Today is the ten-year anniversary of the day I defended my PhD dissertation at Vanderbilt University and officially entered in to the world of academia as a licensed member. The world of higher education in general, and of mathematics in particular and the Vanderbilt math department especially, has been wondering how it happened ever since then. There are days when I do too. I at least feel sure that the fact that I actually got a PhD in math can serve as an encouraging lesson to all those math grad students out there struggling with their theses — as in, “Criminy, if Talbert can get this thing done, then I sure as **** can!”
This day makes me think back on all the reasons I have to be humble in my current position as a math professor and thankful for all the people who helped me — and put up with me — while I struggled along the path to get here. This is not false modesty. I went to graduate school with a few right ideas and motivations about what was ahead, but an awful lot of wrong ones too, and I was definitely — definitely — not ready to make the personal sacrifices that grad students have to make if they are seriously going to attempt a PhD. Attaining PhD-level competency in a subject is a matter of total immersion over a very long sustained period of time. It took me four years out of five-year program to figure that out. How I managed to hang on and survive while pursuing any number of ridiculous adolescent distractions is beyond me, but I did it.
I have a lot of clear memories of the days leading up to the defense.
- As late as March of 1997, I still hadn’t gotten through the proof of my main theorem. My advisor was in Denmark on sabbatical that semester and I had been littering his email inbox with sometimes 4-5 messages a day, all with LaTeX documents with snippets of work or ideas, in a frantic effort to get unstuck. My five years of financial support from the university were up at the end of the semester and I had to get the thing done. Then, in March 1997, there was an AMS sectional meeting in Memphis, a 3-hour drive from Vandy, which contained a big get-together of the Big Names in my field. My advisor was going to be one of them, and I knew that if I could just get him in a room, one-on-one, for three hours that I would have the thing done. It turns out I was right — I convinced him to skip an entire afternoon session to work with me in a deserted classroom, and we emerged from it at dinnertime with a completed proof and therefore a completed dissertation.
- But… two days before the defense, he also discovered a critical hole in my proof. I pulled an all-nighter that night to plug the hole. Shades of Andrew Wiles and his patched-up proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, scaled way (WAY) down.
- The night before the defense, a cricket got loose in the little rental house I had, and it CHIRP CHIRP CHIRPed most of the night, keeping me awake when I really wanted and needed to sleep. I got up at midnight, half-mad from the chirping, and hunted around the house in my underwear with a hiking boot in my hand (for bug-smashing). I finally found it at 1:30 AM on a window in my bedroom and hit it so hard with the boot that it nearly cracked the window and did wake up my neighbors.
The defense itself was kind of a blur. I was pumped and nervous. I remember launching into the presentation part of the defense and John Ratcliffe telling me to slow down and take a few deep breaths. The next thing I remember is the whole thing being over, and a prof from the physics department who was on my committee came out and said — “I have no idea what you did, but the mathematicians said it was really good!” I always thought that would make a good back-cover blurb if I published my dissertation as a book.
The blanks are for the signatures of the members of my dissertation committee. Those signatures are supposed to be affixed right after the defense, and without all five signatures, the dissertation gets send right back to you to get it fixed. With my advisor in Denmark, that was a challenge. In fact I almost didn’t graduate because the title page kept getting folded, torn, or wet en route to or from Denmark and the graduate school wouldn’t accept it. But that’s another story.
Here’s the dedication page:
And here are a few sample pages of the dissertation itself, including the One Big Result that made it PhD-worthy.
I was awfully proud of my LaTeX work throughout the dissertation, especially the diagrams like you see in the second page.
Speaking of publishing as a book, I always thought this would be a nice concept:
And to celebrate this milestone in my career… I’m making out final exams and grading the mountain of papers I have backlogged on my desk. Good thing I have that PhD!