Well, I’m back. After 3 months of intense thesis writing, revisions, and successfully defending (all while working a part-time job in industry), I want to share with you Part 1 of 3 of this series. Part 2 will be how to finish your thesis in a timely manner (and write a good quality thesis). Part 3 will be life after a PhD, making the transition into the workforce, and how to prepare ahead of time (i.e. apply for jobs before, during, or after writing your thesis).
First, what does it take to give a successful PhD Defense? How can you prepare, keep the stress levels low, and make sure you have the highest chance of success?
I’ll just say that everyone’s PhD Defense is unique and is unpredictable. Your talk/presentation is only as good as you want it to be. And you cannot fully prepare for all the endless possibility of questions. If you wrote a 200 page thesis, your thesis commitee can pick apart an error bar on a graph on page 133. They can ask you what you meant by a word in a random sentence in any given paragraph. Keep in mind, this is all just apart of the PhD hazing process, and in a sense is just to humble you. At the end of the day, if you wrote a good quality thesis and are CONFIDENT, you should have no problem successfully defending and leaving that room with a sense of relief. Either way, I wanted to share my experience while it is still fresh in my mind
1) Do not underestimate how long it takes to prepare your slides/talk and make sure you give multiple practice talks
When I turned in my thesis two weeks ahead of time to my committee, I thought the hard part was over. Although a very important milestone, don’t let your guard down. If you already have most your slides ready to go, then you are lucky. I ended up getting data at the last minute and my story changed. I had to make many model slides from scratch.
If you want to give a GOOD thesis talk, you need to practice multiple times. And this means that you don’t cram it all in a couple of days right before your talk. I’m not talking about giving just one practice talk. You need to give multiple group practice talks. In between, you need to practice on your own.
You certainly don’t have to memorize every word of your thesis defense talk, but you should have it well-polished. There is no limit (or requirement) on how many practice talks you should give, but give as many talks as it takes until you feel like you are ready. If you are unsure of the quality of your talk (or being “ready”), tape record yourself or watch a video of yourself to see just how good it is. You might be surprised when you play it back to yourself.
You should also time your talk. I noticed that I tend to talk faster (by about 5 minutes) when giving the actual public talk vs. when I practice on my own. The length of the talk can depend on many departmental factors. My talk was ~45-50 minutes long which also leaves time for questions.
Either way, do not procrastinate on your slides and/or talk until days before. Make sure you use the full two weeks to perfect your slides, polish your talk (and be very concise about your words), and review material you are unsure about.
2) Listen to other thesis defense talks
The best way to mentally prepare for your thesis defense talk is to listen to other thesis defense talks. I actually went and got a few talks on DVD (the good ones that I remembered). If their research is on a similar topic as your own, this would be more ideal-but take what you can get. When you watch the talk, ask yourself what makes it good or bad? Were they enthusiastic and sincere? Did they keep the energy throughout the talk? Were there some rough areas of the talk? When nerves are running high, talks may not go as expected. You can battle this nervousness by showing up well-prepared. If you are, the thesis defense talk is just a formality.
If you cannot obtain any thesis defense talks on video, make sure that you go to actual public thesis defense talks. At least go to one so that you have a good idea of how to TIE the whole story together and give your audience the big picture. Keep in mind that you are giving a talk to a general audience. This means that use of jargon and highly technical terms will only put your audience to sleep. Make sure it is clear and understandable. Simplify it the best that you can and put it in the larger context of your research field. Use cartoons or model slides (if necessary) to give your audience the general, overall picture.
3) Have your friends, labmates, and others drill you with questions
What’s the best way to prepare for unforeseen questions? Have others that are familiar with your work drill you with questions. Chances are that even though these questions may not be the actual questions you will be asked either by the public and/or your thesis committee, it prepares you to think on your feet. It also builds your confidence. And the questions that your labmates or friends ask you may just be the same question you will get asked on your defense day.
4) Re-read over your entire thesis and write out your own list of questions
You may be sick of reading your entire thesis over and over by now, but you need to keep everything fresh in your mind. I actually read over my entire thesis multiple times during my final two weeks and came up with my own list of questions that I thought my committee would ask me. In addition, I also came up with a list of questions that I had of my own (questions that I was unsure of or that I thought were a weakness of mine). If you cannot come up with a list of good questions, then you are not trying hard enough.
Even though my committee didn’t ask me my exact list of questions, the process of coming up with my own list of questions-then finding the answers to those questions (beyond my thesis)-actually helped me gained a deeper understanding of my project. And it was a confidence booster in disguise.
5) Don’t let distractions get to you
Completing your thesis is a huge milestone. Those last two weeks until defense day can be stressful. Whether you are doing job interviews, applying to other jobs, or you want to “jump the gun” and finally start your post-PhD life, don’t give into temptation. Keep your guard up until your actual defense day. This is key to giving a good talk. You need to go in with the mindset that you will kill your presentation and give a long lasting impression to your audience. I have actually heard that some people who gave great thesis defense talks were offered a position shortly after (i.e. a postdoc).
You are going to want to do all those little tasks that you have been putting off for so long because you have spent X amount of months writing your thesis in solitude and you had no time to do them. Your list could be very long. I can tell you that one of the things on my list was to keep publishing blog articles and keep my blog running. I simply did not have enough time. Prioritize and focus on your defense talk and nothing else. If you are looking for jobs during this time period, I will be writing about this in Part 3 of this series.
6) Get plenty of sleep, keep your diet in check, and take care of yourself
This might be the most difficult thing for anyone. I struggled with this the most while writing my thesis. Skipping meals, late nights, overloading your system with caffeine just to stay awake. You have to fight it the best that you can. A month before my defense talk, I hit the gym 3x a week (for the first time in months). Everyone handles the anxiety of their defense talk differently. I am someone who thinks about it constantly. So it becomes hard to focus on other things, like taking care of yourself.
Once your thesis is turned in to your committee members, during those final two weeks- sleep and a proper diet are KEY. The day of your defense, make sure you are well-rested (don’t stay up all night stressing about it) and eat well. Don’t sell yourself short. By taking care of yourself, you ensure that you have the highest probability for giving a great thesis defense talk and showing your committee members that you are confident about your project.
7) Keep your cool and relax
When your defense day comes, you have to remember that you have put in a lot of HARD WORK to get to this point. You know your topic better than anyone. Because of this, you have no reason to be stressed out.
When your committee pushes you and asks you questions, they again will push you to your limits. You will meet a point where you won’t know the answer. Also, a question could simply be a future direction/experiment that you simply haven’t tested yet. Remember that they are simply trying to test your knowledge and humble you. You don’t have to know all the answers. Therefore, when you are answering questions, keep your cool and relax. Answer the questions the best that you can and you should have no problem passing. And in all honesty, the prelim (or qualifying exam) was much harder than the actual defense…
8) Don’t focus on the after-party until you have actually reached the after-party
Who doesn’t want to spend their final two weeks planning the celebration? Although I did have an after-party, I did not go to great efforts to plan it like a wedding party. As I said in #5, prioritize and focus on your thesis defense talk and nothing else. Plan your after-party while you are on break from your practice talk/preparing for questions/working on slides but do not make it a number one priority. Once you have passed, then you can change your focus. The feeling is indescribable (see #10).
9) Have a good structure
A good thesis talk also has a good introduction before going on to the next idea or slide. It should flow in a logical manner and be smooth. That is why #1 is important, because many people don’t spend enough time in the creation of good powerpoint slides. Your slides and talk have to MATCH up, meaning you can’t have really good slides and a mediocre talk (or vice versa) if you want it to go well.
This is why practice is important, and if you spend enough time on BOTH the talk/slides you will give a very good talk. A lot of times while I was actually practicing my talk, I had to go back and change the order/wording of slides or how I introduced certain slides (the wording) so that the flow would be better.
Be formal in how you word things (i.e. say “our data show that”… vs. “you see here that”…). To give a good introduction, it might be wise to use slides that ask a question in between. This question slide (break) in-between your next idea allows for your general audience to CATCH UP and understand your logic. Why are you doing this experiment? If you just show a bunch of your published data with no introduction (and maybe a title that gives an interpretation/punchline), you will overwhelm and bore your audience.
Many scientists forget that although they are an expert on their topic, what seems easy and understandable to them-does not apply to others outside of their field.
Before you go to your next data slides introduce the idea (based on this data I wanted to ask this question). Then tell them WHY you performed this particular experiment (which is basically in the form of a question). Once your audience understands why, go on to the next slide and give them your interpretation. In other words, don’t just jump to the interpretation. This will keep your audience’s attention and make sure that your thesis defense talk gets a lot of positive feedback and leaves a good impression on your committee members (it really does show).
10) Visualize yourself giving your defense each day and think about how good it will feel when it’s over
This one is pretty self explanatory. I will say that when it is all said and done, it feels like a huge burden has been lifted off your shoulders. It is emotional and you finally feel that all that hard work and time that you put in over the years-was all worth it in the end. Good luck to all those who are preparing for their defense talk in the future! Think about what it will be like to get up in front of a large audience and show everyone how you moved a field forward. This is YOUR moment to show everyone you are an expert in your field. The more you keep this mentality, the better your talk will be. Keep your cool and relax (#7) and everything will be fine.
If you would like to see an example video of a defense talk that illustrates the advice I’ve given, a link to my PhD defense can be found here: http://bit.ly/1sAIT7O
Best of luck to all!
Preparing for a PhD Defense
Table of Contents
Preparing to Start
Before you can start your thesis you must:
- Complete all courses, exams, and research requirements
- Meet with your advisory committee to ensure that everyone agrees that the work is ready to defend
- Decide on a date for the defense
- Inform your graduate administrator that you have started the process to prepare for your defense
Nominate a Faculty Member to Serve as Chair for Your Defense
A chair is appointed for each PhD oral defense to monitor and promote fairness and rigor in the conduct of the defense. To help eliminate pre-established judgments on the candidate’s work, the chair should be from a different program/department than the student. For more information about chair responsibilities, read the instructions for the chair.
You must identify a faculty member to serve as chair for your defense. The chair must be:
- A current full-time faculty member at assistant professor rank or higher
- Outside the department offering the degree program, or outside your advisor's department (interdisciplinary degree programs only)
- Someone who has not had prior involvement in your research
The selection of the chair is subject to the approval of the department/program, the dean of graduate studies in Arts, Sciences and Engineering, and the University dean of graduate studies.
The chair must be physically present during the entire defense, including the public oral presentation (if applicable) and the questioning session. The chair is welcome to read and comment on the dissertation and/or the defense presentation, but this is not required. The chair does not need to be an expert in your research area.
It is your responsibility to get a copy of the final dissertation to the chair at least one week prior to the defense.
Selecting a Defense Date
You should begin scheduling the actual defense date three months in advance to ensure that your advisor, committee members, and chair are able to be present and that rooms are available on the date and time selected.
Defenses can be held on any day the University’s Graduate Studies Office is open (not weekends, evenings, holidays, or the days between Christmas and New Year’s). Check the academic calendar for important dates and deadlines.
Use the PhD date calculator to determine the deadline dates for getting your paperwork to the Graduate Studies Office and department committee.
When all committee members and your chair agree to a specific date and time for the defense, inform your graduate administrator as soon as you possibly can, but no later than six weeks prior to your defense date. Your graduate administrator will advise you of any program-specific requirements for the defense as well as work with you to prepare for your thesis defense. They will also help you determine who will schedule the room for your thesis defense.
You should provide your committee members at least two weeks to read and comment on your dissertation before the date you need to register your dissertation.
Participating Via Video Conferencing
While you, your advisor, and the chair must all be physically present in the room for the defense, other committee members are allowed to participate in the defense remotely via Skype or other video conferencing technology so long as all committee members agree to the arrangement. This must also be approved by the AS&E dean of graduate studies and the University dean of graduate studies before the dissertation is registered for defense.
Someone other than you and your committee must handle the IT setup and be on standby for any problems. If anyone involved finds that remote participation is interfering with the defense, he or she can request that the defense be rescheduled.
International Students and Work Visas
We strongly recommend that international students meet with an International Services Office (ISO) representative as soon as permission to start writing is granted. The ISO will provide information on visa options, documentation, and timelines for applying for a visa for employment in the United States.
Registration Categories for Defense
You will register for one of the following categories while preparing your defense:
- 999: Dissertation—Indicates the PhD student has completed all of the requirements for the degree except the dissertation and is in residenceas a full-time student
- 995: Continuation of Enrollment—Indicates the PhD student has completed all of the requirements for the degree except the dissertation and is not in residenceas a full-time student
See the registration page for more information about these categories.
Dissertation Writing and Guidelines
The Preparing Your Thesis manual is a great resource to help you bring your dissertation up to the required standard of organization, appearance, and format for the University of Rochester. Before preparing the defense copy of your dissertation, check the contents of the manual carefully to help avoid mistakes that can be time-consuming and costly to correct.
Before beginning your dissertation, you should consult with your advisor for your department or program’s preferred style guide (APA, MLA, Chicago).
Including material produced by other authors in your dissertation can serve a legitimate research purpose, but you want to avoid copyright infringement in the process. For detailed instructions on avoiding copyright infringement, please see ProQuest’s Copyright Guide.
Preparing Your Dissertation for Defense
The University requires that you provide copies of the dissertation to your committee members and exam chair. You should check with your committee members to see if they prefer printed or electronic copies (or both). Printed copies do not need to be printed on heavyweight, expensive paper unless there is the need to do so for figures and images.
Printing and binding a dissertation can be expensive. You can use the Copy Center or FedEx Office to print and bind your dissertation.
Registering Your Dissertation for the Final Oral Exam
In order to register your dissertation, you or your graduate administrator will need to create a record on the Graduate Studies PhD Completion website. This record will include:
- Degree information
- Past degrees
- Contact information
- The defense version of your dissertation as a PDF
- Other relevant documents
The version of your dissertation attached to your online record is considered the registration copy.
When your PhD completion record is finalized, committee members will receive emails with links to access your record and approve your dissertation to progress to defense. You’ll need to provide copies of the dissertation identical to the registration copy to all members of your committee, including the chair, at least two weeks before the record is finalized. Everyone but the chair is required to comment or sign off on the dissertation before it is submitted.
There may be deadlines for registering your dissertation specific to your program. Consult with your graduate administrator to ascertain those deadlines and follow them carefully.
After all committee members have provided their approval, your thesis will be reviewed by your faculty director/department chair, the AS&E dean of dean of graduate studies, and the office of the University dean of graduate studies. When all of these officials have approved your committee and dissertation for defense, your dissertation is considered registered. You will be able to track these approvals in your online record and will receive a confirmation email when approvals are complete.
The Graduate Studies Office and the AS&E dean of graduate studies, as well as the University Graduate Studies Office, may make corrections to the PDF of your dissertation. This annotated copy of your dissertation, along with the original version, will be stored in the PhD completion website. You are not allow to distribute updated versions of your dissertation prior to the defense, but be sure to incorporate any corrections before uploading your final dissertation to ProQuest®.
After the defense, if the committee has required major revisions to be approved by one or more of its members, it is your responsibility to provide them with the corrected final version for their approval. They will be asked to submit written confirmation of that approval to the University Graduate Studies Office. Failure to do so could delay conferral of your degree.
After the defense, you will receive additional instructions by email for completion of all PhD degree requirements.
It is important to walk into the defense knowing that your committee wants you to pass. Even if criticism is harsh, it is meant to be constructive. The defense is not solely an opportunity for the committee to compliment and congratulate you for the work you have done. It is also meant to challenge you and force you to consider tough questions.
Know the Rituals
The best way to prepare for your defense is to regularly attend the defenses of your colleagues throughout your graduate program, not just several weeks prior to your own defense.
You can also talk to people in your department who already defended to find out what their defenses were like. You should also speak with your advisor to get a sense of his/her specific expectations of a defense.
Guidelines for Presentations
Use PowerPoint or Other Software to Create Slides
You should prepare a presentation of the research that comprises the thesis. Your slides should encapsulate the work and focus on its most salient contributions. In preparing, ask yourself these questions: “What do I want people to know about my thesis? What is the most important information that I can present and talk about?”
Here are some basic tips:
- Use text large enough to be read by the audience (especially text from figures)
- Ensure graphics and tables are clear
- Don’t clutter your slides—if necessary, have things come up on mouse clicks
- Use spell check and proofread your slides
- Practice your presentation with your peers
- Work on pronunciation, if required
- Time your presentation to ensure it will fit the allotted time while allowing time for questions
If your defense includes a public lecture, we recommended that you do a trial run a day or two before in the room that has been booked for your lecture. This will allow you to familiarize yourself with the space and the equipment and to address any problems that arise during the trial run.
Plan your public lecture to allow enough time for questions. Present enough information so that the audience understands what you did, why you did it, what the implications are, and what your suggestions are for future research.
Friends and family are welcome to attend your public lecture. Faculty and students in the audience are given the opportunity to ask questions.
Plan to dress professionally for the defense in the same way you would if presenting a paper at a conference or for a job interview. You will be standing for a long time on the day of your defense. You might want to keep this in mind when selecting the shoes you will wear for your defense.
Items to Bring to the Defense
Essentials for your public lecture include:
- Your presentation
- A laser pointer
- A copy of your dissertation
- A pen or pencil
- A note pad
- A bottle of water
The Closed Examination
You will be asked to leave the room while your committee reviews your program of study, and decides whether:
- The thesis is acceptable/not acceptable
- Whether members will ask sequential questions or whether each member will be allotted a specific time period for questioning
The person to start the questioning is designated. You will be called back into the examining room and questioning will begin. After all questions have been addressed, you will be asked to leave the room while your committee decides the outcome of the exam. You will be asked to return to the room to be informed of the outcome by the chair of your exam committee.
Address Questions with Confidence
- Listen to the entire question no matter how long it takes the faculty member or student to ask it (take notes if necessary).
- Pause and think about the question before answering.
- Rephrase the question.
- Answer the question to the best of your ability; if you do not know the answer, remain calm and say so in a professional way.
- Remember that no one will know the ins and outs of the thesis and your research materials as well as you. You are the foremost expert in the thesis topic and YOU know the research involved. Be positive!
Possible outcomes include:
- Acceptable with minor or no revisions (no further approval required)
- Acceptable with major revisions in content or format (in this case, one or more committee members must be responsible for overseeing and approving the major revisions before the final copies are submitted)
- Not acceptable
After the Defense
You can submit the final corrected copies of your dissertation as soon as you address any remaining comments that were brought up during the defense or noted in the registration copy of your dissertation, which will be returned to you usually within a few days before or after the defense. You can take up to one semester following the defense to address any comments, during which you can remain a full-time student. Your degree conferral date will depend on when you submit the final corrected copies of your dissertation.
Final Corrected Copies of the Dissertation
The day after your defense, you will receive an email from the University dean of graduate studies that provides instructions on how to:
- Submit the final corrected copies of your dissertation through ProQuest
- Provide authorization for the release of your dissertation through UR Research
- Complete a mandatory online exit survey
- Verify to the University dean of graduate studies’ office that the dissertation has been submitted
Publishing Your Final Dissertation
The University of Rochester requires all doctoral candidates to deposit their dissertations for publication with ProQuest Dissertation Publishing and with the University libraries. Hard copies are not required. The library receives an electronic copy of the dissertation from ProQuest, but students must give the University permission to obtain it.
For questions regarding publishing through ProQuest, contact Author Relations at email@example.com or (800) 521-0600 ext. 77020.
Binding Your Final Dissertation
Check with your graduate administrator to see if your department wants a bound copy of your dissertation, and, if so, how the cost of binding is covered.
If you want a bound copy for yourself or your family, you can purchase one through ProQuest.