Friday, July 24, 2015

Reviews of Guidebooks on the Topic of Oral Defense

Today, I’d like to follow up on our last post, “The Defense Rests.” After reading Mike’s July 9 post, I felt better about the oral defense that many of us will face (or have faced). Yet I was left with a question: Mike mentioned that all committee members of the defense he observed had paper copies of the student’s dissertation. Since our office only requires students to bring one paper copy to Adams Hall Room 223 (three weeks in advance of oral defense date for the “outside” reader), were the paper copies Mike noted provided to the committee by the defending student? I would guess “yes,” but I also started wondering, what other preparatory tasks exist that we "defenders" might wish to know about?

To find out, I did some research. Below, I’ve summarized what a few of the books we keep around The Thesis Office say on the matter of the oral defense. *Note: most of what follows applies for doctoral students--unless your master's thesis requires an oral defense.

Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing by R. Murray Thomas and Dale L. Brubaker (Bergin & Garvey, 2000 ). 

This book is geared towards students in the “social and behavioral sciences” (Preface), but its chapter on the oral defense could help any presenter. The authors devote 7 of 277 pages to the defense, which may sound short but is actually one of the longer treatments. Thomas and Brubaker begin by pointing out that the oral defense is usually the “penultimate” (257) step to graduation, mentioning that students might still have revisions after the defense, as Mike also explains in his post. The book then delineates “7 cases of concern” for defenders, including issues of study validity and significance; candidates' and advisors’ roles; objections; “committee member debates”; and “inadequate proofreading” (Thomas and Brubaker 257).

The authors then go through each of the above topics in Q&A format, mimicking how an advisor would respond to student questions. The following points sum up the chapter:

              ·  2 and 1/2 pages devoted to validity issues, aimed for defense of qualitative studies
              ·  Preparation for the question, “What does it mean?”
o   offer your take on the different types of “meaning”
o   state which applies to your study (260)
              · Preparation for other situations, including the “intrusive advisor” (261)
o   don’t worry if committee members seem inattentive
o   keep quiet when committee members debate
o   generally, “answer … questions precisely and concisely, and then STOP” (263)

Finally, the authors mention that many students don’t believe that “spelling, grammar, and format” are of main concern, but they note that faculty members are in the “business” of “fostering responsible scholarship” (Thomas and Brubaker 263). The authors caution students to proofread thoroughly before the oral defense to avoid additional revisions.

Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process by Kjell Erik Rudestam and Rae. R. Newton (3rd ed., Sage Publications, Inc., 2007

Another book for graduate students in the social sciences--this one has a positive feel with several examples of tables and figures for students. However, Rudestam and Newton devote only about 2 and 1/2 pages to “Dissertation Orals” (218). They frame the experience as a range from a “congenial ritual … to a more excruciating examination … by an unsympathetic faculty committee” (218). But Rudestam and Newton say, “You can make a number of reasonable preparations to make the experience a positive one” (218).

         Their biggest advice: 1) Know your study and 2) Take control

For example, Rudestam and Newton describe a candidate who arrived at her defense early, rearranged the furniture to her liking, and greeted the committee members as they arrived, as if she “had invited them to an event she was hosting” (219). The book then describes the typical oral defense format, which matches Mike’s experience fairly closely. The authors mention a possible “let down” after the event but hope students will view the defense as a “transformative experience” (Rudestam and Newton 220).

         The Portable Dissertation Advisor by Miles T. Bryant (Corwin Press, 2004

Bryant takes a “pragmatic” (xi) approach in this text, gleaned from his years of working with graduate students. He aims his book more towards the part time or “nontraditional” doctoral student (ix). He, too, devotes approximately 2 and 1/2 pages (of 150) specifically to the defense.

Bryant’s defense section starts with an Oscar Wilde quote:

          “The play was a great success, but the audience was a disaster.” 

Funny guy, that Oscar Wilde. And good choice of opening for Bryant because this quotation encapsulates the scary vibe of oral defenses: the audience, i.e., your committee; how will they be?

However, Bryant reassures that the majority of defenders pass, and here are his main pieces of advice:
o   Have a “plausible answer for every question asked” (140)
o   Speak with confidence and clarity

Bryant then mentions scheduling and room arrangement issues (may or may not be student’s responsibility) as well as reminds to set up and check technology ahead of time. Done! 

Finally, we have another book called Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation by Sonja K. Foss and William Waters (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007 ). This is one of my favorite dissertation guides, and its chapter on the oral defense is like a 14-page How-to (book has 359 total pages). As this post is quite long already, I'll just note that the authors confirm most of what I’ve already reported and what Mike found in his experience, but they also give several example responses, and they list several ways to work with your main advisor and practice for the event. If you want a one-stop source of advice (albeit one that's a little wordy), I’d suggest that you check out this guide. 

Anyone have other helpful remarks? Please feel free to comment!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Defense Rests

Recently, after a conversation with my director, I came to the realization that some day -- sooner than I may realize -- I am going to have to defend my dissertation. Normally, such an epiphany would stress me out considering all of the horror stories that other graduate students have revealed to me about the defense process.

But I decided that worrying myself over something that has not even happened yet was crazy and a waste of my time. Instead, I decided that if I wanted to prepare myself for what was coming, then I should sit in on a dissertation defense. After all, they are open to the public (the calendar of defenses can be found by clicking on this link).

You know what? It wasn't that bad.

The defense that I watched was for a doctoral student in the humanities. I cannot guarantee that her experience is typical for every graduate student, but I had the sense that her dissertation defense followed a fairly standard format.

The proceedings began with the members of the dissertation committee and the doctoral candidate taking their seats around a long conference table. The director began the defense by introducing himself and the other committee members, and followed this with a review of the day's agenda. I liked how the director was letting the candidate know beforehand what all she could expect to take place.

The entire procedure consists of nothing more than a q&a. It reminded me a great deal of an exit interview. The candidate's answers basically are a narrative -- X is my topic; I chose X as my topic because . . . ; my thesis about X is the following . . . .

The director started the questioning. The candidate was asked why she chose her topic and what she learned about her topic. Next, she was asked what she learned from her graduate school experience -- she was a more mature student compared to many of her peers and I had the impression that her committee was interested in ascertaining what aspects of her education proved beneficial so that they might be replicated with future students -- and, finally, what did she experience through the research and writing process. These were very easy questions that any graduate student could answer. They helped to relax the candidate, establish rapport, and let everyone know that while the defense is serious business, it was nothing more than a conversation between colleagues.

As the candidate answered, she transitioned into a detailed discussion of her topic. She chose to incorporate a powerpoint presentation into the defense process that I found very stimulating.

The big thing: she did not read the slides to the audience. I dislike when speakers do this. I find it tedious and unprofessional. The candidate clearly had good experience incorporating powerpoint into a lecture. I do not think that every graduate student needs to think about putting together a presentation for his or her defense. In this case, given her choice of topic, integrating the slides into her defense was ideal.

This brought the director's line of questioning to an end. Next, the other two committee members asked questions about specific passages or particular arguments found in the body of the dissertation. Everyone seated at the conference table had a paper copy of the dissertation in front of them so that everyone could refer to individual chapters or pages if need be. Passages were examined and the candidate was asked to clarify a couple of points.

After the committee was done asking questions, people in attendance but not directly affiliated with the candidate or the committee were invited to pose questions.

Once it was apparent that the session was complete, everyone was asked to vacate the room so that the committee could confer in private. After a few minutes, the candidate was invited back into the room to hear her results: Pass, or Pass but some revisions necessary.

The portion of the dissertation defense that I was allowed to witness lasted no longer than 45 minutes. It was a very casual affair. I was surprised coffee was not served. The experience felt as though it could have easily taken place in a cafe.

I noticed the candidate had her dissertation clipped into a three ring binder and there was a plastic divider separating each chapter. This allowed her to turn to the appropriate section of her dissertation quickly and effortlessly when prompted to do so by an examiner's question. This is one aspect of the defense that I would recommend that every graduate student follow. It made the candidate look poised and professional.

Now that I have watched a dissertation defense, I feel a lot better about the experience. I plan on attending more defenses in order to determine what other tips I might pick up that I can integrate into my own defense.

Until then, I have books to read, secondary research to track down, and lots of coffee to drink while I stay up late to write.

Have any thesis or dissertation defense tips? Know any classic thesis or dissertation defense stories? Feel free to comment on this blog or share them on with our Facebook group!