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Dissertation Defense —
How to Prepare and Defend Your Dissertation


Congratulations, if you are getting ready to defend your dissertation you are almost finished. The dissertation defense represents one of the final hurdles you will face in completing your degree, and it is important to be prepared. Although the graduate handbook might describe this stage as an oral presentation of your research, the traditional defense is an oral exam that most graduate students are likely to pass. You can pass your defense with a grade of (1) “Pass As Is,” (2) “Pass With Minor Revisions,” (3) "Pass With Major Revisions,” or rarely (4) “Reject.”

Your defense is meant to be a useful exercise, though at times it might seem like a form of hazing. During the defense, you will be asked to present the main arguments of your dissertation, followed by a question and discussion period. You are responsible for clearly and succinctly presenting the arguments of your document and for responding to questions from faculty. In particular, you should be able to demonstrate not only your control over the discipline specific knowledge and theoretical arguments of your paper, but also your knowledge of counter-arguments and alternative interpretations which may arise in the questions. Shortly after the defense, the entire committee will meet to evaluate the quality of your document and the overall presentation.

Use the following strategies to help you prepare for your dissertation defense.

Research Your University’s Process

One of your first steps in preparing for this milestone is to familiarize yourself with how the process works at your university so you know exactly what to expect. Otherwise, you might be caught off guard! A Harvard friend who had been working almost 10 years on his dissertation and was now preparing his defense told me casually, “I think our defense takes 20 minutes.” I quickly informed him that, to the contrary, the defense can be a long, arduous process that lasts up to three hours. At some universities, the process takes place before writing the dissertation; at others, it is done after the document is complete. In either case, you must be prepared to defend, debate, conceptualize, synthesize, and explain your research in great detail.

Practice, Practice, Practice

t’s normal to be nervous at a defense. However, taking every opportunity to practice before “the real deal” can diffuse a great deal of stress and anxiety you might otherwise feel. Your defense should definitely not be the first time you publicly present your research for feedback. Take advantage of forums such as on-campus “brown bag” seminars or informal gatherings with friends and colleagues. Practicing in these kinds of informal settings allows you to hone your presentation skills in a relaxed atmosphere, and will increase your self-confidence. It will have the added benefit of establishing your expertise and enhancing your professional reputation, and will also help prepare you for key career events such as job interviews, teaching a class, or presenting at a regional or national conference.

If you are required to give a PowerPoint presentation, be sure to practice this with friends, as well. Avoid simply reading what is on the screen! PowerPoint is a tool to help you synthesize information; the screen should not include every word you want to say but, rather, concise bullet points that serve as “prompts” for the points you want to make. There is nothing more frustrating than having someone read off the screen. I have often felt like screaming at a presenter, “I have a Ph.D.; I know how to read for myself!”

How to Defend Your DissertationAttend a Colleague’s Defense

Perhaps nothing better prepares you for a defense than actually seeing the process firsthand. Defense hearings are sometimes open to the public, and actually witnessing the event can give you tremendous insight regarding how to prepare for your own. Before doing so, however, be sure to ascertain what your own department or school believes is appropriate. If no one in your department has ever attended another student’s defense, it might not be wise to break this tradition, even if the graduate student handbook deems defense hearings as “open to the public.”

If you can’t attend other students’ defenses, gather information by asking your colleagues about their own experience. Questions should include:
• How did it begin?
• How did the advisor facilitate the process?
• How difficult were the questions?
• How did you know it was over?
• Did anyone other than committee members attend the hearing?

Know Your Document Inside and Out

During your defense, you are considered the expert in your discipline. Come prepared to answer details about every aspect of your dissertation … and then some!

Be sure to go through your dissertation with a fine-tooth comb a few hours before your defense. Although you have written every word, and are already intimately familiar with the contents, it’s still important to refresh your memory by reading the entire document before your defense. Your committee will bring a copy of the document with them and will be prepared to ask very specific, detailed questions about it. Be sure to bring a copy of your own, and that your draft/version is identical to the one your committee members have.

A good tip is to spiral bind ($2.50 at Kinko’s) your copy of the document. This will give you a psychological edge because you will be able to easily turn to the requested pages of the document when the committee begins firing questions at you.

Take time to repeat every question, and breathe before answering it. And, while an answer of “I don’t know” is not expected, if you find that you really don’t know the answer to a question, be sure to gracefully note the issue/point to consider for future research.

Prepare an Executive Summary

e sure to prepare a one- to two-minute summary about why you came to graduate school, why you chose the topic you did, and what the overall findings of your research have been. This will not only get your defense off to a good start, it will also help you later in the job market, where you’ll have a ready answer for common questions such as, “What’s your research about?” or “What are you working on these days?

Come Well Rested And Dress For Success

Don’t stay up the night before your defense worrying. Get a good night’s sleep; your defense will be smoother and sharper if you are well rested, ready and alert. You will need to have your wits about you to answer the barrage of questions that will come your way.

How you're dressed sets the tone of the defense. You don’t need to run out and spend a lot of money on clothes for the defense, but you should make sure your attire is professional. Dressing conservatively is always the safest route; your attire will give you a competitive edge and make a positive impression. Make sure that there is no gum or candy in your mouth when the defense hearing begins.

Be Confident: You’re Ready For This!!!

Go into this process with the self-confidence of knowing that you know more about your dissertation topic than anyone else in the room; after all, you’ve been working on this document for months … if not years! YOU are the expert. Work from that point of reference.

And, finally, reassure yourself that your advisor would not have scheduled the defense unless he/she thought you would pass. If your advisor has agreed to a defense date, he/she believes that you are ready!!!

This article was written by Dr. Carter for FinishLine, the free monthly newsletter of TA-DA!

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