Thursday, February 16, 2017

How to: Defend Your Dissertation (like a Superstar) in 10 Easy Steps

Of all the academic things I turned out to be good at, defending my dissertation is perhaps the most surprising. I was not awesome (to put it mildly) at the oral defence portion of my comprehensive exams, and I've had at least one job interview where I bumbled questions like a nervous wreck. But I KILLED my dissertation defence. Best people ever saw-level killed it. And now that it's been six months and I've got some perspective on it, it's time to share my pearls of wisdom so that you too can have the snake fight of your life.

(Caveat: I'm in the humanities, so this advice might not exactly apply to people in other fields. You know what the deal is in your discipline, so adapt as necessary.)

1. Put it in Context 

We all hear about this mysterious, terrifying thing called the dissertation defence all the way through our PhDs, but without real context. It's not the same as a qualifying exam, or even as a proposal defence. Is it like a chalk talk or a job talk? Is it really like McSweeney's snake fight? And what do people mean by defend--is that just a euphemism for poking holes and grilling me until I cry?

As a humanities PhD, the best advice I got was to think of the defence as a meeting with a book publisher who you might want to publish your academic monograph, and who wants to know more about the project. And they're going to ask you to explain and expand on your choices (that is, defend them) so that they can understand this project and its contribution to knowledge in your field. Why did you make the methodological and theoretical choices you did? Why did you choose the parameters you did for this study? What made you want to pursue this research in the first place? How is this work different from that other people in your field are doing, and why? What's the most important contribution to knowledge this research makes?

2. Know the Boundaries

The defence is, first and foremost, about the work your committee has on the table in front of them. It is about defending and justifying the choices you made in doing that research, and just that research. Don't worry too much about questions that take you outside of your project. Those might come up, mostly in the context of how this research fits into and contributes to your field more broadly, but 90% of your discussion is going to be about the work you did and how and why you did it the way you did. Focus your preparation on your dissertation--on knowing it well, on being able to explain and justify your choices, on being able to identify its limits--and not on trying to know everything about your field that an examiner could possibly ask you.

3. Set the Terms 

In many fields, an opening presentation at the defence is mandatory. In some, like mine, it's optional. Do one. The opening presentation is your opportunity to set the terms of discussion in your defence, to frame the conversation in a way that works for you. Your examiners, especially your external, will have questions prepared, but the presentation is a golden opportunity to set the terms of engagement. Preparing it is also one of the best ways to prepare for the defence, because it forces you to see and talk about the big picture of your project before you delve into the nitty-gritty of preparing answers to specific questions.

If you're working in a lab, ask your recently graduated labmates or the new postdoc if they would share their presentation. In the humanities, you might find a colleague who is willing to share their script (or slides, if they had them). I found this one a good starting point.

Another way you can set the terms of engagement for your defence is to have a say in where it happens. Because I worked in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at my university, I knew what rooms were typically used for defences, and I knew about ones that were available but rarely used and SO COOL. So, I decided to defend at Hogwarts, a.k.a. the York Room.

4. Know your Audience 

The questions your examiners are going to ask you don't need to be a mystery. They are people with specific interests and biases, and happily there's lots of evidence out there--in the form of their scholarship and public writing--that can give you insight into what those are. Read a bunch of stuff written by your external examiner, and refresh yourself on the work of your committee members. Identify the places where their ideas conflict with yours, what is of significant interest to them that intersects with (or didn't get much time in) your work, where your work significantly overlaps. And learn what you can about your external as a person--is s/he prickly or friendly? is s/he defensive or open to being challenged? what does she care about as a researcher? Given the size of our academic networks, there's a good likelihood that you or your supervisor knows someone who knows your external well--talk to them!

5. Fill the Bank

This one is both the easiest and the hardest: find a useful list of common defence questions for your discipline, and prepare answers to them. Use what you've learned about your defence committee, and the framework you prepared in developing your opening presentation, to guide your answers. Don't be afraid to research your answers a bit. And then review those answers a bunch before the defence. Make your labmate/partner/cat listen to you deliver those answers out loud. (I drove my husband a bit crazy with this, as I spent the weeks before my defence constantly monologuing about my research. But it worked!) You should also ask your supervisor and other committee members to share with you, to the extent that they can, the areas of your work on which you should focus your preparation.

Doing this works. There were almost no questions that I hadn't anticipated in advance, and I pulled answers to some of the trickier ones almost verbatim from my mental bank of prepared responses. Those were the answers that most impressed my committee. (The one I personally liked the best answered a challenging question from my supervisor about an unusual, and often-denigrated, approach I take in my research by pointing out, with specific examples, that her widely acclaimed work also sometimes takes the same approach, just more subtly. My preparation and knowledge of my committee paid off--I was sure she was going to ask me some version of that question, and I prepared a strong answer that directly referenced her own scholarship.)

6. Know to Stop

It's two days before your defence. You've prepared your statement. You've anticipated the questions your committee will ask and you've practiced your answers. You feel confident in your ability to defend the choices you made in conducting this research.

Time to stop.

There's nothing more you can do. It's time to give your brain a rest and be confident in not only your preparation, but in the years of work you did to get to this point.

7. Choose your Gear

You can, however, choose your clothes and the other things you're going to bring. The defence outfit is crucial, and it must meet three key standards:

  • It must make you look like a colleague, like a fellow academic, not like a graduate student. 
  • It must be utterly and totally comfortable. If any part of your outfit pinches or rubs or needs adjusting, chuck it--your clothes cannot be a distraction. 
  • It must make you feel AWESOME. 

I defended in the still-steamy part of September, and my power outfits always blend femme and more masculine pieces, so I wore a skirt, a short-sleeved blouse, and a blazer. (No piece of clothing makes me feel more powerful than a blazer, and I wear one just about every day despite my work dress-code being rather more casual than that.) It ended up being too warm to wear the blazer during the defence, but I had strategically chosen the rest of my outfit so that it didn't matter whether I wore it or not. I felt smart and powerful and comfortable and it was perfect. 

Other things to bring: 
  • a bottle of water 
  • paper and a pen for writing down notes (you can also buy yourself a little time in answering questions by writing them down) 
  • a copy of your dissertation with the key sections you might want to refer to -- methods, results, a key experiment or analysis--flagged 
  • anything else your department or supervisor tells you that you must bring -- it can vary
  • a person or people (if you can and want to) -- STEM defences are almost always public, but humanities ones are often in principle but not in practice. My partner attended my defence, and it was great. He's been there for all the rest of the process, and I wanted him there for the last part. (One of my committee members also used to be his babysitter, so it was a bit of a reunion.) 

8. Get your Mind Right

Mindset plays a major part in determining how you're going to do during your defence. I knew that my external examiner had a reputation for being prickly. I knew that my supervisor was a superstar who can theorize me under the table any day. But I decided frame the defence in my mind as a rare and valuable opportunity to spend a few hours discussing my research with six brilliant people who were going to help me make it better. I was going to be happy and excited to be there and delighted to answer questions that were going to help me think about my project more deeply.

I also--and you should to--figured out where the room was, got there early, got everything set up, and was calm cool and collected by the time the rest of the committee arrived. The scientific validity of power poses is hotly contested, but they work for me, so I did a bunch. You do you.

9. Have Fun

All my preparation, practical and mental, totally worked. I had a TOTAL BLAST at my defence. As my committee came into the room and we started talking, the atmosphere became more and more celebratory--a tone I set. Between my determination to have a good time and my preparation, I got my brain to interpret all questions as helpful and supportive, even when they were hard and prickly, and answering them was when I came at them from that place. You too can have a good time at your defence, if you're prepared and and you come at it as a discussion that's intended to make you and your research better, not as a moment that's intended to trip you up, or make you look stupid, or poke holes in your work.

10. Drink the Champagne

You deserve it! Congratulations!

With my husband immediately post-defence. 


  1. Fantastic advice in here! I did a lot of these things too (especially the rehearsal - I even practiced my opening talk in front of photographs of my committee), and it really helped.

  2. What a fantastic idea to practice your opener in front of a mock committee of photographs! (I'm going to add that idea to the post and credit you, if you don't mind!)

  3. This advice is terrific! I think most of it applies to a master's defense. Your Fill the Bank section is spot on -- it worked for me too. Talked at home about my defense so much my spouse could have answered most of the questions that were asked. But it paid off.

  4. This is fabulous advice. I especially agree with bringing in a marked up copy of your diss. Often questions are about specific sentences and having an annotated diss with you can help you quickly contextualize that sentence. The one thing I don't agree with is #4. yes, know your audience but I don't really think you can necessarily predict questions based on publications. I have seen candidates shoot themselves in the foot by assuming that a question comes from a specific position and not actually listening to the question itself. Answer the question being asked, if possible. One thing you don't mention is what to do if you draw a blank. This happens in most defences at one point or another (and really often in job interviews). It is ok to say "I am drawing a blank, can you please expand on your question." During that time, a spark will go off. You can also speak back to the question later in the defence if it finally comes through then. Great post!

    1. Thanks, Laura! I totally agree with you that you need to be careful about answering the question as posed and not making assumptions, but if only for one's peace of mind, I still think it's useful to familiarize oneself with your committee's typical approaches and preoccupations.

      Great advice re: what to do if you draw a blank! I'll update and credit you for the suggestion.


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