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

  1. 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.

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