Getting a PhD
My graduate chemistry program included a series of cumulative exams nicknamed CUMES. In the first year, CUMES were administered approximately once per month. Each exam was graded as a full pass or a half pass, with the requirement that your score out of the six possible exams added up to four full passes. These exams did not have set dates that students could know in advance. Rather, one week before a test, a signup notice was given and the reading material issued.
For the first exam, I wasn’t able to start recording the materials until this notice was made and the materials released. The recording process takes some time, so I did not have access to the study materials until three days before the exam. Because my study time was cut in half, I didn’t perform very well on the exam.
I communicated with the school, explaining the timespan of my recording process and asking for some accommodation to be made. The arrangement was this: for every subsequent exam, the department sent the materials to my access assistants in advance, without my knowledge. Then when the CUME study materials were released to the chemistry students, the pre-recorded materials were released to me. This adjustment gave me the same amount of study time as my peers, and I was able to score highly on all subsequent exams.

Oral Qualifiers

The oral qualifier is the first step toward completing a thesis. It includes a forty page proposal summarizing the idea for the thesis and a presentation before a small panel. Compared to the thesis and defense, the oral qualifier is shorter and the questioning is easier.
As with any presentation, I had to memorize all the content because I cannot use notes. I also memorized the dates, authors, titles, and a general summary of all my references so that I could use that information as needed to answer questions.


The defense is similar to the oral qualifier, but the document and presentation are notably longer and the questioning is more intense. I approached the defense similarly, memorizing my presentation with all its facts and figures, and memorizing the content of the references as a resource for answering the panel’s questions.
Other than an increased border for memorization, my thesis defense was no different than that of a sighted student. My blindness gave no reason for the panel to adjust their methods of evaluation.

Writing a Thesis

As a blind scientist, writing is one of my greatest challenges. Because I do not have the benefit of seeing my previous sentences, it’s easy for me to get dislodged from a train of thought in the course of a single paragraph. To prevent this, I approach large writing endeavors by composing a precise outline. I break my thoughts down to the paragraph level, planning how the paragraphs will progress from one to another and how I want the logic of the presentation to flow. Once this was completed and I had a full thesis outline, I begin writing one paragraph at a time. If I am working on a Mac, I use a combination of VoiceOver and TextEdit. With Windows, I use JAWS on Word. Sometimes I type the paragraph, other times I dictate.
My writing process proceeds like this: I write the first draft of a paragraph on my own in one sitting. Later I go over that paragraph with an access assistant who fixes typos and formatting. They will read the paragraph back to me, sentence by sentence, so that I can make corrections. Once I am satisfied, I repeat the process with another paragraph.
If, while writing a paragraph, I can describe the trend and significance of some data without having the exact numbers memorized, I don’t stop at that moment to look them up. Instead I leave a placeholder for the value (usually by typing xxx) so that my access assistant can look it up later to fill in the blank. This allows me to follow through with my flow of thought.
Concerning the chronology of writing my thesis, I didn’t necessarily compose the paragraphs in order. Some of the chapters were drawn from research I had previously published or that was in process of being published. I simply had to alter the content into book format, removing introductions and adding transitions. When I had equations to insert into the text, I would write them with thick sharpie on a sheet of paper and give that to an access assistant to enter into Equation Editor. In the future, I aim to learn LaTeX so that I can code them up myself.
I wrote my thesis paragraph by paragraph and saved them individually in documents titled after their respective outline headings. This helped me to keep track of my progress and keep all of my points in their logical order. If I had an inspiration when I wasn’t near a computer or access assistant, I would either jot it down on a sticky note and put it where my access assistants could notice when they came to the office, or I would dictate into the note section on my phone.
The first two chapters of my thesis introduced my topic and presented my theory. The subsequent seven chapters went through the findings of my various experiments. The later chapters did not have a lot of sources because they were my own scientific contributions, but the first two chapters relied heavily on outside references.
During the writing process, I didn’t know what my final reference list would be, and I certainly didn’t have all the references’ content memorized. For about one half of the statements that I wrote, I knew exactly which source I drew the information from. I would indicate this in my first draft. But for the other half, I wrote from my learned knowledge. For these statements, I would have to go back with an access assistant during the revision process and look up the appropriate materials to cite.
In terms of formatting, I did not do any of it manually. I relied on my access assistants and the program EndNote.