Do you know what to wear to a dissertation defense meeting? Are you prepared to defend a thesis paper? Read our dissertation defense tips below!
Thesis writing is one of the most important and challenging tasks you will encounter as a graduate student, and the thesis defense is the culmination of that process.
The thesis defense procedure may vary from college to college but generally you will be expected to announce your thesis defense appointment in your graduate department, and your committee is likely to meet before and after your defense. By the time you are ready to present your defense, your thesis paper should be nearly complete, and some schools may require that your thesis paper be completely finished.
During your thesis defense, you will be expected to present and defend your thesis in front of your advisor, faculty thesis committee, and other audience members - and to do so in a cohesive manner. You can expect to be asked a number of questions after your presentation, and you need to be armed with the knowledge and skill necessary to answer the questions confidently.
Thesis defense rehearsal
When preparing to defend your thesis, familiarize yourself with the guidelines and requirements your department has put into place. Speak with your advisor to be sure that you know exactly what is expected of you. Each of your committee members should have a copy of your thesis at least a couple of weeks before your defense, and your written defense should include an abstract and a summary. All your forms need to be filled out ahead of time, including any and all signatures you are required to obtain.
Speaking with people who have already defended their theses can be extremely helpful, as it can provide you with confidence as well as a stronger sense of the expectations you are facing. In addition, attending the defenses of others will afford you the opportunity to observe interactions between students and committee members, hear the types of questions you may face, and identify the characteristics of strong and weak thesis defenses; it will provide insight on what to do and what not to do.
When it comes to defending your thesis paper orally in front of your advisor and committee members, practice really can make perfect. Take any chance you can get to discuss your thesis with other people. If you can find someone to sit through a practice defense, take advantage of that. Your audience may ask some of the questions the committee is liable to ask, which can help you identify the portions of your defense that need to be honed.
At some point before you defend your thesis, you should sit down with your advisor for a strategy session. Use this time to organize and plan your defense. Pay close attention to your advisor's reactions to your thesis and heed any advice they give you - he or she has heard many defenses and knows what committees look for. Having your thesis defense structured well ahead of time will make you feel more comfortable and focused during your presentation.
Know your thesis paper lines
The thesis defense is your opportunity to take the stage and to demonstrate the growth and progress you have experienced in your years as a graduate student. This is your chance to showcase your research abilities, as well as to finish your degree requirements. Defending your thesis statement can help you obtain helpful feedback and recommendations that you can incorporate into your final draft.
Make sure to get across the fundamentals while defending your thesis. First, state your thesis/research question. You need to describe the importance of your topic and detail how your research was conducted, including any methods of measurement you have used. The major findings of your thesis should be made clear, as well as how your thesis contributes to the body of knowledge in your field. Finally, you must state the conclusions and recommendations you have made based on your research.
You must expect, in some fashion, to be required to answer the crucial question "So what?" What has your research and writing accomplished, that may be of importance in your field? Professors will tell you that graduate students tend not to be bold enough, in making claims for what they have discovered or compiled, during the process of working on their thesis. If you don't express confidence about your findings in the thesis, your committee may develop their own doubts about the value of your work.
Be aware of the fact that you probably know your topic far better than most or all of the professors who form your thesis committee. You've likely been researching and contemplating your topic for well over a year, and the material will be fresher and more immediate for you than for them. If you pause to think about this, it should give you extra confidence going into the thesis defense.
At the same time, your thesis committee members will likely know your field in a much broader sense than you. They may well ask you to indicate where in the larger scheme of things, where in your field, your thesis will fit. That's where the big "So What?" question will arise during your defense. You've been warned; prepare for it.
Additionally, one question you should anticipate from your thesis committee is, "What do you plan to do with the thesis, beyond graduate school?" Do you intend to revise it for publication as a book? Do you intend to do further research on your topic once you've gotten a job coming out of grad school? Do you intend to seek grants to help you further develop your project? Do you intend to collaborate with another scholar before you offer your work to a broader audience?
What to wear to your thesis defense
When defending your thesis, you want to prove to your committee and advisor that you are capable of producing more broad-ranging, in-depth pieces of scholarly writing. With this in mind, you should look the part. You will want to wear professional attire that is comfortable - the last thing you want is to distract your audience from the masterpiece that is your thesis by tugging at clothing while you are presenting your defense or fielding questions. Nor do you want to disrupt your own ability to concentrate by squeezing into those cute shoes.
No matter how nervous you are, be sure to focus and to listen with care to the questions posed to you. Take a moment to pause before you give your answer if you need to - they are not looking for quick responses, but they are looking for solid ones. You should expect to be asked to address the more controversial aspects of your thesis. Keep in mind that you don't have to defend everything about your thesis. If you don't have an answer to a question, don't fake it or make any promises - reply that the question is interesting and that you will consider it in the future. Defending your thesis requires you to be political to a certain extent.
If you are having trouble with managing your fears while defending your thesis, you may find it helpful to use visual aids during your presentation. They can help you stay focused and confident, as well as help you pace yourself. Visual aids, if you use them, should clearly state the research problem, objectives, approaches, and the contributions of your thesis work.
You may also decide to videotape or audiotape your defense, as it can help you keep track of the reactions, suggestions, and criticisms that you receive. Often your thesis committee members will offer tips for revision. These could be crucial as you revise your work for later publication or development. But you will be so focused on what you need to say next during your thesis defense that you will very likely not remember much of what the professors said after the fact. If you document the session, you will later be able to retrieve and follow the expert advice your thesis committee offered during your defense.
One of the most crucial things to remember when defending your thesis is to maintain a level of passion about your research. If you are passionate about your work, your advisor and committee will take note of this, and it will underscore the importance of your thesis. After all, who isn't passionate about the concluding event of a long and difficult journey?
After you have presented your defense, you will either be told that you have passed, that your thesis needs minor revisions, that your thesis needs to be resubmitted, or that it has not been approved. The last two possibilities are rare, especially if you have followed the thesis writing process properly, and if you have stayed in meaningful contact with your advisor. If you have been diligent, there really should be few surprises.
Well, I’m back. After 3 months of intense thesis writing, revisions, and successfully defending (all while working a part-time job in industry), I want to share with you Part 1 of 3 of this series. Part 2 will be how to finish your thesis in a timely manner (and write a good quality thesis). Part 3 will be life after a PhD, making the transition into the workforce, and how to prepare ahead of time (i.e. apply for jobs before, during, or after writing your thesis).
First, what does it take to give a successful PhD Defense? How can you prepare, keep the stress levels low, and make sure you have the highest chance of success?
I’ll just say that everyone’s PhD Defense is unique and is unpredictable. Your talk/presentation is only as good as you want it to be. And you cannot fully prepare for all the endless possibility of questions. If you wrote a 200 page thesis, your thesis commitee can pick apart an error bar on a graph on page 133. They can ask you what you meant by a word in a random sentence in any given paragraph. Keep in mind, this is all just apart of the PhD hazing process, and in a sense is just to humble you. At the end of the day, if you wrote a good quality thesis and are CONFIDENT, you should have no problem successfully defending and leaving that room with a sense of relief. Either way, I wanted to share my experience while it is still fresh in my mind
1) Do not underestimate how long it takes to prepare your slides/talk and make sure you give multiple practice talks
When I turned in my thesis two weeks ahead of time to my committee, I thought the hard part was over. Although a very important milestone, don’t let your guard down. If you already have most your slides ready to go, then you are lucky. I ended up getting data at the last minute and my story changed. I had to make many model slides from scratch.
If you want to give a GOOD thesis talk, you need to practice multiple times. And this means that you don’t cram it all in a couple of days right before your talk. I’m not talking about giving just one practice talk. You need to give multiple group practice talks. In between, you need to practice on your own.
You certainly don’t have to memorize every word of your thesis defense talk, but you should have it well-polished. There is no limit (or requirement) on how many practice talks you should give, but give as many talks as it takes until you feel like you are ready. If you are unsure of the quality of your talk (or being “ready”), tape record yourself or watch a video of yourself to see just how good it is. You might be surprised when you play it back to yourself.
You should also time your talk. I noticed that I tend to talk faster (by about 5 minutes) when giving the actual public talk vs. when I practice on my own. The length of the talk can depend on many departmental factors. My talk was ~45-50 minutes long which also leaves time for questions.
Either way, do not procrastinate on your slides and/or talk until days before. Make sure you use the full two weeks to perfect your slides, polish your talk (and be very concise about your words), and review material you are unsure about.
2) Listen to other thesis defense talks
The best way to mentally prepare for your thesis defense talk is to listen to other thesis defense talks. I actually went and got a few talks on DVD (the good ones that I remembered). If their research is on a similar topic as your own, this would be more ideal-but take what you can get. When you watch the talk, ask yourself what makes it good or bad? Were they enthusiastic and sincere? Did they keep the energy throughout the talk? Were there some rough areas of the talk? When nerves are running high, talks may not go as expected. You can battle this nervousness by showing up well-prepared. If you are, the thesis defense talk is just a formality.
If you cannot obtain any thesis defense talks on video, make sure that you go to actual public thesis defense talks. At least go to one so that you have a good idea of how to TIE the whole story together and give your audience the big picture. Keep in mind that you are giving a talk to a general audience. This means that use of jargon and highly technical terms will only put your audience to sleep. Make sure it is clear and understandable. Simplify it the best that you can and put it in the larger context of your research field. Use cartoons or model slides (if necessary) to give your audience the general, overall picture.
3) Have your friends, labmates, and others drill you with questions
What’s the best way to prepare for unforeseen questions? Have others that are familiar with your work drill you with questions. Chances are that even though these questions may not be the actual questions you will be asked either by the public and/or your thesis committee, it prepares you to think on your feet. It also builds your confidence. And the questions that your labmates or friends ask you may just be the same question you will get asked on your defense day.
4) Re-read over your entire thesis and write out your own list of questions
You may be sick of reading your entire thesis over and over by now, but you need to keep everything fresh in your mind. I actually read over my entire thesis multiple times during my final two weeks and came up with my own list of questions that I thought my committee would ask me. In addition, I also came up with a list of questions that I had of my own (questions that I was unsure of or that I thought were a weakness of mine). If you cannot come up with a list of good questions, then you are not trying hard enough.
Even though my committee didn’t ask me my exact list of questions, the process of coming up with my own list of questions-then finding the answers to those questions (beyond my thesis)-actually helped me gained a deeper understanding of my project. And it was a confidence booster in disguise.
5) Don’t let distractions get to you
Completing your thesis is a huge milestone. Those last two weeks until defense day can be stressful. Whether you are doing job interviews, applying to other jobs, or you want to “jump the gun” and finally start your post-PhD life, don’t give into temptation. Keep your guard up until your actual defense day. This is key to giving a good talk. You need to go in with the mindset that you will kill your presentation and give a long lasting impression to your audience. I have actually heard that some people who gave great thesis defense talks were offered a position shortly after (i.e. a postdoc).
You are going to want to do all those little tasks that you have been putting off for so long because you have spent X amount of months writing your thesis in solitude and you had no time to do them. Your list could be very long. I can tell you that one of the things on my list was to keep publishing blog articles and keep my blog running. I simply did not have enough time. Prioritize and focus on your defense talk and nothing else. If you are looking for jobs during this time period, I will be writing about this in Part 3 of this series.
6) Get plenty of sleep, keep your diet in check, and take care of yourself
This might be the most difficult thing for anyone. I struggled with this the most while writing my thesis. Skipping meals, late nights, overloading your system with caffeine just to stay awake. You have to fight it the best that you can. A month before my defense talk, I hit the gym 3x a week (for the first time in months). Everyone handles the anxiety of their defense talk differently. I am someone who thinks about it constantly. So it becomes hard to focus on other things, like taking care of yourself.
Once your thesis is turned in to your committee members, during those final two weeks- sleep and a proper diet are KEY. The day of your defense, make sure you are well-rested (don’t stay up all night stressing about it) and eat well. Don’t sell yourself short. By taking care of yourself, you ensure that you have the highest probability for giving a great thesis defense talk and showing your committee members that you are confident about your project.
7) Keep your cool and relax
When your defense day comes, you have to remember that you have put in a lot of HARD WORK to get to this point. You know your topic better than anyone. Because of this, you have no reason to be stressed out.
When your committee pushes you and asks you questions, they again will push you to your limits. You will meet a point where you won’t know the answer. Also, a question could simply be a future direction/experiment that you simply haven’t tested yet. Remember that they are simply trying to test your knowledge and humble you. You don’t have to know all the answers. Therefore, when you are answering questions, keep your cool and relax. Answer the questions the best that you can and you should have no problem passing. And in all honesty, the prelim (or qualifying exam) was much harder than the actual defense…
8) Don’t focus on the after-party until you have actually reached the after-party
Who doesn’t want to spend their final two weeks planning the celebration? Although I did have an after-party, I did not go to great efforts to plan it like a wedding party. As I said in #5, prioritize and focus on your thesis defense talk and nothing else. Plan your after-party while you are on break from your practice talk/preparing for questions/working on slides but do not make it a number one priority. Once you have passed, then you can change your focus. The feeling is indescribable (see #10).
9) Have a good structure
A good thesis talk also has a good introduction before going on to the next idea or slide. It should flow in a logical manner and be smooth. That is why #1 is important, because many people don’t spend enough time in the creation of good powerpoint slides. Your slides and talk have to MATCH up, meaning you can’t have really good slides and a mediocre talk (or vice versa) if you want it to go well.
This is why practice is important, and if you spend enough time on BOTH the talk/slides you will give a very good talk. A lot of times while I was actually practicing my talk, I had to go back and change the order/wording of slides or how I introduced certain slides (the wording) so that the flow would be better.
Be formal in how you word things (i.e. say “our data show that”… vs. “you see here that”…). To give a good introduction, it might be wise to use slides that ask a question in between. This question slide (break) in-between your next idea allows for your general audience to CATCH UP and understand your logic. Why are you doing this experiment? If you just show a bunch of your published data with no introduction (and maybe a title that gives an interpretation/punchline), you will overwhelm and bore your audience.
Many scientists forget that although they are an expert on their topic, what seems easy and understandable to them-does not apply to others outside of their field.
Before you go to your next data slides introduce the idea (based on this data I wanted to ask this question). Then tell them WHY you performed this particular experiment (which is basically in the form of a question). Once your audience understands why, go on to the next slide and give them your interpretation. In other words, don’t just jump to the interpretation. This will keep your audience’s attention and make sure that your thesis defense talk gets a lot of positive feedback and leaves a good impression on your committee members (it really does show).
10) Visualize yourself giving your defense each day and think about how good it will feel when it’s over
This one is pretty self explanatory. I will say that when it is all said and done, it feels like a huge burden has been lifted off your shoulders. It is emotional and you finally feel that all that hard work and time that you put in over the years-was all worth it in the end. Good luck to all those who are preparing for their defense talk in the future! Think about what it will be like to get up in front of a large audience and show everyone how you moved a field forward. This is YOUR moment to show everyone you are an expert in your field. The more you keep this mentality, the better your talk will be. Keep your cool and relax (#7) and everything will be fine.
If you would like to see an example video of a defense talk that illustrates the advice I’ve given, a link to my PhD defense can be found here: http://bit.ly/1sAIT7O
Best of luck to all!