13: Defending the Dissertation

What a “typical” defense looks like:

  • You present a brief overview of the dissertation that can last from a few minutes to an hour.
  • The committee asks you questions for an hour or two.
  • You participate in a final summation where you are all clear as to what need to be done or addressed next.

What the defense if designed to do:

  • The defense is an opportunity for your committee members to help you better understand the research that you have done and to point out the limitations of your work. Their purpose is to help you finish your degree requirements.
  • The defense is a test of whether you can present your work in a “professional manner” and of how skillfully you can think on your feet to defend it under pressure.
  • The defense is an opportunity for you to show your committee how well you have conducted research and prepared your dissertation.

Preparing for the defense:

  • The secret to having a successful defense is preparation. If you have selected your committee wisely, communicated well with them throughout the project, and prepared thoroughly for the defense itself, you will be in an excellent position to succeed.
  • Meet with your advisor ahead of time and discuss the strategy you should use at the defense. Identify any possible problems that may occur and discuss the ways they should be dealt with. Try and make the defense more of a team effort.
  • Try to attend one or more defenses prior to your own.
  • It may be helpful to prepare an outline.

At the defense:

  • You know more about your dissertation than anyone, and everyone present wants you to succeed.
  • Your performance reflects not only on you but also on the professional competence of your advisor in ways both subtle and direct.
  • You may want to bring a copy of your dissertation with you to the defense.
  • Consider video and/or audio recording your defense.
  • Don’t be defensive at your defense.
  • Can you fail? Very few people fail if they have worked closely with their committee during the writing of the dissertation. “Provisional pass,” however, is not uncommon, where eventual acceptance of the dissertation is dependent upon either major or minor revisions.

After the defense:

Writing an article for publication:
Since this is the time you know this work best, it’s a good time to work on creating articles out of it. Keep in mind that this is far more than a cut-and-past exercise. You may need to make significant revisions to prepare the document for another audience and condense part of your arguments given that dissertations are far longer than academic articles. Depending on your field, you may want to consider the issue of “co-authorship” with your advisor.

The Job Search

  • The job search usually begins while you are writing or defending your dissertation. This is an already stressful time, so good time management and personal organization is critical.
  • Seek help from your committee while reviewing postings in your field well ahead of time. Remember, your defense will likely become your job talk and you should consider larger audiences and purposes.
  • It might be to your advantage to create multiple versions of your defense talk considering the different positions that you are applying for; consider the context of the institution you are applying to as part of the overall design of the presentation (goals of the college, history of the organization, etc.).
  • Use opportunities to present at conferences to polish your public speaking skills, refine your work for clear presentation and network with others in the field. This also builds your C.V.!
  • Keep your C.V. up-to-date throughout the entire PhD process. Consider maintaining a web-based portfolio that includes a vita, coverletter, photos, samples of writing, and other items pertinent to your work.