So, I made it. Yiihaa! Four years culminating into one day. My first post as a fresh Doctor in Operations Management will be my reflections on giving the defense. I hope the thoughts will be somewhat helpful or comforting for all those shivering PhD candidates yet to come. One thing’s for sure; I’ve got respect for the process. A PhD defense is – and should be – a serious ceremony. Yet, it can be one of the best days in life. These tips and tricks on how to defend your PhD dissertation are not just my own; many thanks to all the professors at NTNU who shared their advice with me. I’ll pay it forward.
Yes, it’s the lamest advice, but it is still the best: you are the expert in the room. Trust your brain. No one in the world has recently spent so much time as you on this specific topic. Your supervisor has found your thesis worthy to be defended. So has the committee. You will pass. Everyone knows that. The only one still doubting is you. You know all the weaknesses of your own work. The opponents in the committee don’t. They know the weaknesses of their own work…
In fact, the committee has better reasons to be nervous than you; the audience want you to succeed and be brilliant. It is not everyone against you, it is everyone against the committee. The opponents want to appear smart but friendly. An experienced professor told me that in many cases they are so hung up in performing with their questions, that they don’t really pay attention to all your answers. After all, it’s a small research community and what goes around comes around. They’ll be much nicer than you fear.
Dress up for your defense. This is your day. If you’re going to have a tough time, have it with style. The audience does not just listen to what you have to say, they observe it. If you look good, your work looks good. The last thing you want to worry about when the opponents start lightening up the fire is whether your shirt matches your socks. Treat yourself with a complete new outfit. You certainly deserve it, and it boosts your confidence and cools your nerves.
Presentation skills is king. It is probably too late to become a TED-level speaker two weeks prior to the defense, but it’s not too late to nail an excellent presentation of your work. Make sure you get these basic things right: simple slides, flow and timing. Practice? Yes, of course. A run-through with colleagues is essential and tremendously helpful. But don’t overdo the practice part; if you know it by heart, it will get boring. Leave some room for nerves and energy. I recommend about three to five full trials, of which at least one in the actual defense room.
A difficult thing during a PhD defense is to reach your audience. Probably, your public defense draws a rare mix of friends, family, expert colleagues, other PhD candidates and wild-card walk-ins. How can you possibly deliver a speech that will reach them all? Make all of them feel smarter. Tell a story: what was the problem, what did you do, and what did you find that contributes to research and practice (repeat if several papers). That simple story will offer something for anyone.
Your presentation is delivered. It went well. Now, don’t let your guard down. This is when the real defense start. If you got a written comment to your thesis from the committee you should have read it carefully and practiced a few responses to the obvious questions in it. I also hope you have already attended a few other defenses and asked professors for advice before you’re up. In any case, the most important advice is this one: This is the day to be humble. All research has weaknesses. Be confident about your choices and results, but agree that it could have be done better or differently. That will take you far.
Some questions deserve a few seconds thought. Write them down as soon as you hear that there are several questions bundled into one. Here’s a few standard openings that might come in useful: “A good point, I’m aware of that debate…”; “Yes, on one hand (…) but on the other hand…”; “I see your point, but I respectfully disagree, because…”; “I’m not an expert in that area, but here’s how I view that…”; “I understand that question as follows… (tweak it into something you’ve prepared to answer)”. In general, talk more if you’re confident, be brief when you’re on thin ice (this is much more tricky than it sounds like!). Use examples if you have them. If you’ve done case studies, refer to them. No one knows what you have seen and heard, hence you own the truth and can speak freely and in pictures. Examples come with the additional benefit of being interesting for the audience.
Finally, the PhD defense is not meant to be a walk in the park. There will be a few really tough questions, and it can therefore be good to know of a few “life savers”. The most usual one, which you can pull a few times and that will quickly end any difficult question is this one: “An excellent point, I would like to look into that in the future” or “Unfortunately, I did not have the time and resources to investigate that, I’ll leave it to future studies”. If you need to buy yourself some time, and you know that you have treated the question somewhere in you thesis, you can lend this dry joke from me: “Hmm, let me read what I think about that…”. If every escape is blocked, and you painted yourself into a corner, you “get a free life” by simply admitting “I don’t know the answer to that question”. But note; this last-resort-option can only be used once, so save it carefully .
Go defend your PhD dissertation
If there’s one advice that trumps all the others, it has to be this one: Smile, have fun, enjoy YOUR day! I wish you the best of luck.
Posted in: Better research, Better thinking | Tagged: defend thesis, doctoral dissertation, phd defence, PhD defense
This expert advice comes from Sonja Foss and William Waters - authors of Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation
Sonja Foss would say that the defense begins as soon as you start working on your dissertation (Foss & Waters, 2007). Defense in the context of the dissertating process refers to the presenting, explaining and defending of your ideas. It also includes laying out the rationale behind your choices and decisions, for example, regarding theory selection and research methods. Efforts to recruit your chair and other committee members will entail some of this communication behavior. Seeking approval for your dissertation proposal, the foundation of all your research activities, will also entail a bit of defense.
Throughout the course of the project many exchanges with your chair and other committees will involve explaining and defending your ideas and decision. However, the most important defense is the dissertation defense which comes at the end of a long and arduous process and which may have unfolded over a number of years. The dissertation defense is a significant milestone signaling closure on your graduate student career.
The dissertation defense can be divided into three distinct components (Foss and Waters): the preparation, the defense, and follow-up. A few brief comments about all three follow and a very helpful resource provided a thorough discussion of all three components.
- Attend the defenses of some of your departmental colleagues or attend defenses in other departments.
- It is very important to adhere to graduate school rules and deadlines covering the scheduling of a defense.
- Begin very early to schedule and coordinate the date, time and place for the defense. Committee members and chairs have very busy schedules.
- Have your manuscript reviewed before the defense to be sure it is consistent with formatting requirements. You want to present a polished document for the faculty to work with in preparation for the defense.
- Maximize your opportunity in the pre-defense meeting to raise any issues or concerns. Or ask your chairs what questions and issues might be raised during the defense. Prepare to address them.
- Organize you material for presentation. Create flawless presentation of the material you will be covering on the defense. Finally, practice presenting the material and answering questions.
- Meetings may begin with brief comments by the chair followed by your comments thanking advisors and committee members for their time and efforts on your behalf.
- Your presentation material should briefly cover the research question, literature review as it relates to your theory, methods and analysis, major findings and recommendations for future research.
- During the defense, the faculty may take turns asking you questions and discussing among themselves points of interest or disagreement.
- Two questions to anticipate include identifying the weaknesses of your study and post-dissertation research plans.
- When all questions have been asked and answered, you will be asked to leave the room while the committee deliberates. At this time faculty will be deciding by vote whether to pass you on your defense and dissertation.
- The desired outcome of this meeting is the chair's greeting you with the statement "Congratulations, Dr. _." (Foss and Waters, 2007). The defense was successful and the committed has passed your dissertation.
- You may plan a small reception for the committee, friends and family. Check to see what the norms are in your department on post-defense celebrations.
- Next day attend to the revisions the committee asked you make to the work.
- You may want to provide bound copies of your work to your chair, committee members, family and friends. You may also be required to provide copies to your department and library. Create a budget for handling the incidental related to publishing and ordering additional copies of your manuscript.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------About the Authors: Co-authors of Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation, Dr. Foss is a professor of Communications at University of Colorado, Denver, and Dr. Waters is an assistant professor of English at University of Houston-Downtown, They are co-directors of Scholar’s Retreat, a program to support progress towards completion of your dissertation, thesis or writing project.