How to prepare for your (shudder) doctoral dissertation defense
Most universities require a final doctoral defense of your precious work. Almost everyone who has a doctorate has a final defense story. Often they are the worst horror stories one can imagine, short of a bedroom intruder, and emblazoned on the mind of the teller forever.
For example . . . A friend of mine was obviously pregnant at her defense. After she successfully passed, her chair, staring at her bulk, informed her with a tone of incontrovertibility that her entire graduate education had been a “waste.” Outrageous, I know. I’m very glad to say she proved the chair wrong. Later, with two kids, she became an award-winning professor at Brandeis.
My defense was a little less dramatic but no less discomfiting. During the two hours of grilling and false camaraderie, my right foot fell asleep. As I rose for the verdict, my leg collapsed and I almost fell over the table into a committee member’s lap. They all laughed, almost as embarrassed as I. But I still blush reliving it.
A fellow student in my doctoral cohort, by far the most brilliant of us all, felt he did so poorly at his defense that he cancelled a long-planned prepaid vacation to Scandinavia with his fiancée. I never heard whether he went on the trip later or got married. This was mea culpa at its most severe.
When I asked a professor friend about his own defense, he told me he had “mercifully forgotten all the details” of his entire dissertation experience. One can only imagine . . . .
What do these cautionary tales tell you? To see your defense rightly. It is an important event in your progress and professional development and certainly a rite of passage in your transition from student to full-fledged academic. You don’t want to fail or flub it. You also want to maintain dignity and engender the respect of your chair and committee members, your future colleagues.
In my work as consultant and coach to dissertation writers, I have often noticed that most candidates are petrified of the defense and either overdo it or try to underplay it. They imagine the committee asking impossible questions, like a detailed explanation of their statistical involutions, or asking “fluff” questions, like the student’s opinion of the university cafeteria food.
Many candidates either spend every possible moment cramming, and risk predefense burnout, or avoid preparation entirely. My client James started preparing before he had even completed his data collection. He kept asking me questions about the required defense PowerPoint and sent me loads of articles on defense advice. And he confessed he kept losing sleep thinking (“panicking”) about his defense. I gently told him, several times, that his preparation, although admirable, was premature.
At the other extreme, Viola, a bright candidate I coached, told me that, despite my admonitions, she minimized her defense and barely squeaked by. She knew the material but her nervousness and lack of preparation got the best of her. She recently wrote me, now years later, that she regrets to this day not following my advice.
Recognizing that both extremes are, well, extreme, I developed a list of suggestions for clients for a good final defense. They are below, for before, during, and after the defense. First, though, for your greater perspective, some words about your committee.
- Doubtless all members have their own defense horror stories and your defense may trigger echoes of theirs.
- Their egos are at stake in your meeting, and they may want to show off to each other.
- They also may want to show off a little more by asking tough questions. But remember that they want to uphold the high research standards of the university and their part in it.
- They have worked hard to get where they are.
- They’re not your enemies.
- They do want you to pass and pass well for your sake, theirs, and the university’s.
- It’s better to be overprepared than underprepared. You will thank yourself for it later.
- The defense is on your dissertation. Remind yourself that you are the expert, especially every time your stomach sinks.
- Read the university manual on defense protocols. It can actually be helpful and should tell you if a PowerPoint presentation on your dissertation is required, and if so the number of slides and time allotted for your part.
- Attend a few defenses before your own. You’ll get the gist of the questions asked and the format for the whole thing. Observe how the candidates respond, and make notes on the positive behavior (poise and direct eye contact with the committee) and negative behavior (a lot of “uhs,” “ahs,” and slouching). Your attending will go a long way to eradicating your fear of the unknown.
- Ask your chair for advice. About a month before, schedule an in-person or phone conference and discuss the format of the meeting—introduction by the chair, your presentation, Q&A. Talk about the range of questions that could be asked and the length of your (usually required) PowerPoint. Ask if the chair would like to see your PowerPoint beforehand (they often want to and will critique it). Ask the chair, politely, for insights on the committee members. The chair is supposed to fight for you if another member makes excessive demands, for example, just before the final submission deadline your “need” to survey 132 more dock workers.
- From your conference with the chair, you’ll be able to prepare better answers, will have fewer surprises, and will feel on much more solid ground.
- Study other candidates’ final PowerPoints, especially if they’ve had your chair.
- When you’re ready for your own PowerPoint, use your proposal slides and other candidates’ as templates. Creating the new slides will help you remember, review, and summarize everything. Some universities require handouts, so be ready to distribute them printed from the slides.
- Think of the worst questions you don’t want to be asked. Write them all down.
- Once you have a bank of questions, type out your answers. You can refine them later. Make sure your dissertation backs up your answers (for example, correct number of participants, statistical results, themes revealed).
- Rehearse with a relative or friend (something you can involve them in, and they’ll be tickled to help).
- Know your material! Some candidates mark a hard copy of their dissertation at the pages reflecting anticipated questions. If you do, you can turn to the pages quickly. Alternatively, use the PowerPoint’s space at the bottom of each slide for your notes and scripts.
- If your university has a media specialist, schedule an appointment for your electronic needs and come with a list.
- Find out in advance where the defense will be scheduled. Visit the room, preferably with the media specialist, and plan together where you’ll place your computer and other equipment.
- Alone in the room, do a mock rehearsal. Stand at the podium and look out into the vast sea of faces eager for your wisdom. See the chair and committee sitting there beaming at you.
- The day before, pack your materials: computer, flashdrive backup, hard copy, handouts, pens, pencils, recorder/phone app if you choose, and anything else that anticipates any technical malfunctions and may seem like overkill but will make you breathe easier.
- The day before, decide what you’ll wear (even if the defense is by teleconference). Choose clothes that look and feel professional.
- Don’t forget the deodorant.
- The night before, go to the movies, binge watch your favorite TV show, or do something physical. Get a good night’s sleep.
- Arrive early and set up your materials.
- Meditate beforehand either in your car, on a bench outside, or even in the empty room.
- Reflect on your previous successful presentation experiences.
- Tell yourself you are confident and passionate about your topic and findings.
- You can let your sense of humor show through at the right times.
- Stand up, stand straight.
- Greet each committee member, even if your knees are shaking.
- Look ‘em in the eye.
- When it’s time for your presentation, remember that you are the expert. Take a few deep breaths.
- When the committee starts asking questions, have a notepad and pen ready to take notes.
- Take your time responding.
- If you don’t know an answer, don’t fudge. Instead say, “That’s a really good question. I’ll have to think more about it” or “I’ll do more research on that.” Remember you are still the humble student. The committee will admire your response.
- Questions: Most of these will likely focus on your material—why study the topic, why you chose it, your procedures, your findings. Your dissertation contains all the answers. Sometimes the committee will ask what you would have done differently, what you want to do next with the study (Ans: publish it), what next research you envision in your academic career (Ans: go from your future research section), or even your career goals (Ans: to be a professor like you).
- At the end of your presentation, smile, shake hands even though yours are still clammy, and thank everyone profusely. Tell them you enjoyed the meeting (it is possible).
- Expect some revisions. Just because it’s supposed to be the “final” defense doesn’t mean the committee can’t change its collective mind and swoop down on niggling and not-so points.
- Ask your chair about the next steps—sometimes the chair will suggest a meeting with you to go over items that came up.
- Collect the committee’s hard copies with their notes, if this is the procedure. Or ask them to email you tomorrow their marked-up copies or lists of revisions.
- Study up on all the red-tape requirements and regulations for final revised documents, all committee signatures, and final deposit of the dissertations. You don’t want to miss any deadlines.
THROUGHOUT: DO AFFIRMATIONS
As you begin preparation and throughout, every time panic hits, practice a few defensive affirmations:
- I am perfectly competent, confident, express, poised.
- I am in command of myself.
- I look forward to sharing what I know and have learned.
- My defense goes perfectly.
- The committee is for me.
- I trust my knowledge, experience, good work, and good mind to come up with the right answers.
- I know everything I need to know, instantly.
- I respond flawlessly.
- My audience is on my side.
- I am divinely directed.
- I now visualize the movie of my perfect defense. I see myself poised and self-assured, talking easily about any aspect of the work, adlibbing from the PowerPoint. I see myself graciously accepting all compliments about the brilliance of my presentation and the committee’s congratulations and hearty handshakes. I hear the chair’s magic words, “You have passed!”
And now, you have become an academic colleague! When you practice the steps here, you will be one of the few new “doctors” who does not have a defense horror story. Your story will be a much happier one. And it will shine forever bejeweled in your memory.
© 2015 Noelle Sterne
Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).
Dissertation coach, editor, scholarly and mainstream writing consultant, author, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com
The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Text & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.