How to Defend Your Thesis or Dissertation

How to Defend Your Thesis or Dissertation

After you complete your thesis or dissertation, you will typically need to defend it before a committee of scholars. In North America, this process is known as the defense, while in the United Kingdom it is called the viva voce, which is Latin for “with the living voice,” meaning an in-person oral presentation. No matter which side of the Pond you’re on, the process is the same, as is the anxiety most degree candidates feel about this vital step before receiving an advanced degree.

One blogger chronicled his stress finishing a dissertation on a blog titled “Almost Bloody Done.” Even when he had sent in his dissertation to the University, he still felt anxiety.

“It’s hard to just let go of the all the stress and anxiety at the exact moment that it gets mailed off. Even though I anticipated this, it’s still not fun.”

If you’re getting ready to defend your dissertation or thesis, it’s important that you prepare thoroughly because preparation is the best way to gain confidence and reduce the anxiety and stress surrounding a thesis or dissertation defense. Preparation is important so you don’t end up like the students in Kerry Soper’s classic web comic “Things You Shouldn’t Say at Your Dissertation Defense.” A sample:

“…well the subject of my study…oh, man!—what’s his name again? Somebody help me out here!”

“At the last minute I decided to change my topic. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Well, my mom loves it, and I think that’s what really counts.”

Obviously, Soper was making jokes about the worst case scenarios of dissertation defense. In reality, the defense of a thesis or dissertation is your chance to show the committee that you are a master of your subject matter and have an expert command of your sources and research. That’s why preparation is so important.

Simple Tips to prepare for your thesis or dissertation defense

TIP ONE: Attend other students’ defenses

If your university allows it, sit in on a few defenses prior to your own to get a feel for what is involved and how other students handle it. Learn what the other students are doing right and also what could be improved. Take careful notes and use what you’ve learned to help you develop your own defense presentation.

TIP TWO: Remember that you are the expert

You are the one who has done the research into your topic, not the committee. You know the sources and the findings better than anyone. As you give your defense adopt the tone of an expert and project confidence and knowledge. Don’t become aggressive in asserting yourself, but do defend your thesis with the insights and knowledge you’ve gained through your research. After all, the questions are all about your dissertation or thesis, and you’ve already written it and know all the answers!

TIP THREE: Practice giving presentations

Gather friends and colleagues to role play with you as you give a presentation and answer sample questions about your dissertation. Public speaking is an art, and practice helps improve your performance. If you have difficulty, start out by practicing what you will say in front of a mirror before moving on to live performances with your friends. Running through your presentation a few times will give you confidence and help you to develop your public speaking skills. Remember, though, that you are not simply memorizing a speech to deliver. Instead, you should develop a basic outline of key points and practice discussing them extemporaneously and in a natural way.

TIP FOUR: Prepare to answer the key questions

The most important question your committee will ask you is what makes your thesis or dissertation different from the research that has been done in the field prior to your work. Develop your answer to this question ahead of time and have it ready for when the committee asks you this question (or a variation on it).

TIP FIVE: Look the part

You are serious scholar, and you deserve to be taken seriously. Show up to your defense dressed in formal business attire—a jacket and tie for men, and pant suits or skirt suits for women. It’s best to leave the sneakers at home and wear more formal shoes. Fashion choices aren’t a formal criterion for judging a thesis, but they contribute to the impression the committee has of you—as someone who is serious and ready to join the upper echelons of the academy.

TIP SIX: Relax

Take time to decompress, relax, and calm your nerves. Enjoy a favorite activity, or a favorite food. As Jed Brubaker wrote on his “What Knows: Do You?” blog, good food can help settle frayed nerves:

“During a recent dissertation defense, a colleague joked that she was tempted to dedicate her dissertation ‘to tea.’ While everyone laughed at the ridiculous and endearing joke, a mild horror crept over me as I realized that I, in fact, had mentioned cookies in the acknowledgements section of my thesis.”

You shouldn’t go so far as to personally thank Grand Theft Auto for calming you down, but a little bit of fun can take the edge off of the anxiety of dissertation or thesis defense.

With these simple tips, you’ll be prepared for anything your thesis or dissertation committee can throw at you.

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