What Happens in a Dissertation Defense?

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One of the most intimidating things that you will have to do to complete your doctorate journey is the dissertation defense. It is one of the most important last steps in graduating, but preparing for it can be a nightmare for some students.

In other words, a dissertation defense is a light at the end of the tunnel for most candidates, and it consists of the final hours that stand between you and the rest of your life. If you find yourself drowning in questions and confusion during those final moments, we understand.

You should know that you are not alone in this, as the culminating moment in a graduate’s life is the rightful passage for all candidates. This qualifies you to become who you want to be and close this chapter for good.

While you do have to be component and knowledgeable about your own results and learning process, that is not what a dissertation defense is. The defense committee also wants to know what you learned through the journey and whether you have become responsible enough.

This article will discuss everything you need to know about your dissertation defense.

What Does Dissertation Defense Mean?What Does Dissertation Defense Mean?

The dissertation defense, also known as the doctoral final oral examination, is the last stepping stone before submitting your dissertation manuscript for you to be awarded your doctoral degree. The main focus of a dissertation effect is your relationship with your field of study.

Note that there is a distinct difference between a master thesis defense and a doctoral dissertation defense. The former is presented at the end of earning your master’s degree. The latter needs to be completed to successfully complete your Ph.D.

Hence, there is a difference in the type of questions asked in both. They target different details about your field of study and require different levels of knowledge about your competence.

A thesis defense would typically last for around an hour. Thesis defense questions for master’s students include:

  • What is your study all about?
  • What is your motivation for this study?
  • Did you bridge any gap from your research?
  • What are the main issues and debates in this subject area?
  • What were the crucial research decisions you made?
  • What is the research problem?

On the other hand, a dissertation defense can take hours in front of the defense committee. Common questions include:

  • What is your study about, and why did you choose it?
  • How did your research evolve?
  • How did you decide on which sources to include?
  • How generalizable and valid are your findings?
  • How does this relate to existing problems and research?
  • What were your key findings?

To sum it up, a dissertation defense is when you finish your dissertation, and now you have to present it before your committee. It is some sort of formal meeting, where you would have to explain everything, you have found during your research.

Your committee has the right to ask you any questions and relate to your findings. They will definitely discuss your research, your future, and your methods. It is your final chance to stand in front of your peers with radiating confidence and present your work.

What Happens in a Dissertation Defense?

What Happens in a Dissertation Defense?

Okay, so now we know what a defense is, but what happens in a dissertation defense? There are four main steps to a dissertation defense. These are, in order: introducing yourself to the committee, presenting a summary of your work, you get interrupted for questions and comments, and then it is followed by questions from the committee.

After you are done with your presentation and answering any questions, the defense committee will meet in private to discuss it.

While almost all members of the committee would have read through your dissertation, you should not assume they already know what you’re talking about. The whole point of this defense is to understand that you are well-equipped when it comes to your research topic.

Generally, a dissertation defense would not take more than two hours. Still, part of the challenge is to demonstrate and convince your knowledge. The committee should believe that you can summarize all the vital points from your findings and easily present them.

Keep in mind the most important things you need to present in your defense, and these are:

  • What is your problem? What is the issue you are tackling?
  • Why is your study critical?
  • What results have you come up with, and what have you achieved?

Some committee members might wonder if you have published any of your work and how it was received. Moreover, if you received some honors because of your study, do not forget to mention it, as that would give your work more credibility.

5 Tips on How to Prepare for Dissertation Defense

5 Tips on How to Prepare for Dissertation Defense

Instead of simply writing a list of things you need to address and prepare for, make sure you extensively go through each point and be prepared. Talk in front of an audience, tell them to ask you questions, as you do not want to fall under the stress during your defense.

Here are essential points on how to prepare for dissertation defense:

Manifest the Right Attitude

Do not consider this an easy task that you can just go through during the defense day. However, you should not over-stress and over-prepare for your dissertation defense, as that will most likely make you more nervous during the whole thing.

Pay attention to dissertation defense etiquette. There is such a thing as unconscious bias, so make sure you wear something that presents formalism. However, make sure you wear something comfortable as you will be discussing your work for quite some time.

Instead, think about this as your rite of passage. This is your ultimate opportunity to shine through and show everyone what you have been working on. Remember that the committee is not here to judge you or give you your worth; they want you to step into your own role of becoming who you deserve to be.

Prepare For the Questions

Demonstrate your expertise and professionalism through the act of anticipation. Be prepared for any question that could be asked, as you do not want to stumble over your own words during your defense. In a gist, you need to demonstrate discourse beyond your own research.

Here are a few questions that could potentially be asked:

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of your work?
  • If you go redo your research, what would you do differently?
  • What will you do now since you have obtained those results?
  • What was the most surprising outcome of your work?
  • What biases are present in your research?
  • How did the study contribute to current thinking in the field?

Organize Your Presentation

Have a list of thesis-related publications on one slide in your presentation. Moreover, be prepared to briefly summarize your background, where you come from, where you got your previous degrees, how long you have been at university …etc.

A general rule of thumb is to have a maximum of 30 slides in your presentation and maybe “back-up” slides with extra material to answer questions with visuals. Moreover, be sure to use the pronoun “I” instead of “we” when presenting, so the committee can know which parts are yours.

Prepare Mentally

Trust us, this is not going to be easy. Despite this merely being a stepping stone towards your future, it could determine your next steps in life. Moreover, confidence and excellent presentation skills will help you create better relationships with your committee members.

So, think about it as your environment. This is now a safe space for you, and you are simply discussing a topic within your domain. Know that you belong to this realm, and nothing can surpass you, as you are the only one who is more than capable of presenting your own work.

Double-check Your Written Defense

Before submitting your draft to the committee, make sure your draft is free of simple mistakes. Hence, you should verify the following:

  • Check your references and make sure you correctly and clearly abbreviated the words and capitalized the necessary ones.
  • Avoid typical adjectives that work on over-emphasizing your nouns, such as “huge,” “big,” “tremendous.”
  • Verify that you have written the expansion of any abbreviations you have mentioned.
  • Make sure you have consistently capitalized the captions.
  • Do a spell check and a grammar check. If necessary, ask a friend or an advisor to go over it to help you out with anything that could be missing.

How Long Do Dissertation Defenses Typically Last?

How Long Do Dissertation Defenses Typically Last?

Generally, the defense lasts around two hours. It could also be open to the public, so be wary of that, and do not let that set you off. Actually, the timing of the defense is set by you, the candidate. It is done in consultation with the dissertation committee.

Even though you have probably heard some horror stories about some defenses lasting for 6 hours or even more, that really is an infrequent occasion. The average time for dissertation defense is anywhere between one to two hours.

What Happens After a Dissertation Defense?

What Happens After a Dissertation Defense?

Right after you present you, let’s just see the committee kick you out for a short period. So, after your presentation and questions, you will be asked to step outside. At the same time, they do their evaluation and talk within themselves.

But what about the outcomes? What could possibly happen to you? What are the possibilities? Well, in short, there are three possibilities, which are:

1. You pass. If you did great and the committee signed off on your thesis, then all your hard work would have paid off. You can go out, celebrate, have dinner, invite everyone out, or go party.

2. You fail. This is when the committee and external people see that there is no way to redeem your work or salvage it. This is a rare occasion, as one is usually very prepared for their defense. No one knows your research better than you do, after all.

3. You pass, but with revisions. This is when the supervisor, the committee, and external agree on revisions and incorporate them into your thesis. You are asked to make the changes and either present it to the committee once again or go directly to your supervisor to sign it off.

Wrapping Things Up: What Happens in a Dissertation Defense

All in all, a dissertation defense is not something you should take with a light heart. This is one of the most critical events in your academic career. It has the potential to determine how your future pans out.

Hence, you should be well prepared before presenting in front of the defense committee. However, you should prepare enough beforehand to not be nervous and be ready for any questions coming your way.

Picture of Professor Conquer
Professor Conquer

Professor Conquer started Conquer Your Exam in 2018 to help students feel more confident and better prepared for their tough tests. Prof excelled in high school, graduating top of his class and receiving admissions into several Ivy League and top 15 schools. He has helped many students through the years tutoring and mentoring K-12, consulting seniors through the college admissions process, and writing extensive how-to guides for school.

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