After finally writing and editing your thesis, it’s time to defend. Here we discuss what steps you can take to prepare for your defense and provide some tips on how to successfully defend in front of the thesis committee.
For many graduate students, the thesis defense can be scary and extremely nerve-wracking, but with the proper preparation, it can actually be an enjoyable experience. It is important to remember that you are the ultimate expert in your research project. While professors on the committee may know your field of study in a general sense, they have not spent the time you have studying your thesis topic. Keep in mind that the committee is not there to make you fail, but is there to ensure you are prepared and have the skills necessary to proceed independently as a scientist. Follow the guidelines below to understand what to expect, ease your nerves and show off what you have learned over the past few years. If you need to refresh your public speaking skills, be sure to check out our articles on public speaking for the grad student and seasoned researcher.
What to expect
1. The Setting.
While most defenses are open to the public, some are closed door. This will depend on the department and institution so check with your program to see what type of defense you will have.
Since many defenses are seen as more of a formality and celebration, there is often food and drinks provided. Be sure to find out if you are responsible for providing refreshments for your guests and committee in advance.
2. Inviting Friends and Family.
Most programs allow you to invite guests such as friends and family. If your family and friends do attend, tailor your presentation to a wider audience so everyone can understand. Also, don’t forget to be prepared for embarrassing questions. Take them with a sense of grace, and they will brush right over. If you’re worried that your parent with a background in life sciences may try to stump you, remind yourself that it is okay not to know the answer—just stay professional and confident.
Pro Tip: Preemptively involve your family before the time of the defense. The best way to do this is to invite them to your presentation and give them an overview prior to the defense. Ask if they have questions, and if not, provide them with intelligent questions to ask. By charging them ahead of time, they’ll be too distracted by the honor of the task to try anything else, and you’ll already be prepared to respond to their questions.
3. The Committee.
The committee is usually made up of your advisor as well as other professors from your department. Occasionally, there may be a few professors from a related department, but a majority will be from yours. The advisor serves as the moderator for the defense and does not have a say in the outcome.
4. Format of the defense.
At most institutions, the event begins with a presentation by you—sometimes with interruptions for questions. At the conclusion of your talk, the committee may have you leave the room while they decide which questions they will ask you. You will be invited back into the room for the defense portion, and the committee will ask you a series of questions. Most questions are simple and not meant to stump you, but expect a few challenging ones.
5. Failure is rare.
As stated previously, at many institutions, the thesis defense is more of a formality that happens once the final revisions have been made to your dissertation. Therefore, failure is rare. The committee does not let people defend until they are ready. Common outcomes are passing and passing with revisions required. While failure is the third possible outcome, it is unusual.
Before your Defense
6. Reread your thesis.
Two weeks before you defend, set aside some time to reread through your thesis in its entirety. While it may seem like overkill since you already spent so much time writing it, going back over your thesis can help to bring the bigger picture back to mind before you present. This is very important when it comes to answering questions from the committee about the implications of your project. The details of your research will be freshly accessible in your mind after going over the paper one last time as well.
7. Pretend to be the examiner.
As you review your thesis/dissertation, try to do so from the perspective of your thesis committee. Look for the strengths and weaknesses of your research. Try to identify potential areas of confusion because the audience will likely ask questions about parts of your thesis that could have been expanded upon. Write out the questions that you come up with while rereading, and then go back and answer them to the best of your ability. Were you able to answer them thoroughly? If not, now is the time to brush up on current literature about the topic as well as the nuances of your own research study.
8. Attend other thesis defenses.
Perhaps one of the most intimidating aspects of the thesis defense is not knowing what to expect. You may have heard rumors about previous thesis defenses and how they were but if you weren’t actually there to see it, these rumors won’t be as helpful. At many universities, students are allowed to observe the thesis presentations of other students. Take advantage of this opportunity before you start preparing your presentation. Not only will this help to calm your nerves since you will have a better idea of what to expect, it will help you to form a list of dos and don’ts in your head for your own talk. Look for the strengths and weaknesses in each student’s defense and learn from their mistakes and successes.
9. Schedule a strategy meeting with your advisor.
Scheduling a time to meet with your advisor can be very helpful. Once you have outlined how your talk will go and what the points of your thesis are, share your plans with your advisor. He or she has been on defense committees in the past and can give you some insight into how you may want to alter the structure or content of your presentation based on common mistakes that other students have made. Remember that your advisor is rooting for you and was once in your shoes preparing for his or her own thesis defense.
Pro Tip: At most universities, you can meet with the committee before your defense as often as you can get them all in a room together—take advantage of this. Each time you meet with them, you will get more and more recommendations on how to make you thesis better and therefore have a better defense.
10. Get the most out of practicing.
There are a few ways you can optimize your practice time so you get the most out of it. Practice alone the first few times until you become more comfortable with your talk. When you feel like you are ready, record yourself giving your defense. One of the most convenient ways to do this is using the camera on your laptop or your cell phone. After you finish, take time to review your recording. Check out your body language and look for certain words or phrases that you use repeatedly—many of us do this when we are nervous. You can also use your recording to gauge the length of your presentation.
Once you have practiced enough, get a group of your colleagues together and practice giving your defense to them. By presenting to people with a background in your field, you have the opportunity to ask them to grill you with questions. Some of their questions may even be similar to questions the committee will ask you when it is time for your actual defense and will help you get used to answering questions about your project on the fly.
Pro Tip: In biology, there are many words that are hard to pronounce if you are not used to saying them on a regular basis. We often get accustomed to using acronyms and abbreviations in daily speech, but try to avoid this by practicing the pronunciation of any words you don’t know how to say. If you are unsure about how a word should sound, inquire with your advisor, look online for a pronunciation key, or check with your peers.
During your defense
11. Don’t assume everyone has read your entire thesis.
Even though you provided the committee with your thesis in advance, it is important not to assume that they were all able to read through the whole paper. Therefore, you should present the importance of your research project, what methods you used to complete your project, and what the outcomes of your research were. You should also provide the committee with an explanation of the implications of your study both to your field specifically and also to the wider body of scientific knowledge. Stating your recommendations for future research is also encouraged because you will probably be asked about it if it is not addressed during your presentation.
On the other hand, be prepared to answer questions that may come from your paper rather than your talk. Some of your committee members will have read your entire thesis and may reference a specific paragraph or page in it when posing a question. Be sure to have a paper copy with you just in case!
12. Be prepared for questions.
There are some questions that you can anticipate being asked. For example, if there are any weaknesses or limitations to your project, you can be almost certain that your committee will ask about them. Prepare for questions like this by creating slides with graphics and text that will help you answer any questions you suspect may be brought up. You can leave a blank slide between your presentation and extra slides or save them in an entirely separate file—just be sure they are easily accessible.
Remember that you are not expected to know everything, and if you don’t know the answer, it is best to be honest. Perhaps you hadn’t thought of that question before, but you can tell the committee that you will consider it in the future.
Pro Tip: When answering questions, first listen to the entire question. Next, restate the question back to the person who posed to be sure you understood it correctly. Lastly, answer the question to the best of your ability and provide a succinct close to your answer to minimize a long dialog. If you need to pause to gather your thoughts, that is OK.
13. Dress the part.
It can be easy to put off planning what you are going to wear for your thesis defense when you are caught up in preparing for the talk itself. However, don’t put this off until the last minute. Looking professional is important in making a great impression with your thesis committee. Remember that you are defending the fact that you deserve your master’s or Ph.D. as much as you are defending your thesis—so dress the part. Your outfit should be business professional. For men, wear dress pants along with a coat and tie. Women should wear a skirt or pant suit, but a dress can work, too. Try to steer clear of sleeveless dresses, low cut tops or anything that will make you feel uncomfortable. You don’t want to have to adjust your outfit constantly during your talk; this will appear fidgety and unprofessional.
14. Be confident, but not arrogant.
Body language plays a big role in all types of communication. In your thesis defense, it is imperative to speak with confidence about your research and your findings. If you speak as though you are unsure, it will be hard for the committee to believe what you are saying and it may come off as though you aren’t confident about your results. The defense committee is there to ensure you are capable of working independently after graduation. This is your time to prove to the committee what you have learned over the past few years and that you deserve a Ph.D. in your field.
Pro Tip: Minimize your use of qualifying words such as likely, may, might, could, should, probably and usually. Excessive use of these words will cause you to lose your authority. Add strength to your presentation by instead using works like will, always and won’t.
15. Record your defense.
During or after the question section of your defense, the committee will provide you with feedback, suggestions and revisions for your thesis. However, it can be difficult to remember all of the words of wisdom when you are nervous. If you set up a video or audiotape to record your talk, you will have a record of what was discussed so you can go back and make edits to your thesis as necessary after your defense is over.
These 15 tips can help you successfully deliver a thesis defense at any university, but remember that your institution will have its own guidelines to help you prepare your defense. Since the thesis defense varies between departments and schools, it will also be beneficial to talk to your peers who have already completed one. Gather as much information as you can and jump right in to the planning stages. Don’t get caught up in your fears and remember that you are the only expert on your research. Your advisor and defense committee would not let you defend if you weren’t ready. You can do it!
GoldBio Staff Writer
Rebecca is a medical student at the University of Missouri.
She previously worked as a lab technician while studying
biology at Truman State University. As an aspiring
reproductive endocrinologist with an interest in global
health, Rebecca has traveled across Central America on
medical mission trips. With a passion for the life sciences,
she enjoys writing for GoldBio.
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