Dissertation is complete

Dissertation is complete, what next?

With so much anticipation surrounding this one event, not to mention all the mental and physical energy invested, many graduate students are more than relieved to complete their dissertation (or in other words, say goodbye to the turmoil that took over their lives for the past several months!) So once the last period is put in place, and a hard copy is prepared for review, the question is - is it time to celebrate? Probably not; even though a moderate congrats should be in order, when it comes to most graduate programs, it isn't all over until the the defense is laid to rest.

Preparing for the dissertation defense - Is it really a defense?

Even though the dissertation defense present in today's institutions is no real match for its historical counterpart, some original 'defense' elements still exist; such as candidates having to answer tough or challenging questions about issues addressed in their dissertations.
But other than that the dissertation defense is more of a presentation than anything; or likewise a 'conversation' between the student and the committee members, a teaching-style lecture or an oral exam (though with more discussion than examination). All suitable descriptions of a defense. Though most importantly, the rapid fire questioning that may come to mind with the term 'defense' or similarly debate, is not something most students really have to worry about. Though they can and should be expected to be called out on certain things, questioned, or have some of their major points challenged.
Also when considering the formality of the defense procedure, it becomes clear that there are a few other purposes behind the defense in addition to its core purpose; a formal platform to evaluate a student's work. Some interesting points on the different purposes of the defense;

The dissertation defense is....

  • a chance for student's to present their hard work to a group of people that are willing to listen
  • an opportunity for student's to receive acknowledgement and recognition from fellow colleagues
  • a 'conversation', discussion, or evaluation of a student's dissertation
  • a sort of welcoming or formal introduction into the doctorate community

Leading up to the big day

The exact procedure that needs to be followed with regards to the defense and other concluding matters will likely come from a student's own particular college or department. But generally dissertation defenses are scheduled by the student before their final deadline for dissertation submission. This involves nailing down a time and date along with locking in a few committee members for attendance. And after the scheduling is complete it would be wise to take some general precautions to prepare oneself for the big day.

Preparation tips

#1 Rehearse and prepare as you would for any other presentation

This means going through your presentation beforehand, rehearsing, practicing, and maybe even memorizing a few things if warranted. Checking the location that the meeting will be held in to ensure that it has all of the technological equipment that may be needed. Also having a hard copy of the dissertation handy for reference, as well as any visual aids or handouts that are required. Speech wise this also means having a good rapport; aiming to be friendly, engaged, and relaxed during the presentation.

#2 Consider the most important things that need to be relayed

What would you want to know about your research? Make note of the key points made in the dissertation and work to address them first. Try to be as concise and straightforward as possible, allowing time for questions and avoid running the risk of 'boring the audience' with too much data; especially considering that they've already read the dissertation.
*One way to stay focused with your material may be to simply look at your presentation as an abstract; a little bit of everything in one place. So the same information that you conveyed in your introduction can be some of the same information you use to start of your defense. For instance; clearly state your problem and research questions, relay your methodology, findings and their significance, and discuss the larger implications of your research.

#3 Anticipate questions

Since you can expect to be questioned by your review committee it would be wise to get a head start on those questions by (a) preparing answers for common ones (b) learning more about the committee members to give yourself a better idea of the types of questions they may ask.
For the most part, you can and should expect common questions that ask you to elaborate on different aspects of your dissertation. For example, to name the primary theories and thinkers used in your research, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of your dissertation.
You may also be able to gain a bit of insight by learning a little more about the individuals in charge of evaluating your defense (their viewpoints or opinions on certain issues etc.). This may be done by conversing with them, checking over any feedback they've provided, and also seeing them converse in a live defense - which leads to the next point.

#4 Observe other dissertation defenses

Since defenses are usually open to the college community and sometimes posted or announced, it should be relatively easy to attend one to gain a few pointers for yourself. Ideally a defense in your field, with your committee members, would be best because you can gain some first hand (relevant) experience of the entire process. This may above all, be the best tip to utilize when preparing for the dissertation defense. Not only can you learn from the other student's mistakes but you can also gain a feel for what its like to be in the audience as well as the reactions, responses, and types of questions posed by committee members.

The final verdict

The good news about the dissertation defense is that people rarely fail; probably why the entire process seems more like a formality than an actually evaluation. Maybe knowing what the student invested, along with the guidance they received from their advisors, it would be kind of difficult to fail most candidates. But even with this optimism, the committee staff should still not be taken for granted. Often times they will be more prepared (and know more about your dissertation) than you would expect.
Failures do occur. And when they do the course of action is usually a simple one; make certain adjustments or improve certain points of the dissertation (hopefully all done in a relatively short timeframe).
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Martha Buckly

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