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Dissertation Desserts

How baked and bought food items relieve grad student stress at dissertation defenses

Part of the Eat What You Learn Series

In the hours before Julia Gaffield's doctoral preliminary examination
in 2009, she had time on her hands and a mound of worries.  There were no more books to read, no
chapters to write; it was just a matter of waiting out the time until she faced
the faculty.

So Gaffield did what thousands of graduate students have
done over the years to help reduce the stress at a key moment in their graduate
careers: She baked.

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A few hours later, after her inquisitors devoured all of Mama
Gaffield's Team Cookies, Gaffield passed her preliminaries. The lesson: Peanut
buttery cookies won't get you a Ph.D., but they don't hurt, either.

Gaffield experienced one of the little-discussed aspects of
graduate student life -- bringing baked and store-bought foods to preliminary
and oral dissertation defenses. On two to three occasions during their graduate school career, a student faces formal questions from department faculty members in a public event to test their knowledge of the field and their research. By the time of the final defense the student is almost completely assured of graduation, so the cookies and brownies are intended not to sway the committee but, instead, to help everyone get through a grueling event.

The "tradition" varies from department to department, even
from lab to lab, but it's common enough and dates back long enough to be a
regular feature.

The food varies, often simple fare such as brownies or cookies,
Bruegger's Bagels or a cheese plate from Whole Foods. Candis Watts Smith of
political science brought yogurt parfaits from Alpine.  The more ambitious students may bake
food related to the field they are studying.

"I honestly don't know how long (students have brought
food), but it is fairly widespread and has been going on as long as I have been
here," said Graduate School Dean Jo Rae Wright.  "I have been to defenses where the student did not bring
food and there is certainly no expectation or requirement from the Graduate

"I think the idea is that since the defense part can go
on a long time, faculty and students can get thirsty and hungry, so it is just
a civilized thing to do.  It isn't
unique to Duke. I took food to my defense and that was a while ago."

Julia Gaffield
Julia Gaffield

"It's pretty normal in my department to bring food to
the defense," said Gaffield, a history graduate student with a focus on
Haiti.  She found the long-lost
Haitian Declaration of Independence
in the British Museum in 2010.

"I really didn't think about it at the time.  It was just something to keep my mind
focused on something other than the defense," Gaffield said.

Dissertation Recipes

Mama Gaffield's Team

The peanut buttery cookies Julia Gaffield served had
personal meaning. Her mother regularly used this recipe when Julia was growing
up in Canada.  They became
particularly popular among the members of Gaffield's basketball team (as well
as her brother's).  The recipe got
its name because team members frequently requested them.

cookie receipe
"I always thought the recipe came from my mother, but
when I asked for it, she told me they actually originated with me,"
Gaffield said. (To view the recipe, click here.)

"Apparently when I was in third grade I found it on the
back of a peanut butter jar and wrote it down.  I must have wanted some cookies then and wrote it down to
encourage her to make them."

Her mother made some alterations.  The original recipe, with Mama Gaffield's edits, is printed

  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup butter or margarine, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup lightly packed brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda

Cream together the peanut butter, butter, sugar, brown
sugar, eggs and vanilla until light and fluffy.  Combine oats, flour and baking soda; stir into peanut butter
mixture.  Drop big spoonfuls onto
ungreased baking sheets.  Cook at
325 degrees for 10-12 minutes or until lightly brown. Cool on rack.

Serves five dozen.


Kara Slade's Kroger

$20 cash

1 reasonably attractive serving plate

Go to Kroger and buy at least two boxes (not one!) of
Pepperidge Farm "Distinctive Assortment" cookies and a package of
cocktail napkins.  Arrange cookies
on plate in an aesthetically pleasing manner. 

Serves three (hopefully)

But two years later, and less than a year away from her
final dissertation defense, Gaffield welcomed the opportunity to spend time in
the kitchen instead of the library stacks.

"You want to do something nice for your
committee," Gaffield said. "They've put in a lot of work for
you.  A lot of professors go beyond
what is required to help the graduate students. All it takes is two or three
hours of your time and you have a treat for them as a way of saying

Baking the cookies served its purpose, she said: It gave her
something to do and got her mind focused and relaxed.  "I remember thinking, 'just don't burn them.' It was a
wonderful way of channeling excess energy."

Imagination goes into some baking efforts.  Music graduate student Angela Mace said
she's considering making apfelkuchen, an apple cake much favored by the
subjects of her dissertation, Felix Mendelssohn and sister Fanny Mendelssohn

For his dissertation defense, biology student David Garfield
got together with a friend and baked sugar cookies shaped like sea urchin
larvae, the subject of his research.

Why larvae?

"I was looking for something to do to ignore the stress
of the presentation," said Garfield, a student in the lab of biologist Greg
Wray. "The friend had the sugar cookie recipe.  We shaped them like larvae sea urchins because adult urchins
are harder to do.  Then we
decorated them but, honestly, I don't think we did a great job."

The students who take the store-bought approach don't have
to worry about burning cookies, but they do share Gaffield's desire to relieve

"At this point you've put in so much time preparing for
the defending, you're not going to learn anything new on the day of the
defense," said history student Liz Shesko.  "I needed something to do, and I thought bringing
cheese and crackers was a good distraction.

"What I remember was the food was a good ice-breaker.  And when I got a question, it helped to
take a bite of something and think about the answer before I spoke."

Kara Slade remembers one frightening moment from her
qualifying examination before three mechanical engineering faculty members. She
had brought a box of Pepperidge Farm "Distinctive Assortment" cookies.

"About halfway through my exam, I was in the middle of
working through a derivation at the board when a voice came floating over my
shoulder: 'Hey, we're out of cookies,'" Slade said.  "That was the point when I truly
prayed for the ground to open up and swallow me.  It was surreal. 
For the next hour and a half I was convinced that I would fail because I
didn't bring enough cookies. Of course, now I realize how delusional that was,
but at the time I had that thought."

The Graduate School is concerned about getting graduate
students ready for the defenses, said Wright, the graduate school dean.  Bringing cookies may be a fun way to
relax, she said, but the purpose is serious.

"We talk to the students about how to prepare,"
Wright said.  "We tell them to
practice with peers with a set of prepared questions.  Personally, I love it when they bring their parents or other
family members or loved ones to the public part of the defense. It all

With the beginning of the academic year, more dissertation
defenses are scheduled.  Gaffield,
who's hoping to complete her paper this year, says she will be prepared.

"At a very basic level, you're going to be in that room
for a couple of hours, and you probably don't want to defend your work to a
very hungry committee," she said. 
"If the people are content and have some cookies in their stomach,
they'll be in a better mood."