I did it. I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation last Wednesday and became a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH). It was the culmination of five years of learning, working, and balancing a lot of aspects of my life. I must be honest that I felt incredibly overwhelmed at times. There were several moments when I wanted to throw in the towel and walk away.
Lucky for me, I was not alone in this process. I had an unbelievable group of people cheering me on, helping me, every step of the way. They would not let me fail, so I didn’t fail. From my wife and child to my friends and colleagues, everyone put in a little bit of themselves into my work and dissertation. And they made it awesome.
The day began with my brother and I going to grab some breakfast in the hotel where we stayed overnight. My wife wanted to make sure that nothing happened on the way to the School of Public Health, so we got two rooms at a hotel a block away. She and her mother and the baby stayed in one room. My brother — who had flown in from Nebraska for this — stayed in another room. At 5:30am, my alarm went off and I couldn’t go back to sleep.
After a good continental breakfast (and what continental breakfast is not good?), we went back to the room and got ready. Now, if you know me, you know that I don’t usually wear a suit, let alone a tie. However, for this day, I wore a nice suit and tie. We then checked in with my wife and the baby, and we were on our way to the school.
When we were kids, we would show up an hour or so early at the soccer field where we would play. We walked around the field and got to know it. We’d kick the ball and see how it moved. If there were any particular places we needed to be aware of, such as a hole or a sprinkler head, we would make a mental note of it. By the time the game started, we knew the field and how to play on it.
We did the same thing for the lecture hall where the final defense seminar would take place. The final defense seminar was a one-hour presentation on the findings of my doctoral dissertation. Now, some of you might think that I did my dissertation on vaccines or infectious diseases, given how much I talk about those things online and in person. Nope. My dissertation was on the use of epidemiological and geostatistical methods to understand the epidemic of homicides in Baltimore.
In essence, I took the things I know about investigating outbreaks of infectious diseases and used them to try and understand what’s going with homicides in Baltimore. Because of the data available and unavailable, I focused on homicides only and not the tremendous number of shootings as well, though I wanted to. So that’s something I might do next. (And don’t get me started on the lack of good public health surveillance of suicides.)
About fifteen minutes before the defense, my wife, her mom, and the baby showed up. The baby was as happy as always. My brother then ran out to get me a small coffee and a bottle of water. Then, little by little, other people started coming in, many of them greeting me and telling me how happy they were for me. To be honest, it’s all kind of a blur because I was very focused on the presentation and then the exam after that.
Oh, yes, there was an exam involved. More on that in a second…
The presentation went great. It went great because I felt that it flowed out really well. Sure, there were the occasional “Uh” and “So…” moments, but they were very few. I had practiced the talk over and over again for a while. I knew what slide was coming up next both from practice and from how I set up the computer and display. And that all helped when it was Q&A time.
The Q&A time at the end of the presentation was brutal. We were running behind on time because a couple of the members of the committee were caught up in traffic, so we wanted to keep the questions to a minimum. But some of the people in attendance, including one of the members of the committee, had questions. They were not difficult questions to answer. They were not easy, either. It’s just that I felt the weight of time as I wanted to get on with the exam.
In all of this, it didn’t help that I knew that Mexico were playing Sweden in the third game of Group F (aka “The Group of Death”) in the World Cup in Russia. Mexico needed to win or tie to make it to the next round… Or lose, but they would then rely on South Korea winning against Germany, and that wasn’t going to happen. Right?
Finally, the presentation was done, and the committee members and I headed upstairs for the oral exam. Let me tell you that it was less of an exam and more of a conversation. Sure, there were questions, but there were conversations around those questions. I had to explain how I came to the conclusions that I did, and why I chose the methods that I used. Then there were all the implications of my research and how I would expand on it.
At the end of the exam, I was asked to step outside while the committee voted. They could vote “Acceptable,” meaning that my dissertation was acceptable and would only need slight corrections here and there; “Not Acceptable,” meaning that I had failed; or “Conditionally Acceptable,” meaning that I had to make some substantial changes to the dissertation. If even one member of the committee wrote “Not Acceptable,” I would not have passed. And, if even one member of the committee wrote “Conditionally Acceptable,” I would have had to make revisions as indicated, a process that would have gone well into the summer.
Any guess on how they voted?
While I was waiting for them to make their decision, I turned on my phone and received the alerts that Mexico were losing 3-0 to Sweden, and that South Korea and Germany were tied at zero. I then texted my wife to tell her that the deliberations were ongoing, and that I was having a hard time breathing. I was okay, but the world shrunk by a factor of a million right at that moment. (No, not because of the soccer game.)
A few minutes later, the committee chairwoman came out to the hall and was the first to congratulate me on a unanimous vote of “Acceptable.” That is, five of the brightest minds in Public Health said that I had done the work and shown that I had learned to apply it. Based on that, and all the schoolwork from the previous years, I became a DrPH. Kind of like a Jedi, where the PhDs are the Sith. (I’m joking, of course.)
We all got together in a conference room to celebrate afterwards. My advisor brought cake, and we all sat around and breathed a sigh of relief. I had passed the exam and, though Mexico lost 3-0 to Sweden, South Korea had beaten Germany 2-0. Mexico were through to the next phase of the tournament. (As I write this, I’m kind of freaking out since Mexico will face Brazil in a few hours.)
After the celebration, my wife and the baby went home, and my brother and I went to eat some Korean Beef BBQ tacos. We then walked across the street to an Irish pub where a group of Mexican friends were watching the Brazil – Serbia game to see who Mexico would be playing next. There were also Brazilians there, and some woman who was cheering for the Serbs but was wearing Sweden’s colors.
At the end of the day, my brother and I went to a hotel near the airport since he was flying out the next day. We got some snacks and some sodas and sat around watching the Orioles get beaten silly. It’s a lost season.
But it was a day of days.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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