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How To Prepare For A Thesis Defense

I defended my doctoral dissertation in 2020—yes, remotely. I also defended a master’s thesis a few years earlier. I learned a few things and sought plenty of advice between these two defenses. In this post I will share the checklist that I used to prepare for the dissertation defense.

(This checklist assumes that your committee has seen the thesis and you have asked them whether they have any reservations about scheduling a defense date—e.g., in case they are concerned that the you or the dissertation are not ready for defense. Here goes.)

1. Have You Followed The Institutional Requirements?

Universities (and their graduate schools) may have weird rules about thesis defenses. For example, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, thesis defenses were expected to occur in person. Even during the pandemic the defenses needed to occur during a semester in which the student is enrolled. And revisions to the thesis needed to occur with a certain number of days from the (successful) defense date. There may be many other requirements. So find your institutions’s thesis defense protocols and follow them.

2. Do You Know Your Advisor’s And/Or Committee’s Expectations?

Ask your advisor for their expectations about the defense. Ask for clarification where necessary and try to fulfill those expectations.

  • Should you provide an overview of the thesis at the beginning of the defense?
  • Should your committee provide commentary in advance of the defense?
  • Will anyone expect you to wear any particular style of clothing?
  • About how long might the defense last?
  • Who else is allowed to attend the defense?
  • Do they or the committee expect some sort of gift?

Note: I consider it odd to provide gifts to your advisor and/or committee after a successful defense. And I consider it a conflict of interest to do so before a successful defense. However, I am unsure if my view on this is the norm. So ask your advisor about informal stuff like as well.

3. Have You Prepared For Predictable Questions?

I recommend rereading your thesis the week of your defense. This will help you anticipate the kinds of comments and questions that your committee will raise during the defense.

  • If you have thoughts or questions while rereading any part of your thesis, write them down. Then write out some responses to those thoughts and questions.
  • Generate at least one critical question or comment that you might expect from each of your committee members. Then prepare a response to each criticism.

4. Do You Understand The Question?

During the discussion portion, if you do not understand a question, then say so. Better yet, ask the questioner a question that will help them rephrase the question in a way that makes more sense to you. Some examples are below. You may want to prepare your own.

  • “I am not sure I know what section of the dissertation you are referring to. Do you have a particular chapter, section, or page in mind?”
  • “Are you are asking about [X] or [Y]. Or are you asking about something else entirely?”
  • “Can you say more about what you mean by [Z]? For example, what observations would allow me to discern it from something else?

5. What Good Questions Can Replace Bad Questions?

Bad questions are not uncommon in academic presentations. If you get a question that seems bad in some way, translate it into a good question and answer that—without saying that the question is bad and that you’re translating it. For example, “This is an interesting line of inquiry. After all it, it raises questions like, [insert good question here]? To that I would say….”

You may want to consult your prepared list of questions and responses if you receive an unambiguously bad question during the defense.

6. Don’t Forget To Thank Everyone Involved

Thank questioners for their questions. When the defense is over, thank everyone involved for their time and attention (and whatever else they have invested in you, if they have). Don’t forget

  • anyone who provided comments on drafts of the thesis.
  • people who attended presentations of any part of your dissertation.
  • those who provided funds for the thesis research.
  • administrators who handle many of the bureaucratic aspects of your thesis.
  • editors who check your thesis’s compliance with institutional formatting guidelines.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

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