I Failed My PhD Dissertation Defense | Priest Prepared Last Rites | SDP187

On May 2, 2016, I confidently marched into the Education Building at UW-Madison expecting, in a few short hours, I would be high-stepping Bascom Hill as “Dr. Perrodin.” That day didn’t go as planned. In fact, my priest was in attendance (per my invitation), and he even brought lunch and snacks for the dissertation committee members. Despite [mostly] following the pomp and circumstance protocol, the committee failed me. In this episode, I’ll explain the doctoral dissertation process and how to bounce back from an unexpected big-stage defeat. Don’t allow a single defeat to become a final defeat.

IMAGE: Episode thumbnail of Dr. David P. Perrodin

DIRECT LINK to MP3 of this Episode: https://tinyurl.com/SDP187-AUDIO

WHAT IS A DOCTORAL DISSERTATION? The dissertation is the student’s final task to obtain a doctoral degree. It’s a lengthy piece of scholarly writing that is the product of extensive original research and results in an original contribution to the field. My dissertation was 167 double-spaced pages and took me about a year to complete – beginning with a research proposal and culminating with (eventually) a successful “defense” of my work. It’s worth noting that 50% of all doctoral students never complete the dissertation. If they complete all other requirements, these folks are considered ABD (All But Dissertation). It’s something you might see on a resume, but there is no diploma for ABD.

WHAT WAS MY DISSERTATION ABOUT? My dissertation’s title was ‘How Educational Administrators Prepare Schools For High-Stakes Safety Situations: A Focus On Elementary Schools In Rural and Suburban Contexts.’ I had already established myself as a national safety expert, having presented a special on PBS in 2013. I wanted my dissertation to be rigorous and add value to my worth as a school safety expert.

IMAGE: Title page of doctoral dissertation

WHAT DID I LEARN? The first thing I learned was to contact the “experts” and “sources” directly whenever possible. What I mean by that is most student-researchers have a tendency to merely cite the work of others. My dissertation included more than 100 citations. (By comparison, there are 471 citations in my (2022) book, ‘The Velocity of Information’). Beyond just citing experts, my advisor encouraged me to contact them directly and ask them specific questions about their findings. That worked, and was a pivotal moment in my budding research and writing endeavors. Whenever possible, I go directly to the source. The second thing that I learned was that people in roles that require high-stakes decision making fatigue from unrelenting high-stakes decision making. They don’t immediately bounce back.There’s degrees of elasticity in decision making recovery. One principal admitted that following a high-stakes decision about student or school safety, he was exhausted – as most decisions involved drama. He speculated that it took him a few days to return to baseline.

DEFENDING THE DISSERTATION – A BIT LIKE SHARK TANK. The dissertation defense is similar to the TV show Shark Tank. You have 15-20 PowerPoint slides and up to an hour to showcase your research methods, findings, and how your work contributed to the overall scholarly knowledge base. It’s tense. Expect probing questions and challenges. My dissertation was held in a classroom with my advisor and four committee members – other professors at the University that I had invited to serve on my committee. It’s typical to invite one or two people for support. I invited my priest – and he brought a meal and snacks for the committee members! The food part is also oddly common (and expected) for a defense. That part has an awkward feel to it. Also, professors or students might sit in on the defense. I attended a few defenses prior to my own in order to learn the expectations and settle myself by watching the student referred to as “doctor” as they shook hands and walked head-held-high out of the room.

WHY DID THE COMMITTEE FAIL YOU? To be clear, I was prepared and my advisor didn’t anticipate any stumbling blocks from the committee members. But, 10 minutes into my defense, a committee member shut it down. I made a critical mistake. I veered from my presentation and centered on timely, local school safety decision-making situations in order to (I thought) establish firm groundwork to justify the importance of my study. Even with that breach of protocol, my advisor was shocked, my priest prepared last rites, and I was miffed at the committee.

WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU FAIL? My advisor met with the committee members. I adjusted my presentation and dissertation. But, I wasn’t required to defend it a second time. The committee members signed off, and I walked the signed ‘warrant’ to the Old Main – becoming, without fanfare, Dr. Perrodin. I have zero regrets about pursuing and obtaining my PhD. I learned research methods subsequently applied in two published books.

This is episode 187 of The Safety Doc Podcast published on 09-20-2022. This podcast and blog post represent the opinions of David P. Perrodin and his guests to the show. The content here is for informational purposes only. Please consult with your safety professional regarding the unique needs of yourself or your organization.


Purchase Dr. Perrodin’s books 

School of Errors – Rethinking School Safety in America

The Velocity of Information – Human Thinking During Chaotic Times