The Perfect Defense
Alphabetical list of Handouts & Guides

Words of Wisdom

The world is full of paper. Write to me.

— Agha Shahid Ali



I am Dr. Valerie Balester, the executive director of the University Writing Center. I am an English Professor with a specialization in rhetoric and composition, in other words, in writing. I’ve been on least 60 and probably 75 defenses and not all in English. In education and linguistics and also in engineering and architecture. We used to have somebody from outside your department sitting in on each dissertation defense. It’s what they called a graduate committee reviewer to make sure the process went smoothly. I did that for many different areas, many in the sciences and engineering. So I am very confident about the structure of the defense. I am wondering what you know about the structure of a dissertation defense? What do you think happens in that little room?

You go with your committee into a little conference room. Sometimes it’s open to the public, technically it’s always open to the public, but whether you announce or not will determine if the public comes. In my department, in English, it’s not customary for the public to ever attend. If it’s open to the public there is a point when they leave and you will be sitting alone with your committee. You have to muster up all of  your confidence. This is about confidence. It’s very important. You have to present yourself as a scholar in the discipline, an authority on your subject. You have to show them what you have to offer as a scholar. And that’s really what it’s about. Nervousness is probably the biggest problem. But I have seen all of them work through it. I’ve only seen one person fail a defense in all of those.  Only one person didn’t pass. So your odds, one out of sixty, your odds are good you’re going to pass. So go in there with that impression. The person who didn’t pass was not prepared. He hadn’t talked to his committee beforehand.

You are most likely going to pass this. You’re going to be expected to clearly and cogently explain your work and explain how your work fits in with your discipline. Where’s your place in this big conversation that is going on in your discipline. What have you contributed to the field? Because a dissertation is supposed to be an original contribution to knowledge. What more needs to be done? That’s the kind of thing that they’re interested in. It’s not really a grilling. I’ve never seen one that is a grilling. That means they put on the grill and cook you until you’re finished. It means, “Do you know this, do you know that, tell me this!” They just ask you lots of questions. It’s usually not that. It’s really a conversation among equals. They are trying to see if you can function as an equal with them. It’s their first opportunity to say, “You are now an equal, please come in and give me some information. But as an equal I expect you to be able to explain your ideas, defend your ideas. Tell me where your ideas fit in.” Because they expect it of each other. They are not asking you to do anything that they don’t do with each other. And that’s why you shouldn’t worry if they suddenly stop talking to you and start talking to each other. That’s a good sign, that means you’ve stimulating their brains. This is what these people live for. They’re academics and they like that. Sometimes they get into arguments with each other. It’s ok and your chair should gently bring that back. If your chair doesn’t do it just let it go. If they disagree with you they expect you to come back with a defense.

So you need to know what the rules are. Have a talk with your advisor and find out. If you don’t know now, you can talk to other students, but you definitely need to talk with your advisor a good while before the defense. Say, “I would like to know what to expect. Can you explain to me how a defense works in our department. What is the usual thing that happens? What do you want from me as your candidate?” And then know your committee as well. Sometimes when we work on a dissertation we get isolated. Make sure that the committee gets the dissertation in plenty of time. That’s something your advisor can tell you. If they get it two weeks before, they’ll probably read it the night before and then any objections they have, they didn’t have a chance to tell you about. So if you can give it to them a month before, or even more, the sooner they get it the more time they have to respond to it and to let you know before the defense, where are their areas of concern. I think you should get your committee chair’s advice and permission before you go meet with your members. But when you do that they sometimes tell you what questions they will ask you. Or maybe they will give you a hint, because they will say, “What concerns me about your work is this. What I like about your work is this. I see this but did you do that.” And then when they read it again their minds are going to go back. When I am a committee member and I have to ask an intelligent question, I am going to go back to what I remember most about your dissertation.

Now the first thing that you should be able to do is tell me about your dissertation. This will come in handy in the job market as well. In your head write a speech, just a brief speech, and you can break it up so you are basically repeating the information in your abstract. This is the problem that led me to research. This is the method I used, the way that I decided to deal with that. This is what I found. And I put thesis separate from here. This is my problem and this is what I think is going to happen and this is what happened. In the humanities we might call it a thesis, in the sciences we might call it a hypothesis. I had a question, here is how I thought it would be answered and here is how it was actually answered. This is the significance of my work, how it can be applied, what it means for the profession, how it changes our theories, how it changes our practices. Whatever the significance might be. And don’t forget to bring a copy of the dissertation to the meeting. Usually the committee brings their own copy. Again that’s something you want to check with in your own department. Will they bring their copies or do I have to provide copies? Looking at the copies they’ll say, on page 55 you said such and such, explain it. So you’ll need to see page 55. You’ll need your own copy. Try not to wait till the last minute, the sooner they get it, if it’s not finished say, “here is what I have so far”. That gives them the opportunity to respond, “Oh but you don’t have this” and then you’ll know and you can say you are working on it.

So you have to practice, have it in your head, “tell me about your dissertation…” Practice in front of the mirror, say it out loud. Don’t memorize it. You want to be agile. If someone interrupts you, you want to remember where you are. You don’t want to be rote. You want to be able to say it even in a few different ways. You might get so focused on what you’re doing, you want to talk about the details. And you forget that other people don’t even know what question you’re trying to answer. What brought you to the research is what interests people. What’s the problem? How did you approach the problem? What did you think you were going to find, what did you find, and what does all this mean?

Of course you want to dress for success and you want to stay calm and you want to smile, it’s important. Show that you can do this. Remember the success rate is high. In some fields it’s optional to present. In some fields it’s always done. First, prepare for technical difficulties. If I came in here today and this was not working, I have my handout. So I could use that. For yourself, if your slides are reminding you what to say, make note cards or make a copy of your slideshow. Be ready for technical difficulties. What if the electricity goes out that day? You have worked for over a month to get these people in the same room at the same time. It’s not easy to schedule a defense. Because every professor has a different schedule and they are all very busy. So you’re going to have it even if the electricity is out. So be ready. Consider handouts. You don’t want to give out lots of handouts just to give them out. You don’t want them looking at the handouts, you want them looking at you or at your slides. So make sure the handouts are only used to present things that can’t go on a slide. Or things that you really want them to remember. Maybe its a photograph or an illustration, maybe its a chart or a graph. Maybe it’s a quote. But whatever it is, it should be something that you want them to take away, something vivid in their mind.

How long is the presentation? Typically they are 8-10 minutes. In many cases you will need time for questions, in other cases no, because you’re just presenting to the committee. How much time do I have to do the presentation? Do I have a  public audience? How much time should I give them for questions? Usually about  five minutes. So if they say you have ten minutes total it’s five to talk and five for questions. We have a handout in the writing center called Designing Effective Presentation Slides. It’s under oral communication so I suggest you look at that. You want to be sure you don’t put too many words on a slide. Make sure your slides cover your main point, but that people are looking at you as much as they are looking at the slides. The slides help them if they lose their place. They emphasize the main points, but they should be listening to you, not just reading the slides.

I’ll tell you how to divide your presentation, how to organize. It’s the same thing I told you to memorize. The problem or question that lead to your research, your methods for answering the question or solving the problem, your major findings, the implications, significance or applications of your findings. And add to that your next step in your scholarly career. If you don’t say they will probably ask at least. They might want to know if you’re applied to any jobs. But I am talking about your research. What will you research next? What will this dissertation lead you to? Will it lead to articles, will it lead to a book? a grant? another research program? Where will this take you from here?

The chair will probably ask you to leave the room. They are just deciding what procedures will be followed so everyone agrees. Are they going to be allowed to interrupt with a follow-up question or each to wait their turn. That’s all they’re deciding now. Then you’ll come back in and your chair will tell you, “Ok, this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to start with Dr. Balester.” Now, Dr. Balester wants to sound real smart, you know, and sometimes in her head she’s still forming the question, so she might ramble on a bit. That’s why you really have to focus. Don’t be thinking about what you’re going to say next, listen to what they’re saying now. “In chapter 3 you did blablabla and in Chapter 7 you said blalalala, and then there’s this contradiction here but if we brought in this, it might solve the contradiction…” And she’s going on and on, and you’re thinking, what is your question?  And then she’ll say “And what do you think of that?” So you have to be listening. But, you missed it. Now you don’t know what she said, so what do you do? Ask her to clarify or repeat the question. Or you clarify, “I think I heard you ask, is that correct?”

So what happens if you don’t know the answer? Ok, I came up with a few options: You asked me whether I think this is a regular phenomena. I’m not sure, but I think… So you don’t have to say Yes or No. You can say you’re not sure, but take a stab at the answer. Try to answer, let them see your thought process. That’s what they’re doing for you. They’re letting you see their thought process when they’re going on and on. So you do the same thing. They want to see that you can think, that’s what they’re looking for, can you think. Is this a regular phenomena? I don’t know but that question has interesting implications. For example if I knew this…Keep yourself focused on your data, you are the expert. On your data, on your project, on your ideas–you are the expert. They are trying to treat you like the expert. They want you to answer like the expert. They respect you, believe me, there’s never any perfect data. Be confident however, “Given the constraints I was working with, this is what I was able to do. But if could do more…if I could really have done this. Or, in doing this I learned a problem with this kind of data collection. Next time I’m going to do it this way…”

Is it ok to just say I don’t know? It’s ok, if you really don’t know. The other may be a little better, but it’s better to say I don’t know than to fake it. You don’t want to fake it. These are not people who will be fooled. So don’t fake it. Sometimes when they ask the questions and they’re coming and coming, and you are trying to listen and you need a little time, you can slow things down. You can slow things down by pausing. Take a breath. Look at your notes. Even state, “I need a  little time to answer that. Can I take a minute to gather my thoughts?” They’ll always say yes. Don’t take three minutes, but take a few moments. Maybe look down so you are not distracted by them. Focus, focus, ok I can answer this question. Boost your confidence and then go for it. Another thing is to ask them to repeat the question, both when you don’t understand the question and when you need a little more time. Maybe you did understand it, but you just want to slow things down. So if you said something wrong or if you realize you left something out, how do you handle that? Well it’s a good idea to just admit it. “Oh wait a minute, I’m wrong about that, aren’t I. I realized that just now.” And just correct yourself. Or finish the question you’re on and then say, “May I add something else? I realize that when you asked me this, I answered, but I could have said something more.” So you have the opportunity and the right to say I want to say something more, I want to correct it.

So they have finished asking you questions. They have asked you to leave again. Don’t go too far. Now you’re really sweating. Remember the odds, you’re going to come back in and they’re going to say, “Congratulations. We want you to rewrite the conclusion but you have passed.” So remember it’s very common that they will ask for revision. They did for me. In fact one of my committee members said, “Valerie, you know that conclusion just won’t do.” (laughs) That’s ok. I passed the defense part. They knew that I knew what I was talking about. But they knew that my writing fell down in the hardest part. The conclusion is usually the hardest part. Where you have to think about the significance and fit it in into all the literature and so it’s very common for that part. Or it could be that you have some tables that aren’t in the right format. Or some problem that they thought that you didn’t quite capture. Sometimes you said something in the defense that they want you to put into the dissertation. Usually when you come back into the room and they say you passed but we want you to make the revisions, they expect your Chair to keep notes and he or she will actually make sure you make the revisions. However, you could also ask them, “Could you please summarize the major revisions you want me to make so I can make some notes now. Now whether each committee member is going to have to see those changes or not will also depend on your Chair. Many times they decide that the Chair will be responsible for making sure the revisions are made and they don’t have to see it again. But they still have to sign your dissertation. So sometimes they sign there and sometimes they won’t sign it until they see those revisions. So that’s another reason you go see your Chair to find out how it’s normally done. Other times everything is fine. They don’t want to you to make any revisions. And it’s also possible they might say that you did not pass the defense.

Knowing your material is extremely important. You think your read it because you wrote it, but you have not read it. Even if you finish writing it a week before, give yourself a little time to read it again. Practice and knowledge of your topic will make you feel really confident. And remember positive self-talk. Remember who you are; you probably know more about this topic than anybody. I can guarantee you know more about this stuff than anybody, even more than your advisor. That’s what a dissertation is. Your advisor can take you this far, you have to go the rest of the way. And so hopefully even though your advisor is going with you and following  behind, you really do know more. Think a lot before you get there. Take the time to prepare. Read your dissertation. I really appreciate that you came today. You can always reach me at the writing center as well. If I can give you some confidence, let me know. Thank you.

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