The oral defense of your dissertation is, in essence, your formal introduction to your new colleagues—you are the expert on your subject. In the defense you’ll be expected to cogently and clearly explain your work and how it fits with other research and scholarship in your field. The exact nature of the oral defense varies by discipline and department, so it’s vital that you talk to your committee chair about what to expect and how to prepare. The defense is usually scheduled for two hours and is sometimes open to the public. You may or may not be expected to give a brief presentation at the beginning of the defense.
Preparing for your Defense
Besides talking to your dissertation advisory committee chair, you should also speak with the other members of your committee to assess their areas of interest and concern. This will help you anticipate the kinds of questions you’ll be asked. Be sure to bring a copy of the full dissertation with you for reference. Your committee members may have questions about your methodology; the validity, credibility, or relevance of your sources; how you interpret your results; or how your research relates to other work being done in your discipline, among other possibilities.
If you’re expected to make a presentation, find out how long it should be, although eight to ten minutes is typical.
- Prepare for technical difficulties. If you’re using presentation slides, make a hard copy.
- Consider handouts for any data that should be presented graphically.
- Begin by explaining the problem or questions that led to your research.
- Explain your methods for answering the question or solving the problem.
- Present your major findings, the ones most relevant to your problem or questions.
- Discuss the implications, significance, or applications of your findings.
- Discuss where your research leads you as you begin your scholarly career—what further research does it suggest? What kind of publication opportunities do you see coming from it?
During the Defense
The defense is a conversation. You will be asked questions, but you can also ask some, and you should not be surprised if committee members talk to each other, disagree with you or each other, or even challenge your ideas.
- Stay calm and smile a bit.
- Listen carefully. Academics aren’t known for their brevity, and the questions you’re asked may be lengthy. Often, committee members preface their questions with explanations of their own theories or ideas. At other times, they’ll be formulating their questions even as they ask them.
- If you can’t focus on a question, repeat it to be sure you have understood it.
- Don’t be afraid to pause to collect your thoughts. You may even let your committee know you are thinking by announcing you need a moment to gather your thoughts.
- Know what to say when you don’t know the answer to a question. You don’t have to know all the answers; better to acknowledge that than try to fake it. Some techniques that might help:
- Acknowledge you’re not sure, but take a stab at it.
- Repeat the question, pause a bit to think, and then use what you do know to help you find an answer.
- Does the question make you curious? What would you need to know to answer it? Answer by saying you do not know but would like to, and why.
- Answer by saying you don’t know but that the question has interesting implications. Then explain why.
One way to prepare is to write out answers to the questions you anticipate and rehearse them out loud. Don’t memorize them—you need to be agile—but become familiar with them.
Following are some examples of the types of general questions often asked in a defense. Many questions will be more specific to your work, and they may even refer to specific pages of your dissertation.
- Tell me about your dissertation.
- Who are the important contributors to your approach to the topic?
- What led you to your research question(s)? Who were the scholars who most influenced your choice of topic and your approach to methodology?
- What theories have guided your choice of methodology or analysis?
- What are the weaknesses in your method?
- How do your findings fit into the literature on this topic?
- How do you explain why your findings/theories contradict those of scholar or researcher X?
- What are the gaps in your knowledge?
- What did your dissertation fail to answer?
- What are the wider implications of your research/findings for the field?
- What is your next step as a scholar/researcher?