How to Prepare for your PhD Defense

Eva Lantsoght
2 Feb ’17

Let's talk today about the very end of the PhD journey: your defense (or viva, if you are in the UK). Depending on the university or country you are in, your PhD defense can be the very last step in a long process, on the day when you receive your diploma (as in the Netherlands), or it can be a step prior to the final submission of your dissertation (as in the USA). If you are interested in the procedures and experiences of former PhD candidates in different countries and different disciplines, be sure to check out the "defenses around the world" series on PhD Talk.

To prepare for the actual PhD defense, some argue that you don't need to do anything at all. In the end, you did your research over the past few years, and nobody knows your work as well as you do. However, going into your defense without any preparation at all is not something I recommend. If you were organized during your PhD, and starting writing your first chapters early on in your journey, you may need to revise some elements again, and reread some key publications. Moreover, your defense will depend on your committee, so preparing for your defense by keeping your committee in mind is essential. Finally, preparing for your defense will help you prepare mentally for the challenges of the day itself, and will give you some piece of mind.

As I blogged my way through my PhD, I wrote extensively about my journey to my defense, from the point where I was pottering around in the laboratory to the actual day of defense and graduation. You can read all about the steps between my draft thesis and the joyful day in "On the road to the defense" part Ipart II, and my experience about the defense itself. Besides the experiences of myself and fellow PhD students, I've learned a great deal about defenses by hosting the "Defenses around the world" series on PhD Talk - a massive thank you to all guest authors who so openly have shared their experiences.

Shortly after defending my thesis, I wrote about my 10 best tips for the PhD defense, as well as how to prepare for your defense. I spent a lot of time preparing for my defense - and in hindsight perhaps not all of these activities were equally necessary. At that time, they were important for me, because spending a lot of time on preparing, and thinking about everything that could happen, helped me feel a bit more secure for the defense. If you feel like you need to prepare deeply to calm your nerves, by all accounts, do so. But if you feel confident about going into the defense, there are just a limited number of things you need to do to prepare for your defense. You can find my top picks for preparing for the defense in the following list:

1. Go to conferences

Presenting your work at academic conferences is a crucial part of your PhD journey. If you've presented your work a few times for an international audience, and answered questions, you are better prepared than when you've never had the chance to travel and present your work. Every time you present your work, you will a bit more confident about your work. Every time your present your work, you will have practiced and sharpened your presentation and presentation skills a bit more. For these reasons, use your PhD time to present at as many conferences, workshops, and industry events as possible. All this practice in the years prior to your defense will make you better prepared for the big day.

2. Know your committee and their work

The questions you can expect during your defense will depend on your committee. As you prepare for your defense, don't make the mistake of navel-gazing at your own dissertation. Instead, try to take a step back and evaluate your work through the eyes of your committee member. Check out the most recent publications of your committee members to be fully up-to-date with their work (you don't want to make the mistake of being completely oblivious when a committee member hints at the fact that he/she worked on something interesting for your research very recently). Don't assume that you read everything while preparing your dissertation - check out the latest and in press publications. If you've had a chance to meet with your committee members during your PhD and while preparing for the defense, revise your meeting notes, and identify their main points of criticism on your work. While some committee members will tell you their exam questions in advance, other members won't give you an idea, and will leave you guessing. Try to come up with at least five possible questions per committee member, and prepare additional material to answer these questions as needed.

3. Revise the crucial papers

Brush up on your knowledge of the literature. Besides checking the most recent work of your committee members, make sure that you do a brief search on recent publications in your field, so that your literature review and your knowledge of the literature are fully up-to-date. Don't stop following the literature on the day when you finish your literature review chapter! Besides working on your general knowledge of the literature, identify the papers that were most important for your work. Prior to your defense, make sure you read these papers again to refresh your memory, and to address possible questions about the foundations of your work.

4. Prepare for broader questions

When preparing for your defense, don't expect any open doors. Instead, you should prepare for questions that are either at the periphery of your work, and much closer to the work of your committee members, or for questions that test the assumptions and basics of your work. Make sure you have a solid foundation to answer such questions. Besides these questions that sit right outside of what was the main focus of your work, there are also the questions that focus on the broader scope of your work, other fields of application, and future work. Such more general questions can be asked at any PhD defense, and you can find a list of possible questions herehere, and, here. Make sure you practice preparing answers to these questions, and bring additional material for the defense where needed.

5. Know the room and the tools you can use

Get your logistics for the day of your defense all sorted out long in advance. You don't want to be running around campus, borrowing a laptop last-minute, or arranging coffee for your committee members. Ask for advice from a post-doc who recently defended to see if you thought everything through. Make sure you understand all the procedures, and when in doubt, ask and double-check with the office responsible for the defense. Know where you will present, and which tools are available in the room. Will you be using a microphone? Will you be able to project visual material and use audio in the room? Are there other tools available? In Delft, the rooms standard have a digital overhead projector, which you can use to show parts of your dissertation, sketches, and other material. Depending on the tools you have available, make sure you bring the right material to your defense.

6. Be your best self

Don't get too stressed about the defense itself. If you get stressed, you'll have a harder time thinking clearly and replying the questions in a way that is satisfactory for the committee. I started my defense really nervous, and I can barely remember how replying the first questions went. Once I got calmer, everything went much better. Besides your stress levels on the day itself, make sure that you are rested prior to the defense. Get enough sleep in the weeks before the defense, and eat healthy food. Consider yourself as an athlete preparing for a big effort: make sure you are in your best condition to give it your all on the day of the defense.

7. Plan your party

Your defense is a day when your friends and family gather to celebrate your success. Don't forget how important and valuable this day is for all of you in your stress for preparing for the actual defense. Unless for weddings and perhaps special birthdays, there are not that many occasions where you can have that many of your loved ones together, to celebrate you and your success. Your family may even be traveling internationally to attend this special event. A special event it is, so make sure you make it a special day for everyone attending. Arrange a reception and a nice dinner, for example, or any other form of celebration as you see it fit.

Defending your PhD in the Netherlands

Want to know what it is like to defend your PhD in the Netherlands? Here are a few important things to know.

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