Some advice for a PhD defense

by Dec 9, 2016

I recently defended my PhD and got a lot of good advice from blogs and colleagues. This is an attempt to collect the advice I found useful. The Danish PhD defense is a public event in which you give a presentation followed by a discussion with each of the three members of you assessment committee. At some departments the audience is invited to ask questions at the end (which is great, when it happens, but unfortunately most departments are too rigid to allow this). The public defense usually lasts about three hours.

If you have other good advice, please share it in the comments section.

Have a pre-defense

This is one of the best pieces of advice I got before my defense. I invited four colleague-friends to the pre-defense. They were all PhD students whose work was similar to mine, but it would of course be great if you could also include someone who had already defended their PhD. At the pre-defense, I gave my presentation and afterwards my colleagues asked me questions, both with a point of departure in the assessment and some of their own. They had all read my assessment beforehand. Finally, they gave me feedback on my performance. This made me make some changes in my presentation (make sure you leave enough time after the pre-defense to actually incorporate the feedback; you might want to turn everything on its head), it made me much clearer on some of my answers, and it made me at ease with the situation.

Don’t forget to get coffee and cake for your pre-defense ‘committee’.

Preparing your presentation

We all tend to start preparing our presentation after we get our assessment, but if pressed for time, one could easily start preparing the presentation beforehand. Of course the insecurity of whether the dissertation is approved or not makes it a bit of a frustrating task, but in the end, you don’t need the assessment to start preparing. Keep in mind that your presentation is not so much for your committee (who has read your work) as for the audience members who have not read your dissertation.

I usually don’t write down my talks and read them for oral presentations, but on this occasion I did and it worked well for me. One piece of advice I got at the pre-defense was to print my speech with a large font size to help me talk slower. Many of us speak too fast in these situations and you really want people to be able to follow what you say.

Responding to the assessment

I have read a couple of different assessments and they vary quite a bit in style. I was lucky that mine was very well structured with seven separate points that the committee would like to invite for further debate. This clarity meant I could pretty much guess which of the committee members had written the different sections, which made preparing easier. I prepared an answer for each question (I wrote out my answers in full and practiced them). Others find bullet points more useful (and I usually would too, but not for this occasion). With a less structured assessments, you might have a bit more work to do figuring out what the questions that will be posed are.

I was uncertain about how many of the comments in the assessment I should incorporate in my presentation. In the end, I incorporated a few, but left out most. My advice now would definitely be to leave them out (unless they are a very fundamental critique of your work in which case you might want to spend more time defending your choices). The reason you should leave them out of your presentation is that these are the questions that the committee members are going to ask, so if you have already answered them they will need to come up with other questions. If they have to come up with new questions, you are less prepared and they will not sound as well-prepared and smart. Don’t forget that they are also in a sense defending their work and capabilities as they are evaluating your work.

Reading literature before the defense

Again, assessments might vary greatly on this point, but in my assessment, I was asked to comment on six scholars, whose work I had not referred to in my dissertation. While reading these scholars gave me great insights to my own work, I was also pressed for time with only two weeks to prepare my defense, so I had to choose very carefully what to read. What I did to save time was look at references. I started with the committee members’ own work and looked up the places in their most relevant work in which they cited the scholars they wanted me to comment on. Then I looked up the exact pages that were cited and in most cases this got me to exactly the core of the issue they wanted me to comment on. Reading the committee members work referring to these scholars also helped me understand their comments in the assessment.

Having the right committee

This comment is of course overdue once you are preparing your defense, but let me include it anyway. There are different traditions regarding the selection of the committee, but often the PhD student is allowed to suggest some potential scholars. If so, this is a task you want to take very seriously. For me, starting to think about who I would like to have on my committee also made writing easier, because all of a sudden I had a very specific audience in mind when I wrote.

Have a friendly face in the audience

I learned a little trick at an oral presentation course I attended: have a friendly face in the crowd and if you get nervous or confused, talk straight to that person. It is great if this is a person who knows your work and is sympathetic to it and in general thinks you are awesome. That way you will feel that what you say is being well received. You might want to alert the person beforehand so they can make sure to look attentive even if they are drifting off for a bit.

Prepare all the little details in advance

This might be a banal point, but it is important none-the-less. You don’t want to spend the time right before your defense running around getting prints, finding a wireless presenter for the PowerPoint or finding out what to wear (I say this out of experience). Have all these details prepared in advance. It is also a good idea to go to the room your defense will take place in if you are not familiar with it. You can talk to the leader of the defense about where the committee will be sitting and whether they will stay seated or stand up when it is their turn to ask questions. Then you can get an idea about where you will be placed yourself. At times it is a bit awkward when the committee member stands up and take your spot, leaving you placeless. At my defense, the committee was seated in the corner facing both the crowd and me, so they could stay seated when asking questions. I had a small table to stand by, which worked great.

And most importantly, don’t forget to eat before the defense.

Enjoy!

A PhD defense is really not something you should be worried about. You have spent years working on your topic and you know your work. Having distinguished scholars flown in from across the world solely to discuss your work is a privilege that most of us will not experience again. The committee members have agreed to come because they find your work interesting and they have approved your work for the defense, so you have done quite a lot right so far. You will probably never give a talk that you have done so much work to prepare. This is your time to be brilliant. Enjoy it!