Degree In Sight
Hardball questions. Stacks of revisions. Possibly even complete failure. These are top worries for students getting ready to defend their dissertation.
However, while the defense isn't supposed to be easy, students who learn what's expected, anticipate the hard-hitting questions, open themselves to feedback and, most importantly, remember to relax, should have no worries, say faculty and recent grads.
"The best advice I got before my defense was to enjoy myself," says Julia Sluzenski, PhD, who earned her doctorate in cognitive psychology from Temple University last May. "Because it's not every day that you have a roomful of scholars completely interested in what you have to say-it's something special you should enjoy."
Sluzenski, other recent graduates and experienced dissertation chairs offer these tips on delivering a successful defense.
LEARN THE RULES
Because norms for a defense delivery differ, students need to determine their department's expectations by talking with their dissertation chair or fellow students, advises Alison Miller, PhD, a clinical psychologist turned professional dissertation coach.
For example, are you expected to bring refreshments, or is that practice discouraged? Are you allowed to invite friends and family members, or is the defense open only to other graduate students or faculty? Should your presentation be 10 minutes or 30? Should you hand a final copy of your dissertation to your committee a month in advance, or is two weeks the norm?
For the most part, refreshments are not a requirement and defenses are open, but don't assume that's the norm for your department, experts say.
What's more, students are usually expected to book the room and date for their defense, which can take time. "Give yourself a month to do that," says Miller. "It can be challenging to find a time when five busy faculty can meet."
COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR COMMITTEE MEMBERS
Students are more likely to have a wrinkle-free defense if they talk regularly with their committee-which can range from four to five members, depending on the program, who they hand-picked when they began the dissertation process-about how their research is going. For example, students should consult them if they need to alter their methodology or circulate drafts, and to gather advance input if possible.
"Get as much feedback as time permits in both written commentary and in-person meetings with committee members," says Sluzenski. "It's a chance for them to ask the tough questions ahead of time."
Miller suggests documenting your progress by having committee members sign off on any major revisions they request at the proposal stage. Taking that step can prevent confusion among faculty at the defense meeting about why dramatic changes were made.
"The only person I ever heard of who failed a defense was someone who went off on his own," says Miller. "He didn't do what he agreed to do in his proposal and didn't communicate with his committee about changes."
In addition, contact with your committee can provide some valuable insight into the types of questions they might ask during the defense—as can doing a little advance detective work, says veteran dissertation chair and developmental psychologist Nora Newcombe, PhD, of Temple University.
"Know your committee members' likes, dislikes and pet peeves," she says. "Ask people who have been through a defense with them, read their articles and surf the Web," for more information on their research expertise and specialty areas.
PRACTICE AND PREPARE
Be prepared to present a clear explanation of why you did the study, a brief overview of your methodology and results, and a discussion of the implications of your research, but don't recite the manuscript, advises Sluzenski.
"The assumption is that your committee has already read this paper in detail," she says. "You don't want to bore them by going through it again; you just want to refresh them."
At the same time, says Newcombe, don't assume that your committee members have memorized your manuscript. "If they ask a question that you think you addressed, don't assume they remember that you addressed it," she explains. "Repeat yourself patiently."
For the question-and-answer portion that follows the presentation, students should be primed to answer questions about their methodology, to defend and explain their choice of analysis, and discuss how their study contributes to the literature, informs theory and where the research might go next.
Staging a mock defense with fellow graduate students is a great way to practice answering the types of questions you may be asked, adds Kenneth Pargament, PhD, a professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University who leads a student-research group that regularly organizes practice defenses.
"In some cases, the dry run will be more challenging than the defense," he points out. "Sometimes students ask harder questions than faculty."
Many students say attending another student's defense helps them prepare and know what to expect. However, Miller advises students to pick a well-prepared peer, since attending a defense that doesn't go well can be anxiety-provoking instead of helpful. Another tip: Practice your talk in the room where you'll eventually defend, says Chad Pulver, of Purdue University's counseling psychology program, who defended his dissertation recently.
"Know where you will move, look, sit and take notes," says Pulver, who is finishing up his internship at the University of Kansas. "The less you have to react to in the moment, the more focused you can be on the task at hand, which is to demonstrate you have strong knowledge of your project."
DEVELOP THE RIGHT ATTITUDE
Approaching the defense as a critically constructive experience is key, says Pargament. He encourages students to avoid coming off as too protective about their work during the meeting, but to also not be overly compliant about committee members' feedback.
"Students should be open to the perspectives of the committee members—who are committed to helping improve the piece of work—but they shouldn't be shy about sharing their expertise or defending a point of view if they feel their committee may be misinformed," he says.
What's more, students shouldn't feel discouraged if their committee asks for minor revisions to their manuscript after the defense, he says. "It's not at all uncommon for committee members to suggest a different analysis, some changes in a table, or to rework the discussion section to clarify a certain point," he says. "Students sometimes have a couple days work ahead of them to put it in final shape."
BREATHE, THEN ANSWER
Stumped by a question? Don't be afraid to take a moment to consider it, paraphrase it back for clarification or ask that it be restated, say faculty and recent grads. Similarly, if you don't know the answer, it's better to say so and give the best answer you can, rather than digressing for a few minutes.
"Keep in mind that for the most part faculty are just asking questions to see if you can think critically—they are not trying to be difficult or stump you," says Miller.
In fact, staying calm can be one of your greatest assets during the defense, she adds. "It's normal to be anxious and scared about your defense, but many people before you have passed, and you can too.