© Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C.Psych., Former Research Director, Graduate Program in Counselling Psychology, Trinity Western University, Langley, BC, Canada
Use the following steps when preparing for the oral defense of your thesis/dissertation.
1. Evaluation of oral examination is based on your presentation and your answers to questions from the examining committee.
2. Be well prepared for your presentation—academically, mentally and physically. Try to be well rested and focused before your oral defense.
3. In your preparation, don’t try to memorize all the studies cited in your thesis, but you do need to know the details of the few key studies that form the basis of your investigation.
4. You need to be familiar with larger issues, such as the basic assumptions, theoretical framework, paradigm, cross-cultural perspectives, Christian integration, etc.
5. More importantly, you need to have a deep understanding of the nature of your research problem and the major issues involved.
6. You may bring with you important materials for easy reference in the course of your defense; these may include key articles, computer print-outs of results, etc.
7. Your presentation is evaluated in terms of content and clarity as well as style.
8. Don’t speak too fast and don’t read from your notes.
9. Treat your presentation as a public address because there may be non-psychologists present at your defense. Therefore, don’t use too many jargons and don’t pack it with details. You need to tell people in simple, concise language:
- What you did,
- Why you did it,
- How you did it,
- What you found, and
- What the results mean.
10. Prepare handouts or power-points. Typically, they should include
- An overview or outline of your presentation,
- Introduction (including research question, rationale and hypothesis, if any, and definition of key constructs),
- Method (including design, methodology, sample, instruments or questionnaires, and procedure,
- Results (including tables or figures summarizing your findings), and
- Discussion (including reasons for new or unexpected findings, contributions and limitations, and practical implications).
11. Make sure that you space yourself well. Don’t spend too much time on one section. For example, you should not spend more than 5 minutes on introduction, since you are allowed only 20 minutes for your presentation.
12. Most of the questions are rather general and broad, dealing with substantial methodological, theoretical and application issues. However, some questions focus on specific points regarding sampling, statistical analysis, or some questionable conclusions.
13. Be prepared to clarify or elaborate on your assumptions, theoretical positions, methods, and conclusions. Often, an examiner plays the devil’s advocate to see how well you can think on your feet and defend yourself.
14. Occasionally, an examiner may ask a question which is unfair or cannot be adequately answered. After a few futile attempts, feel free to say that you don’t know the answer. You may even be bold enough to say, “Since none of my answers are acceptable, I would really appreciate it if you could give me some pointers or tell me what would be a correct answer.”
15. Here are some common questions:
- If you were to do it all over again, what changes would you make?
- What specific aspects of your findings can be utilized by counselors or psychologists in their practice?
- What is the most important contribution of your thesis? Can you say it in one or two sentences?
- What are some of the competing hypotheses? Could you think of an alternative interpretation of your findings?
16. Don’t rush to any answers. It is perfectly acceptable to think for a couple of seconds, or ask if you are on the right track. If you are not clear about the question, you are entitled to ask for clarification.
17. Try to be concise and to the point, but at the same time demonstrate that you have a good grasp of the complex issues involved. In other words, do not give superficial answers, but at the same time, do not go all over the map.
18. Put up a good defense without being defensive. Be confident without being cocky. A good defense means that you can provide strong logical arguments as well as empirical support o defend your position or conclusion. However, don’t be defensive when people criticize your study. If they are able to point out some real flaws or weaknesses in your study, accept their criticisms with humility, grace and gratitude.
19. Before the oral defense, talk to your advisor about areas of concerns based on external examiner’s comments. Then, discuss with your advisor how to best address these concerns. (Your advisor cannot tell you the specific questions the examiners will ask, but s/he can direct your attention to issues or areas that require some thinking or additional research.)
20. After the oral defense, meet with your advisor for debriefing and seek advice on how to revise your thesis.
This expert advice comes from Sonja Foss and William Waters - authors of Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation
Sonja Foss would say that the defense begins as soon as you start working on your dissertation (Foss & Waters, 2007). Defense in the context of the dissertating process refers to the presenting, explaining and defending of your ideas. It also includes laying out the rationale behind your choices and decisions, for example, regarding theory selection and research methods. Efforts to recruit your chair and other committee members will entail some of this communication behavior. Seeking approval for your dissertation proposal, the foundation of all your research activities, will also entail a bit of defense.
Throughout the course of the project many exchanges with your chair and other committees will involve explaining and defending your ideas and decision. However, 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.
The dissertation defense can be divided into three distinct components (Foss and Waters): the preparation, the defense, and follow-up. A few brief comments about all three follow and a very helpful resource provided a thorough discussion of all three components.
- Attend the defenses of some of your departmental colleagues or attend defenses in other departments.
- It is very important to adhere to graduate school rules and deadlines covering the scheduling of a defense.
- Begin very early to schedule and coordinate the date, time and place for the defense. Committee members and chairs have very busy schedules.
- Have your manuscript reviewed before the defense to be sure it is consistent with formatting requirements. You want to present a polished document for the faculty to work with in preparation for the defense.
- Maximize your opportunity in the pre-defense meeting to raise any issues or concerns. Or ask your chairs what questions and issues might be raised during the defense. Prepare to address them.
- Organize you material for presentation. Create flawless presentation of the material you will be covering on the defense. Finally, practice presenting the material and answering questions.
- Meetings may begin with brief comments by the chair followed by your comments thanking advisors 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.
- Two questions to anticipate include identifying the weaknesses of your study and post-dissertation research plans.
- 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 to pass you on your defense and dissertation.
- The desired outcome of this meeting is the chair's greeting you with the statement "Congratulations, Dr. _." (Foss and Waters, 2007). The defense was successful and the committed has passed your dissertation.
- You may plan a small reception for the committee, friends and family. Check to see what the norms are in your department on post-defense celebrations.
- Next day attend to the revisions the committee asked you make to the work.
- You may want to provide bound copies of your work to your chair, committee members, family and friends. You may also be required to provide copies to your department and library. Create a budget for handling the incidental related to publishing and ordering additional copies of your manuscript.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------About the Authors: Co-authors of Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation, Dr. Foss is a professor of Communications at University of Colorado, Denver, and Dr. Waters is an assistant professor of English at University of Houston-Downtown, They are co-directors of Scholar’s Retreat, a program to support progress towards completion of your dissertation, thesis or writing project.