If you’re researching a master’s degree, you’ll likely come across the phrase “thesis defense” among the list of requirements for earning an advanced degree. This formal-sounding requirement usually comes at the end of a graduate program. As a student seeking a master’s degree, your thesis defines your educational experience at the university. Once you’ve completed all the necessary coursework and finished any internship or practicum experiences, you will be required to meet with a committee to defend your work. Details of a defense vary by college, but there are some general things to keep in mind as you embark on the graduate process.
What is a Thesis?
In most schools, the thesis represents a student’s collective understanding of his or her program and major. Students who major in English, for example, typically explore language, literary themes, a specific author’s work or a similar topic when writing a thesis paper. Universities often require theses to consist of a prospectus, which outlines the intent of the paper, and a full-length paper treatment of a particular topic. In the natural sciences, theses might cover experiments or hypothetical situations in which a student researches certain elements of his or her field.
Theses projects demand full attention, and many schools require that students devote an entire semester to completing the research and resulting paper. Students work with a faculty committee or adviser on a close basis to make sure that the research stays on schedule. Depending on the level of degree, a thesis paper can be extremely complex.
Defending the Work
Once students submit their theses papers to the thesis committee, they will be assigned a date to defend their work. In this case, “defend” does not imply that a student will have to argue aggressively about his or her work. Rather, the thesis defense is designed so that faculty members can ask questions and make sure that students actually understand their field and focus area. Defending a thesis largely serves as a formality because the paper will already have been evaluated. During a defense, a student will be asked questions by members of the thesis committee. Questions are usually open-ended and require that the student think critically about his or her work. A defense might take only 20 minutes, or it might take an hour or more depending on the goal of the committee and the requirements of the program.
Preparation for Defense
Students have months to prepare for a defense. Schools want graduate candidates to be as prepared as possible when attending a defense, which means that neither the date nor faculty committee will be a surprise to the student. It’s important to keep in mind that if you go into a defense with the right attitude and preparation, failing is nearly impossible. The committee wants to see how well you know your subject and your research. Nerves may get the better of you as you face unknown questions, but as with a job interview, practicing ahead of time will lead to a successful defense.
Facing a defense can be stressful, but think of it as an opportunity to share what you’ve learned. Remember that you aren’t arguing points when you defend your work. Instead, a proper thesis defense gives you and your faculty advisers the chance to discuss your topic and research in greater detail.
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