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Preparing Defend Dissertation

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.

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Nerve coolers

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

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.

The discussion

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

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!”

Attend 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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