In graduate programs, especially those that are research-based, the culmination of the master’s or doctoral degree is the completion of the thesis or dissertation. Selecting a thesis or dissertation topic can actually serve as the starting point for the later defense. Why did you choose this topic? What do you hope to find? Is it relevant to what’s happening in your field of study? Will it contribute to the knowledge base or validate an existing theory in your academic field? Once the proposal is approved, the research and writing can begin. Throughout the course of writing the thesis or dissertation, many exchanges with your chair and other committee members will involve explaining and defending your ideas and decisions.
The most important defense is the dissertation defense which comes at the end of a long and arduous process and which may have unfolded over a number of years. The dissertation defense is a significant milestone signaling closure on your graduate student career. Students schedule a time to meet with their committee to defend their work. This involves presenting, explaining and defending of your ideas. It also includes laying out the rationale behind your choices and decisions, especially those regarding theory selection, research questions, methodology, analysis, and conclusions.
According to Foss and Waters (2007), the thesis/dissertation defense can be divided into three distinct components - the preparation, the defense, and follow-up.
- Talk to fellow students who have gone through a defense. They can tell you what to expect and what they would do differently. If possible, attend a student’s defense to observe the process, paying attention to the questions asked and how the student relates to committee members.
- It is very important to adhere to Graduate Studies rules and deadlines covering the scheduling of a defense. Familiarize yourself with the guidelines and requirements your department has put into place. Speak with your adviser to be sure that you know exactly what is expected of you.
- Begin very early to schedule and coordinate the date, time and place for the defense. Your adviser and committee members are very busy with teaching and advising other students, so be proactive.
- Have your manuscript reviewed before the defense to be sure it free of typos and is consistent with formatting requirements and preferred style in your field (e.g., APA). You want to present a polished document for the faculty to work with in preparation for the defense.
- Committee members and chairs have very busy schedules also. Give them plenty of time (at least two weeks) to read your finished manuscript. You should check with the committee members to see if they would prefer to receive your manuscript even further in advance. Also, ask if they want an electronic or hard copy. The written defense should include an abstract and a summary. All your forms need to be filled out ahead of time, including any and all signatures you are required to obtain.
- Maximize your opportunity in the pre-defense meeting to raise any issues or concerns. Or ask your adviser what questions and issues might be raised during the defense. Prepare to address them.
- Organize your materials for the presentation. Create flawless presentation of the material you will be covering on the defense. Finally, practice presenting the material and answering questions.
- If the adviser’s schedule allows it, arrive early enough for a pre-defense meeting. He or she can give you some pointers or just an old-fashioned pep talk.
- Regarding dress, look the part. Wear professional attire that is appropriate for your field and comfortable.
- Meetings may begin with brief comments by the chair followed by your comments thanking your adviser and committee members for their time and efforts on your behalf.
- Your presentation material should briefly cover the research question, literature review as it relates to your theory, methods and analysis, major findings and recommendations for future research.
- During the defense, the faculty may take turns asking you questions and discussing among themselves points of interest or disagreement. Be passionate about your research, stressing its importance and relevance. Be prepared to explain what you did, why you did it, and your results.
- Two questions to anticipate include identifying the weaknesses or limitations of your study and your future research plans. Examples of these questions include: What do you plan to do with the thesis/dissertation beyond graduate school? Do you plan to publish to present this work somewhere? If you plan to continue studying this topic, what will you study in the future?
- When all questions have been asked and answered, you will be asked to leave the room while the committee deliberates. At this time, faculty will be deciding by vote whether you pass, pass but with recommended revisions, or fail. Based on the outcome, the committee may also have additional recommendations or comments for you. If you have been regularly discussing your thesis/dissertation with your adviser, you will probably be successful. If your adviser was worried about whether you would pass, he/she should have had a conversation about your progress and the quality of your work well before the scheduling of the defense.
- Defenses are public events, so some students choose to invite family or friends for support. You may also have other graduate students come just to see what a defense looks like before they have to go through the experience themselves.
- As soon as possible, attend to the revisions the committee asked you make to the work. Have your adviser review the final draft before sending it off to the printers.
- After submitting your paperwork, make sure that your final completed dissertation has also been properly uploaded to ProQuest and submitted to the library.
- You may want to provide bound copies of your work to your department chair, committee members, your university library, family, and friends. Create a budget for handling the costs related to publishing and ordering additional copies of your manuscript.
After the defense, you will feel a great sense of relief. Happily inform your family and friends. Start planning for the graduation ceremony, celebrations, and life after graduate school. It was quite a journey.
Foss, S.J. & Waters, W.J.C. (2007). Destination dissertation: A traveler’s guide to a done dissertation. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
GradSchools.com (2017). Defending your thesis-dissertation defense tips. https://www.gradschools.com/get-informed/surviving-graduate-school/graduate-thesisdissertation/defending-your-thesis