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.
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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!

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Mike. I have a question: do you know if the student provided the paper copies for her committee members? I assume so, and I wonder if that is standard procedure. I like the idea of using a three ring binder with sections! This information is very helpful. I'm actually going to follow up on this post with an entry this Friday listing more ideas on how to prepare for one's oral defense!

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