When you’re facing the fearsome doctoral defense
As you reach the end of your doctoral work, you will probably need to “defend” your dissertation. Most universities in the United States require this, although the procedures and formats may differ among them and from those in other countries. In the U.S., the advisory committee you’ve had a love-hate relationship with throughout your dissertation writing constitutes your defense committee as well. In other countries, the defense may be conducted with a blind peer review process (Australia) or as a viva (U.K.). For most students, though, it’s still a one-to-three-hour torture, with much agonizing beforehand.
Defense Horror Stories
Almost everyone who has a doctorate has a final defense story. They may be different but they all have two things in common: few are pretty and they’re all emblazoned on the new doctor’s mind forever.
Several examples: 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 and maddening, I know. Happily, she proved the chair monumentally wrong. Later, with two kids, she became an award-winning professor at Brandeis.
My defense was a little less dramatic but no less distressing. 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 bald committee member’s lap. They all laughed, almost as embarrassed as I. Reliving this episode, I still blush.
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 knew whether he went on the trip or got married. This was mea culpa at its worst.
Lessons of Cautionary Tales
What do these cautionary tales tell you? To see your defense rightly. A rite (maybe antiquated) of passage, certainly, it is nevertheless an important event in your progress and professional development. 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. And not have a haunting memory.
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 ridiculous questions, like their 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 procedures and sent me loads of articles on defense advice, confessing he kept losing sleep “panicking” about his defense. I gently told him, several times, that his preparation, although admirable, was premature.
At the other extreme, Viola, a very bright candidate, told me years later that, despite my many admonitions, she had minimized her defense and barely squeaked by. She knew the material but her nervousness and lack of preparation got the best of her. She regrets her choice to this day.
Both extremes are, well, extreme, and I offer the following suggestions for a good final defense and your experience before, during, and after the event. First, though, for your greater perspective, especially in U.S. defenses, 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 probably want to show off to each other. They also may want to assert their superiority by asking you tough questions. And yes, the members may be unpredictable, quirky, mercurial. But remember—they are also upholding the high research standards of the university and their part in it. Keep in mind too that they have worked hard to get where they are. They’re not your enemies and want you to succeed, for you and for them.
So now, for you to make the experience a pleasant one for everyone, here’s some advice on preparation.
Way Before the Defense
- It’s better to be overprepared than underprepared. You will thank yourself for it later.
- Remind yourself that you are the expert on your dissertation, especially every time your stomach sinks.
- Read the university manual on defense protocols. It should tell you the time allotted for your introductory presentation, if you need a PowerPoint presentation and the number of slides, and whether the defense will be open to the “public” (usually friends, family, and a few stray predefense doctoral students).
- Attend several defenses before your own to familiarize yourself with the process. 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). You’ll be combating your fear of the unknown.
- Ask your chair for advice. About a month before the defense, schedule a meeting and discuss the defense format and range of possible questions. Two chairs I know send students a long list of PowerPoint guidelines (number of slides, size of type, points per slide, chapters to emphasize). Do a draft of the PowerPoint and ask the chair to look at it (they often want to and will critique it). Ask too for (diplomatic) insights on the committee members.
- Especially if other candidates have had your chair, study their final PowerPoints. When you’re ready for your own, use these and any outlines in the doctoral manual. Creating the new slides from your dissertation will help you remember, review, and summarize everything.
- If trouble erupts, such as another member calling for your running your statistics completely again or insisting that you “need” to survey 132 more dock workers, the chair is supposed to fight for you (diplomatically).
- Think of the worst questions you don’t want to be asked. Write them all down.
- 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).
- 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. A good alternative is to use the PowerPoint’s space for script notes at the bottom of each slide. Here you can almost copy and paste explanatory passages from your dissertation.
- Rehearse with a relative or friend (they’ll be tickled to help).
A Little Before
- If your university has a media specialist, schedule an appointment for your electronic needs for the PowerPoint and have a list ready.
- If the defense will be in person, visit the room in which the defense is scheduled, 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 members sitting there beaming at you.
- If the defense will be by teleconference, as on Zoom, arrange a Zoom rehearsal with a colleague or friend. Have the other person ask some of those dreaded questions.
- A few days before, decide what you’ll wear (even if the defense is by teleconference). Choose clothes that look and feel professional and get them in shape.
- Two days before, if in person, 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. Don’t forget the deodorant.
- If on Zoom, make sure your equipment is working well. If not, or you’re unsure of a step, get help from that media person or a savvy 10-year-old neighbor.
- The night before, go to the movies, binge watch your favorite TV show, or do something physical. No alcohol. Get a good night’s sleep.
- Arrive early and meditate beforehand, in your car, on a bench outside, the empty room, your desk in front of the screen.
- Reflect on your previous successful presentation experiences—from your job, a speech at a wedding, an impassioned piece of advice to a friend who took it.
- Set up your materials.
- Tell yourself you are confident and passionate about your topic and findings.
- When they enter, SMILE.
- Stand or sit up straight.
- Greet each committee member, even if your knees are shaking. Look ‘em in the eye (physical or virtual).
- 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, and take your time responding.
- If you don’t know an answer, don’t fudge. Instead say, “That’s a very 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 responses.
- At the end of the defense, smile, shake hands (admittedly clammy), and thank everyone profusely. Tell them you enjoyed the meeting (it is possible).
- Expect some revisions. Just because it’s the “final” defense doesn’t mean the committee can’t change its collective mind and swoop down on (hopefully) niggling points.
- If the procedure, collect the committee’s hard copies with their notes. Or offer to pick them up or ask them to email you their marked-up copies or lists of revisions.
- Study up on all the red-tape requirements and regulations for revised documents, all committee signatures, and final deposit of the dissertation. You don’t want to miss any deadlines.
Throughout: A Few Helpful Affirmations
Every time panic hits, practice 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, good work, and good mind to come up with the right answers.
- I now visualize the movie of my perfect defense. I am poised and self-assured, talking easily about any aspect of the work, adlibbing from the PowerPoint. I graciously accept all compliments about the brilliance of my presentation.
- I hear the chair’s magic words, “Congratulations! You have passed!”
When you practice the steps here, you will be one of the few new “doctors” without a defense horror story. Your story will be a much happier one, and as you continue in your successful professional career, your defense will shine forever bejeweled in your memory.
© 2023 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, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 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. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com