Best tips for the PhD defense

Eva Lantsoght
4 Nov ’21

For the past years, I’ve been working with my coauthor on our book on the PhD defense. From all the testimonies about the defense I collected over the years for my “Defenses around the world” series, in combination with reading the literature on the topic for this book, as well as then carrying out my own research on the link between the defense format and students’ perception, I think I have gained a good understanding of the doctoral defense.

There are significant differences between the format and function of the doctoral defense between universities and countries. In the United Kingdom, the viva voce is more like an examination: you are examined on your thesis and research privately by two examiners (an internal and external examiner), and they will give you the outcome of your thesis and defense at the end. You may pass, receive minor corrections, major corrections, or be deferred to graduate with an MPhil (Masters of Philosophy) instead of the PhD. Your thesis is only finalized after the defense. On the other hand, if you defend your thesis in the Netherlands, you will defend to a large committee in front of friends, family, and colleagues. Your thesis will already be printed and approved by all committee members, and from a scholarly perspective, the thesis serves more as a rite of passage.

There’s more involved in the defense than the scholarly aspects. We know that the affective dimension of the defense (i.e. the emotions involved) is important, and there are important cultural aspects as well that drive the defense proceedings. Acknowledging these aspects of the defense is important to come to an understanding that the defense is more than just a standard exam.

Looking at what I have learned about the defense in these past years, I can give you my best tips for preparing the defense and passing with flying colors:

1. Understand the defense format

An important step in preparing yourself for the defense, is making sure you understand what will happen during your defense, and what will happen afterwards. Defense formats vary widely among universities and countries, and you should not assume that you know what the defense is like at your institution if you have not witnessed a defense (if you have that possibility) or have read carefully all the doctoral regulations around your defense. In case of doubt, ask your supervisor for clarifications.

2. Read blog posts and books about the defense

Reading about the experiences of others during the defense can help you prepare for what you will be going through. Similarly, reading about the defense in advice books for doctoral students is a good step in the preparation for the defense. Write down your main findings from what you have read, and confirm these findings with your supervisor.

3. Make wise choices for your committee

The behavior and attitude of your committee drives the atmosphere during the defense. If you have a say in the selection of committee members, then think about your recommendations. You want to have a committee that is fair and suitable for making a well-balanced assessment of your research. Keep in mind that younger faculty members may be less experienced in examining a thesis and may be too detail-oriented, whereas senior faculty members may be too busy to give you the in-depth feedback that can improve your work. These examples are, of course, gross oversimplifications – but think about how each committee member can contribute to the improvement of your thesis and how their questions may drive the direction of your defense.

4. Prepare ahead of time

Don’t wait until the last minute to prepare for your defense. By all means, make sure you know the contents of your thesis in and out. In addition, make sure you know the research of your committee members very well. If you will give a presentation during your defense, make your slides ahead of time so that you can practice a number of times and have a solid story.

5. Practice questions

Besides practicing for your defense with the contents of your research, you should practice answering typical questions that you can expect during your defense. There are several lists of questions that you can find online – look at a few of these lists to get an idea of what can be covered. Know as well that the type of questions depends on your defense format: a private UK-style viva can mean that your examiners want to go through your thesis page by page and ask detailed questions, whereas a public Dutch-style defense will typically involve more general and longer questions for you to address.

6. Have a mock defense

Having a trial defense in advance is a good practice. The most important here, for the mock defense, is that your mock defense is as similar to your real defense as possible, so that you get an experience that prepares you as well as possible for the actual defense. Try to get senior colleagues to serve as committee members for your mock defense, and ask lab members to attend and take note of what you can improve for your defense.

7. Write out your itinerary for the day

Make sure you know exactly where to be and when, with which paperwork, during the day of your defense. I find that writing out my itinerary for the day of my defense helped me, and it also helped me see where and when I would need a friend to help me as I would not be able to both receive my guests and family and at the same time take the boxes with my printed copies of the thesis from my office to the defense room.

8. Prepare your tools the day before

Think about everything you will need for your defense: your thesis, pen, paper, laptop, cables, water, additional calculations, copies of relevant literature sources, a snack, your clothes,… Make sure you know what you need for your defense, and put everything ready the day before. On defense-day, you will then be able to just follow your itinerary.

9. Know that you will pass

Most candidates pass their defense, either as a straight pass or with minor comments. Failing a defense only happens when in exceptional cases: when there are major ethical concerns about the research, or when plagiarism is caught. If you’ve done your research yourself and you prepared for the defense, you can expect to pass.

10. Celebrate in style

You only defend your doctoral thesis once in your life, so take the time and expense (if possible) to celebrate in style. Whether you want to share champagne with your lab mates, or go for a dinner with your friends, colleagues, and family, make sure that you have a plan to celebrate this very special occasion.

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