Ten Great Tips for Successfully Defending Your Dissertation

Posted date: September 21, 2017

Perhaps this article’s title ought to be changed so that it reads “How to survive a dissertation defense” since all of these projects differ from one to another. Additionally, dissertation committees differ from one to the next and, consequently, every defense meeting is unique and different. The tips provided below come from various people who are in a position to give such advice and from the hindsight observations of people who have at one time or another had to defend their own dissertations. The approach a student takes can vary depending on their particular topic, their field of study, and/or the university they are attending. You are welcome to contact XXX.com if you have any useful tips you would like to add.

List of ten useful tips

  1. Keep in mind  that dissertation committees want to see students succeed

Usually this is the case. A committee is unlikely to allow a student to get to the point of being asked to publicly defend their dissertation if they believe the student is unlikely to pass. By the time of a defense meeting, they will have had drafts of your paper and have had chance to comment on it. Therefore, they are familiar with it and they know if it is in good shape. The questions they put to you will be difficult but, mostly, they will not attempt to trap you with questions that are unrelated or unanswerable.

  1. Make sure you know your material thoroughly

When your defense comes around, it is most likely you have been working on the project for many months or even years. It is probably something you have given endless thought to, discussed in detail, written extensively about, and fretted about to at least some extent if not non-stop for quite some time. Most likely you are familiar with every word of it.

  1. Understand when to stay silent

This is a piece of advice our experts often give to students right before their defense and some take it seriously to their benefit. When the day of their defense arrives a lot of students get nervous or it may be that they are not sure about a particular answer. Almost the worst option in these circumstances is to start rambling on in the hope you will say the right thing. This is likely to cause you to flounder completely or to meander into an area you are not adequately prepared for. The best option is to stay quiet and wait to see if your examiners have any further or follow-on questions.

  1. Know that your dissertation committee is also performing

Keep in mind that the members of a dissertation committee are

usually performing to an audience and for each other’s benefit to the same extent as the person defending his or her thesis. Knowing this can take some of the intimidation out of the process for you.

  1. Keep everything simple on the day

When you are summing up your dissertation project, keep it quite simple by just telling the committee what you actually did. For example, “Here is the project I did. This is the question I asked. This is the topic I researched.” (Faculty members often recommend this approach.)

  1. Answer each question directly and honestly

Some students and presenters tend to adhere to “Fog of War” advice. This advice (from a documentary by Error Morris) is not to answer the question that was asked but rather to answer a question you wish you had been asked. This might work in politics and sometimes in conference situations but it does not work for a dissertation defense. The members of your committee have considerable expertise in their chosen fields and they have defended their own dissertations and have sat in on the defenses of other candidates. Therefore, they are good at spotting attempts at diversion. Your best option is to tackle the question you are asked directly and try to answer it as closely as you possibly can. This then takes us neatly to the two following points.

  1. If you do not know, say so

You should not feel any shame in having to admit you are not sure of the answer to a particular question. Saying flatly you do not know is probably not the best approach, but you could precede your attempt at an answer with such words as, “I am not exactly sure how best to answer this, but ...” This can work well. A lot of students find that if they say something like “I am not sure if this answers your question” when they are part-way through or near the end of an attempted answer tends to invite clarification or further guidance. This should be taken in conjunction with point No 3 i.e. the point about knowing when to say nothing. 

  1. You cannot possibly know every single thing

You will have considerable expertise in the area or field your dissertation relates to, and it is quite possible you are more of an expert in some aspects of your subject than members of your dissertation committee. Still, it is not possible for you to know every single thing. If or when questions go beyond your area of expertise or topic, it is acceptable to admit you are unfamiliar with this new or different topic.

  1. Sleep well the night before

Too much cramming the night before or too much worrying will not help you. A good sleep, if this is possible, might work wonders.

  1. Enjoy the moment

This might sound a bit odd. Someone, possibly someone from your faculty, might give you this advice on the eve of your defense. However, when you consider it in tandem with some of the previous points, it does make sense. Here is your opportunity to demonstrate the expertise the committee believe you have, so why not have a little fun. After all, this is your moment to shine.