Surviving Your Doctoral Defense: How Not to Suck in Graduate School
The defense of the doctoral dissertation, also known as the viva, is the final stage of the doctoral program. There are a variety of styles, traditions, processes, and methods of the dissertation defense process. These vary across nations, universities, and fields of study. However, there are a set of common approaches that students can apply to reduce the potentially paralyzing anxiety and stress surrounding the doctoral dissertation defense.
As is usual on this blog, the suggestions reflect my experiences and are not intended to be a substitute for real expertise in the matter. But after serving as a supervisor for six successful doctoral theses and a member of the defense committee for 49 doctoral theses, there are some behaviours of candidates that differentiate high-quality versus low-quality dissertation defenses.
Prior to Defense
Wait until the dissertation is ready. There are many candidates who have artificial deadlines and timelines due to job commitments, financial considerations, or other requirements that the defense take place by a certain date. Rushing to meet a specific defense date increases the likelihood that the dissertation is rushed. Take the time to make sure that all appropriate supervisors, peers, and other trusted reviewers have the time to read the document carefully. This is a situation where it is critically important to ensure that the document is sound and well-developed before moving on to the defense.
Presentation rules apply. The general rule of presentation is to know the information so well that you could carry out your entire defense if your computer locks up, the projector fails, or there is some other technological problem.
Select external examiners. Nearly all universities require that an expert from outside of the university reviews the document. This can be a challenge. I usually recommend the following steps be taken. Early in the literature review process, students are asked to take note of leading scholars specific to the field. Students are encouraged to email those scholars with questions and inquiries about current and soon to be published research. Those scholars who respond productively and seem somewhat reasonable can be put on the list of potential external examiners. There have been cases of unfair external reviewers giving poor evaluations because of disagreements concerning theoretical orientation or other problematic evaluation approaches. In selecting external reviewers, cultural traditions are also important. For example, there been cases of reviewers from the United Kingdom who have expectations of extraordinarily long dissertations, who have rejected North American dissertations for being too short and lacking detail. There are no guarantees, but it helps to have external reviewers who do not have an agenda or are from an academic culture are far different from the candidate.
Practice the presentation. Most dissertation defenses begin with a short presentation by the candidate. A 15 to 20-minute presentation is an extraordinarily difficult timeframe to present multiple years worth of work. This is the part of the doctoral defense in which candidates have the most control. This needs to be practised repeatedly with significant feedback. In some places, the time limitation is strictly enforced, so be sure to time all of your practice activities.
Attend several dissertation defenses. It is valuable to understand the process and dynamics by observing them firsthand. You can also find styles and approaches that candidates use that are worth emulating.
Preview with your supervisor. Asked the supervisor to share potential questions and assist in developing reasonable responses.
Choose your guests mindfully. Dissertation defenses are typically publicly open. There are some departments on lab cultures where 20 to 30 peers attend for support and others were only the candidate and the committee are in attendance. I am surprised how often parents and significant others attend the defenses. That would never work for me. Although it is difficult to go against these cultural trends, you can invite who you need for support, but not distraction.
Sleep. The doctoral dissertation defense is an extremely stressful experience, but get some sleep.
During the Defense
Enjoy the Experience. Attitudes towards the dissertation defense vary across universities, but often the experience is more of a coronation or celebration rather than a rigorous evaluation with a high risk of failure. Your supervisor would not allow you to defend the dissertation and was the project and your presentation was in good shape. You are ready and you have been preparing for this for years. Honestly, there is something that inspires confidence in a candidate who smiles and appears as comfortable as possible.
Stamina is a key. Dissertation defenses can last from 90 minutes up to three hours. Understand and prepare for your local norms. Many people will want to sit while answering questions. Have water available. It is also good to have a piece of fruit or something else to eat to prevent any blood sugar crashes. Maintaining concentration and focus throughout is a major factor.
Understand the questions. Listen carefully to the questions being asked. Most committee members are not nearly as expert as the candidate who has spent years researching the specific topic. Questions from the defense committee usually consist of: some form of a question asking why a different study was not done; specific details to the point of minutia on methodology and analysis; there will be questions about larger theory, context; and which studies you choose to reference; and there may be committee members who make long statements intended to show off for their peers. And most of the time someone will ask if you could change one aspect of your project, what would you change? My experience is that it is rare to have a committee member be hostile or extremely adversarial, but it does happen sometimes. The key to all these issues is composure. Listen carefully, take a deep breath, ask the committee member to repeat the question if necessary, and take some time to formulate your answer.
Do not BS. Some of the questions being asked are not relevant to the document at hand and generally far afield. If you do not know the answer at all, say that you do not know. Attempting a long and convoluted BS answer does not leave a favourable impression.
Depth and breadth. The secret is to have a depth and breadth of knowledge that you can marshal to answer the questions. Given that you have lived with this material for some time, this should not be too challenging. Knowing the major scholars and year of publication can be helpful in demonstrating your detailed knowledge. Understanding how your research could be applied, used for future investigations, influence theory, or otherwise placed in the larger context are also critical.
Managing impressions. It is rarely a problem if a candidate does not know an answer to a specific question or two. Overall impression counts. I have been surprised that how incredibly poised nearly all candidates are at their defense. Even students I have known to be very nervous, seem confident and poised when it comes to their dissertation defense. Confidence and poise will go a long way.
Develop a strategy if you get lost. Losing composure or getting lost under a barrage of questions for an hour and a half or longer is common. The candidate has a lot of control in setting the pace and tone of how questions can be answered. A frequently used an effective approach is to have a set script when you are stumped by a question. A decent script is to say, “That is a really useful question, I have not given that much thought before, so give me a moment to put my answer together.” If you have the script prepared in advance, then you can say it and typically buy a little bit of time to develop and articulate an answer. Likewise, it is always possible that you realize that you have no idea how to answer the question and it is best to say, “I do not know the answer to that.”
Bringing back around. Given that you only have a 15 to 20-minute initial presentation, it is unlikely that all your information will be covered during that introduction. Have several extra slides prepared with additional figures or data. If a question is relevant, then you can go to the appropriate extra slide and spend a lot more time on some of the information that you do not have time for an initial presentation, and this approach also signals that you are well prepared to answer questions.
Have a copy of your full dissertation document with you. You never know when a question or may get very specific. For example, “On page 172, paragraph three, line 4 you made this statement. Is that inconsistent with your similar statement on page 87, paragraph one, line 5?” You will need to be able to move quickly to compare detailed text. Whether this is done in paper or print depends on your comfort level.
Be happy. I am really surprised how rarely I see a successful candidate look happy. The predominant expression is relief and fatigue. I have seen quite a few tears of release or disbelief. This seems like a good time to be happy. Enjoy your hard-earned success.
Schedule a meeting with your supervisor. Almost certainly someone on the committee will find typos, requirement for clarification, or maybe even additional need for changes in the dissertation document. Schedule that meeting quickly so that your supervisor can guide any changes, revisions, and edits that need to be made.
Thank your committee. Be sure to thank everyone on the committee, even those who were difficult during the defense process, after the process over. It is also good to take note of the first person to refer to you as Doctor.
Contact and thank everyone involved in your project. This could be anyone from technicians, support staff, administrative staff, undergraduates, and others. Acknowledging all the people essential to your success is a responsible thing to do. Many people who provided important services to your project may not know that the project was a success until you contact them. Say thank you.
Contact and thank personal friends and family. Sharing your success is an important part of the process. A lot of people have made sacrifices that have led to your accomplishment. They have certainly provided support and have been there for you in difficult times.
Do not be weird. I really wanted to write and gloat to my 11th grade physics teacher who told me I was “too lazy and stupid to consider college. And if I did manage to get into college would certainly fail.” I wrote the letter, but did not mail it.
The doctoral defense is a ritual that can be mysterious and scary. With the use of your supervisor, peers and others, learn as much about the process as possible to demystify the activity. Understand the specific procedures that are written in your faculty or University guidelines. Observe how other people manage this. There is nothing wrong with having a series of meetings with peers at similar stages in your degree program to share and brainstorm ideas.
If you are at this stage in your degree program, congratulations. Listen to your supervisor, take deep breaths, and you have got this. It will be a short period of time until you hear the words, “Congratulations, Doctor.”