long hours and getting very few hours of sleep a day. To top it all off, I had exams coming up in a week that I was far from ready for. Simply put, I was in for a grand time.
Making changes to the models meant the results of the analysis would change and hence my results and discussion and conclusion chapters needed to change too. I initially thought the trends in results would remain the same and I wouldn’t have to make so many changes to my results section of my thesis but the trends changed too. Just my luck. I ended up deleting the last two chapters and starting over. I re-wrote the chapters in about 2-3 days while struggling to finish my assignments in other courses. This was the last week of the semester so I had at least one thing due in all the courses I was taking. I had permanent dark circles around my eyes at that point that only twenty-four hours of sleep were going to fix.
I eventually managed to finish everything and sent my draft, which I then changed 4 times because every time I looked at it, I saw a new mistake. I eventually put my laptop away.
Preparing For The Defense
I had about two week between my draft submission and my presentation. During these two weeks I wrote my exams, made the necessary corrections to my first draft and submitted what I hoped would be my final draft. Whether or not it would be was dependent on the outcome of my defense.
After spending a lot of time on YouTube watching other people defend their theses, I knew that my slides needed to be anything but basic and my presentation needed to be as good as possible. My proposal presentation slides were so basic, one could tell I made those in maybe an hour. Nothing special about them at all and I would like to pretend they don’t exist.
I spent hours preparing the presentation slides for my defense. I was just trying to make sure I got all the marks I could. I watched YouTube tutorials on PowerPoint animations and also got inspiration from fancy slides I found online. I could have simply used a template but none of them were working for me so I opted to just make them from scratch. It took me over a day to be content with my slides. The next thing on the agenda was preparing for the speaking part of my presentation.
To say I was nervous for my presentation is an understatement. I was allowed a maximum of 15 minutes for my presentation and then 10 minutes for the Q&A session after that. I was worried about taking more than 15 minutes to present but after timing myself as I practiced, I realised I was worried about the wrong thing. I took less than nine minutes to present 34 slides. My new focus was trying not to rush through the presentation.
I practiced this presentation with anyone who was willing to listen. Two people to be specific, lest I make it sound like a lot of people cared that I had such an important presentation. They asked me questions when I was done and gave me advice which I really appreciated. I didn’t sleep that night, not only because of my nerves but also because I just have sleeping issues. My presentation was scheduled for 4.30 p.m so I really hoped I wouldn’t be so tired by then.
Did I mention my presentation was online? Yes. It was being held online because in my part of the world, universities are still closed. Despite this, I made sure to get fully dressed! Yes, I wore proper pants too. I had always planned to dress up for my thesis defense so I really tried not to let the fact that it would be done online deter me from following through with my plan. I had a pair of trousers I bought months before but had never worn so I decided this would be the perfect occasion.
I joined the meeting in the morning for the opening remarks but I didn’t stay for the rest of the morning session because no one I knew was presenting in the morning. I started feeling sleepy around 12 p.m so I asked my flatmate, who was out of the house at the time, to wake me up at 1:30 p.m. She agreed. I always set an alarm despite asking someone to wake me up just in case they don’t. I set my alarm for 1.20 p.m. When my alarm went off, I turned it off knowing that my friend would be waking me up in ten minutes and went back to sleep. As I was sleeping, I felt like I had been sleeping for too long. The amount of sleep was getting suspicious. I woke up and it was after 1.50 p.m. I freaked out.
I wasn’t presenting until around 4 p.m but I still needed to get ready and my friends were starting their presentations at 2 p.m and I wanted to watch and support them. I quickly got up and went to shower. Before going to the bathroom, I peeped in my friend’s room and she was asleep. To be fair, she was still wearing outside clothes and she was holding her phone in a way that showed she fell asleep by accident. I got ready, dressed up and worked on my hair and face while watching my friends present. It was at that moment that I started shaking. My hands were shaking because the people on the panel were actually asking serious questions. My biggest fear was failing to answer a question.
I had two examiners asking me questions. One was a lecturer from a different university and the worked in the industry. I didn’t know them so that scared me more. When it was almost my turn, I said a quick prayer, did a couple of breathing exercises and the moment my name was called, I turned on my camera and smiled.
I introduced myself and my topic and then when I tried to go to the next slide, it didn’t work. I couldn’t change the slides. I just shook my head and apologized because I had JUST prayed for everything to go well. I stopped sharing my screen, started sharing again and after trying a couple of times, it worked. I don’t know what it is about Zoom that causes this.
As I was presenting, so many things were going through my head. One voice in my head was telling me to slow down, another one telling me not to say “uhmmm” and another one telling me to just focus on the presentation. I found it amusing how the moment I introduced myself, I calmed down, the fear left and I was confident. Mistakes or no mistakes, I was just happy to be there.
I finished what the moderator called a “perfectly timed presentation” and then braced myself for the questions. I was asked a total of three questions only. Some people were asked way more than that so I was very happy with three. I answered them fairly well apart from one which I know I could have answered better. By the time I was done with the questions, I realised I was feeling really hot. My nerves may have been calm but my body found other ways to show the pressure I was under. I was so happy when it was finally done. A year’s worth of work explained in 10 minutes.
The End (Finally)
This may seem like something small but it is very monumental for me. Sometimes I feel like I’m making this a much bigger deal than it actually is but it actually is a big deal. At least to me it is. I looked forward to my defense from my very first semester and just like that it’s over. This is so much more than (almost) finishing my degree. It represents so much for me and for my family.
All this happened about a month ago but I’m only sharing it now. In true thesis fashion, I spent today stressed about my hard copy submission but it is well. The whole journey to get to this point was definitely a long one but hey! I made it.
Although one can easily pick them out from this post, I’ll share some tips for choosing a thesis topic, writing the thesis and preparing for a thesis defense in my next post in nice bite sized pieces.
If you have presented anything in-front of people be it your dissertation, business plan, class assignment or project, etc. what was your experience like? Did you find out you could sweat in places you didn’t know existed? Also, tell me about your thesis experience! Let me know in the comment section. I’d love to know!
Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who wished me luck with my thesis many blog-posts ago!
Thanks for reading!