How to prepare for your thesis defence

Defending your thesis can be an intensely nerve-wracking experience. How can you best prepare to face your examiners?

Know the format of your thesis defence

The format of the defence varies from country to country. Having studied in the UK, my viva-voce defence was essentially an interview with one internal and one external examiner. In other countries it’s common to have public examinations with a whole panel of examiners and an audience of colleagues, family and friends.

The first and most obvious tip then is to make sure you know what the format of your exam will be; whether you will have to prepare a presentation and so on.

Prepare and practice your presentation

If you have to give a presentation, check any time restrictions so you can prepare accordingly. You don’t want to show up with 100 slides for a 15-minute presentation, nor do you want to show up with 10 slides for a 1-hour presentation.

The most important thing to do for any presentation is to practice so that;

  • You know the material inside out
  • You know how long it takes
  • You can refine the presentation

You can practice on your own and with an audience, and you should do both if possible. Practicing on your own and speaking out loud to an empty room may feel silly, but overcoming that discomfort is good preparation for the discomfort of facing an actual audience.

Practicing with an audience of peers is then a good way of getting feedback and finding out what questions people ask.

The dreaded “awkward question”

Whether you have to give a presentation or not, one of the scariest aspects of the defence is the possibility of being asked a question you can’t answer.

It’s tempting to try to read a ton of literature to prepare for this, but since it’s very difficult to predict what the examiners will ask and it’s impossible to read everything, this approach isn’t always effective or reassuring (it might make you realise how much you don’t know).

There will always be gaps in your knowledge, but actually it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the answer to an awkward question- you can still respond in a way that will make the examiners happy.

When you don’t know the answer…

You aren’t expected to know everything. Sometimes, an examiner will ask a question they don’t know the answer to, either out of interest (since you are the expert in your research) or because they want to see how you think.

While it is OK, sometimes, to just say “I don’t know”, you could also say something like, “I don’t know, but I would think that […] because of x and y, but you would need to do […] in order to find out”. This shows that you have the ability to think as an academic.

Core content

Of course there is some core content which you will be expected to know well, but this is set by you, not the examiner. To a large extent, the content of the examination is determined by the content in your thesis.

When you choose what to cover in your thesis you are choosing your battleground for the thesis defence, so the best strategy is to stick to the material you know best in your writing!

Make sure you have read through your complete thesis at least once before your defence, so you know what you have written about.

Dealing with nerves

You will be nervous before your examination. You will almost certainly get an adrenaline rush which can set your heart racing, give you sweaty palms, make your stomach churn and make you want to go to the toilet 10 times in 20 minutes. This is normal!

The worst part is the waiting before you start, because there isn’t much you can do to use up all that nervous energy! But once the defence starts, you can do some things to keep it under control.

Slow down

One symptom of nerves is to talk really fast and to try to show how much you know and speak in this kind of long stream of consciousness that diverges away from the question until you forget what the actual question was but then you don’t know how to get back to the point and so you just keep talking and that makes you more nervous and how are you going to get off this train of thought…

Try to deliberately slow down, and give yourself time to breathe.

Try to remember the question, and come back to the point.

Once you have answered, stop talking!

The examiners expect you to be nervous

Remember that the examiners expect you to be a bit nervous, and they will help you through if necessary.

It is OK to ask them to repeat or clarify a question. It is OK to pause to think. It is OK to take a sip of water if you need to!

Ultimately…

Success or failure is determined mainly by the content of your thesis. If your research is good, and you actually did the work, it is highly unlikely that a nervous performance in your defence will lead to failure.

Generally speaking, once your thesis is submitted, there isn’t much you can do to affect the outcome (positively or negatively).

Read through your thesis, read up on one or two key points if necessary, practice your presentation, and trust that whatever happens you will be OK.

Good luck!

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Comments

    • James Hayton says

      That’s a bit too big a question to answer fully in a comment, but I’d say first of all do your analysis and present it to others to get feedback. Then pick a journal and follow their guidelines.

  1. mba says

    I am defending my MSc thesis on 21st of July at Nasarawa State University. Please, what are the areas one needs to dwell much on

    • James Hayton says

      Things that need to be clear- what the research problem is (and why it’s important), how you have tried to solve it, what you discovered, what it means. The level of detail you give will depend on how much time you have, but generally I would say spend the most time on the material you are most interested in and your strongest results.

  2. Deepak kapoor says

    Thank you for this wonderful article……i am sure it will help me. I’m going to defend my masters thesis on a topic (Antibacterial activity of medicinal plants in India) after a week …but I’m feeling pretty nervous….

  3. Melikt says

    Very helpful! Thank you for the post. I just read it while I am to enter to presentation hall for my masters thesis defense. I wish it could be sooner. Anyways, thanks again!

  4. Joseph Morenammele says

    I am defending my PhD research in a few days. Do I base my presentation on my findings only or is there something else to include? What is a good outline of a defence? Do I have to include the problem statement?

    • James Hayton says

      Haven’t you spoken to anyone in your department about the format of your defence?

      I don’t know-and cannot know- what the format is where you are. It’s up to you to find out. To anyone else reading the comments, don’t leave it until a few days before the defence before you ask about what should be in it.

  5. Sandra says

    Hi Mr. Hayton
    Regarding the Presentation; do the presentation slides gives the audience a short summary of what my thesis is all about? Finally, during the defense, are the questions asked by the professors are based on the thesis ?

    • James Hayton says

      Slides are used as a visual aid to whatever you are saying -so you can show a graph for example- or you can highlight some key points.

      As for the questions, it depends on the defence format where you are. *USUALLY* the majority of the questions will be based on your thesis, but they might ask you something else. Really, you should speak to your supervisor about the format, and check the university guidelines. If they do public defences where you are, then you should go to somebody else’s before your own.

      • Kozov says

        correct me if i am wrong but this is a very common question asked by most pupil. according to my experience i have witnessed students to prepare presentation slides based on their thesis (lets say, they pick the important points that gives a vivid meaning to their thesis, also make sure to skip few points intentionally which would allow them to ask questions from there, makes life easier for both the student and the professor).
        in most cases the questions are going to be based on your thesis. it is quite evident they wont ask you something outside the book but on few occasion they usually play some mind games to try out questions that might be related to your thesis (for ex: belarus is the heaviest drinking nation, but the question can be who are the largest producer of alcohol ? it is UK). not necessarily everyone knows all answers to their questions but it should not be difficult if you are a Masters student.

  6. Assefa says

    Hello, James
    Thank you for this post. I am defending my phd in Indiana University, usa, next week. This helps. I cant thank enough. I will post here the good news, as it will turn out to be so, hopefully.

  7. Assefa says

    Hello,
    Thank you for this post. I am defending my phd in Indiana University, usa, next week. This helps. I cant thank enough.

  8. Steph says

    This was extremely helpful even though I feel slightly lame for not figuring this out myself. Thanks for posting this and I hope my defense goes well, it’s on May 4th. *fingers crossed*

  9. Lucas says

    Thanks. I am about to appear before a panel (7 professors) to defend my PhD dissertation. I will be given 45 minutes oral presentation followed by questions from the panel which will take at maximum 2 hours. Should I read my 45 minutes presentation?

    • James Hayton says

      It’s usually better not to read it entirely from a script, but it’s OK to have prompt notes if you need them.

      The most important thing is to practice, practice, practice so you know your presentation really well and you know you can run to time.

  10. Jawiria says

    hey i like ua post but there is still one problem, if i dont know the answer to a question asked by the examiner, i’m afraid i’d feel too embarrassed and i can’t stand it.

    • James Hayton says

      Well unfortunately there’s no choice- if you want a PhD you have to go through the defence, and it’s just a risk you have to take.

      As I said in the post though, there are ways to still answer intelligently even if you don’t know the answer

  11. M. Abaker says

    Dear James
    Hope you are find
    one question concerning the preparation and for a good presentaion start, does one have to notes about sample preparation, techniques used in characterization, applications, conclusion,
    or what is the best way.
    presentation in Greece -June 2015
    thanks in advance

    • James Hayton says

      maybe you can mention sample prep, but you probably don’t have to give huge amounts of detail. Focus on what you think the are the most important points, and the audience can always ask questions about anything you skip.

      The best way to prepare is to practice- you can then make changes and improve upon the presentation

  12. David says

    My MBA defense would take place in 4 weeks. I have few questions and will be grateful if someone can answer them :

    – Should the Presentation be based on my Thesis?
    – I’ve read more than 60 journals, articles and have gone through few books and it is quite evident that I wont remember every single line during the presentation, under these circumstances how can I stay calm and answer questions which I remember partially?

    • James Hayton says

      Should the presentation be based on your thesis? I don’t know- and cannot possibly know. Why don’t you ask someone at your university?

  13. Hermann Henkel says

    Hallo!
    I am up to defend my dissertation next week in Deutschland. I had published lots of papers, therefore, my dissertation is HUGE (Riesig!).
    Anyone from Detschland who had his/her mündliche Prüfung erfolgreich BESTANDEN?

    Grüße
    Henkel

  14. So says

    I am defending my MSc thesis tomorrow at the university of stellenbosch, South Africa. Thnx for sharing this, information presented here has given me even more confidence that all will be fine. I am prepared and ready!

  15. zelalem says

    luckily i have seen it before my ma defense in in ethiopia bahirdar universty in bdu there are 3 people who examine the advisor ,internal examiner and external examiner.it is not open but students feel nerves so thank you for hearing this advice great!

  16. Ahmed says

    one week till my undergrad defense, and freaking out! what im terrified about is i found a major mistake with my thesis! What are the chances of undergrads failing? I haven’t slept in days im so depressed and cant take out my mind that i have a very large chance to fail. Please give me advise too to calm myself.
    Thanks for the blog!

  17. NervousGuy says

    Hey,

    I will have the viva for my PhD in Mathematics at a UK university very soon and I am extremely nervous about this.
    While re-reading my thesis I found a lot of typos and small errors. Does it make sense to bring a list with corrections to the viva to show the examiners that I discovered these myself? Obviously the examiners will hate me for this sloppiness so that’s already a bad start…

    In general I’m not very happy with my thesis. The results I produced are very weak and not particularly interesting. My supervisor never really had a look at any parts of my work. One chapter of my thesis was recently rejected as a paper submission. Any suggestions what I can do to still pass? If I fail I really don’t know what to do – my life would be destroyed…

  18. Hassan Ali Haweel says

    Thank very much
    I appreciate all
    It is very good advice and help
    Please keep in touch
    Sincerely
    H. Haweel

  19. MissPhDiva says

    I am happy to have found this article just as I’m starting my PhD. After reading this I feel I am going into it knowing more what to expect and have a lot of time to prepare and practise (the best of 3 years!)

    I feel this advice isn’t always available from universities so I do appreciate hearing it from someone who has ‘been there and done that’.

  20. FinanceGuy says

    Lucky you. I’m just about to have my own PhD thesis defence at Wroclaw University of Economics (Poland). It seems that it will be quite different. The defence is of course open to public so everyone can come. The Committee always consists of 9 professors including two officially appointed reviewers of your PhD thesis that wrote and shared their reviews before the defence. I am obliged to give a speech summarizing what I have managed to accomplished during 4-year-research. I have only 20 minutes to do that. Why? Because the PhD thesis defence in Poland is about Q&A session not the speech. That is why it is so stressful. Each professor from the Committee asks 2-3 questions on average which means that you will be hit by 18-27 questions. Here comes the best part. You don’t answer the questions as they come. You have to write them down quickly (sometimes the questions are preceded by a quite a long speeches by professors so you don’t actually know what the question was) and once all members of the Committee have made their inquiries you can start answering (one round naturally consists of 9 questions). However, that’s not all because if the Committee members don’t have any more questions the Chairman of the defence turns to the audience for additional questions. And here we go again. The Q&A session lasts 1,5-2 hrs on average. After that you forget what your name is but instead of going to sleep for 5 days you have to go for a official dinner (that you pay for) with all 9 members of the Committee and continue the chit-chat for like forever. I am so looking forward to experience that :)

  21. Dr. Lillian says

    I would like to add a few points to consider, for those who have not yet defended.

    At most institutions in the United States, the defense is considered to be the chance for you to “show off” all of your hard work. I was told multiple times that my committee would not let me defend if I wasn’t ready. My advisor wouldn’t let me schedule my defense until he thought I was far enough along in the writing to succeed with a well-written dissertation. For all intents and purposes, I was told that the defense was more of a formality than anything else and to try to have fun with it.

    Most US defenses have a public portion that lasts about an hour, where you give a 45ish minute presentation with ~15 minutes of questions to a general audience that usually includes your committee, members of your department, friends, family, and can even include students and faculty from other departments. This presentation is not ANYTHING like the oral portion of the qualifying exam. In fact, I found mine to be very fun! I had a great time after I got a few slides in. Of course, giving oral presentations is always a bit nerve-wracking, but the best advice I received from one of my committee members was that the public presentation was MY time to shine and BRAG about all the research I completed.

    After the public presentation, my committee and I adjourned to a smaller meeting room (I had 5 faculty on my committee, including my primary Ph.D. advisor), and I’ll admit that I was nervous about this “closed doors” part of the defense. However, I had a great time because I was able to show the depth and breadth of my knowledge. At no point did I feel like I was being “tested”, instead I felt more that my committee was asking me questions and discussing topics with me because they wanted to know more, recognizing that I was the expert.

    I had several friends tell me how the defense would go, and I didn’t really believe it until I was in it – and that was okay.

    I would also caution against practicing the oral presentation excessively because then it becomes more of a memorization of the talking points than a discussion. Everyone is different, but I’ve found that if I practice a presentation 3 times or less, I feel more confident and do much better than if I don’t practice or practice more than 3 times.

    Also, James, I disagree with you about re-reading you thesis before your defense. As the writer, you should already know what is in there! You may need to brush up on a few key points, as you mentioned, but quite frankly, I didn’t even have time for that – and I didn’t feel like I needed to do that because I knew my work inside and out (as you should, before you complete the writing stage). (I also had no time to re-read the 352 pages of my dissertation before my defense). I kept a list of all of the topics I wanted to read up on before my defense, but I never got around to it, and it didn’t end up changing the outcome — largely because I already KNEW that material even though I was a tad nervous about it all.

    “…trust that whatever happens you will be OK.” This clause is absolutely spot on — your committee / advisor should NOT let you get to the defense stage if you aren’t ready or where you should be. I thought I was ready to defend twice before I actually defended (and I needed to push back my start date for my post-doctoral position because of the change in defense dates), and I am so glad that I waited.

    • Dimbi says

      Thanks, this helps! I’ll have my viva next week and I am realising the big gap in my knowledge, which is kind of scary, all that because of trying to read 100 papers … as you said, I believe nothing much will change on the outcome at this stage. Will post here again to let you know of how it went.

      • James Hayton says

        If you are worried about the gap, don’t try to read 100 papers, pick 3 important ones and take the time to make sure you understand them.

        Good luck!

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