On Monday, February 25, I turned in my 120-page qualifying exams to my three committee members. I had two weeks to prepare for my qualifying exams oral defense. Those two weeks were filled with more stress, anxiety, and lack of sleep than I had ever experienced in my life.
When the time came to defend my qualifying exams, I spent 30 minutes waiting for my committee members to discuss and organize their thoughts about my exams, 60 minutes presenting a PowerPoint that highlighted key details from my exams, and the final 30 minutes fielding questions from my committee members. Overall, the oral defense, that I had built up in my mind as a 2-hour grilling session, turned out to be a chance to share my knowledge and have a collegial discussion with experts.
When I had my recent dissertation proposal defense, I was much more prepared and less stressed. Here are some tips that I have picked up along the way:
Tip 1: Ask Your Advisor What to Expect
It’s amazing how many students (myself included) would rather stress about the unknown than ask an advisor for a straightforward answer. So, gather up the courage and ask your advisor to explain in detail exactly what he or she expects during the oral defense. Common questions include:
- How long is the defense?
- What is the layout of the defense (e.g., first 10 minutes asking questions, next 30 minutes presenting)?
- Should you prepare a PowerPoint? If so, what should you include in the PowerPoint? How should it be organized?
- Should you bring food (many faculty often expect students to provide food during the defense)?
- What are some common questions that students get during the defense?
- What do you need to do to prepare for the defense (e.g., Do you need to memorize the list of authors and articles? Do you need to explain your process of finding and selecting articles for the literature review?)?
Tip 2: Ask Students in Your Department
I can’t emphasize how important it is to ask other students in your department for advice. It’s best to ask students who have the same advisor as you; however, it doesn’t hurt to ask students who do not have the same advisor as you to get a general feel for what the oral defense process is like. The more students you can ask, the better.
I received a lot of incredibly insightful tips from students in my department. For my qualifying exams, I learned that I had to be ready to explain the process in which I selected the articles for my literature review and I should be prepared to explain how the literature would guide my dissertation research.
For my dissertation proposal defense, I discovered that I would need to describe the unit of analysis, thoroughly explain and defend the types of analyses that I selected, and ensure that the theoretical framework supported the methodology. I redesigned my PowerPoint presentation a few days before my defense after finding out these helpful tips and it paid off greatly. I was prepared to answer all of my committee member’s questions.
Another good idea is to present your defense to students in your department, peers, and family members. Have your audience ask questions and provide feedback. This gives you a chance to make sure your presentation is clear and it prepares you for answering questions during your actual defense. This type of event does not have to be a formal presentation, either. I chatted informally with friends about my research at a department social and they asked me questions and provided tips.
Tip 3: Prepare the Basics
When the time came for my qualifying exams defense, I was more stressed about getting the food from Silvergreens to my committee in a fast enough manner that it would stay warm. Needless to say, this should not have been my top priority that day.
It can help to plan and prepare all of the basics ahead of time so you can maintain your focus on your defense rather than sweating the small stuff.
- Are you presenting a PowerPoint or using technology during your presentation? Arrive at least 15-20 minutes early to make sure the computer, projector, and Internet work (at my dissertation proposal defense, I spent 10 minutes restarting the computer and trying to fix the projector and ended up loading my PowerPoint as the committee settled in and started eating).
- Be prepared to take notes. Bring a padfolio, notebook, laptop, or other tool for jotting down suggestions and ideas from your committee members. It can be helpful to have a printed copy of your paper so you can read over the pages and sections your committee members reference and take notes directly on the document. I actually prefer taking notes on blank sheets rather than directly my paper so that I have all of my notes in one area.
- Dress business casual. You want to look professional at your oral defense. Set out your clothes the night before. Make sure they are wrinkle free. Wrinkles should not be at the top of your list of stressors for your oral defense.
- Food and drinks. Make a plan of action for bringing food (if your advisor recommends it). If you get food at a local supermarket, don't forget to buy plates, utensils, napkins, and cups. If you get food at a local restaurant, call the day before your defense to see how long it will take to make the food order. Figure out how you will get the food to your oral defense (note: biking with an open cup of orange juice from Silvergreens is not a good idea…I’ve tested this). If your committee does not require food, it can be a nice gesture to bring bottles of water.
- Water. Bring a bottle of water for yourself. You will be talking a lot. Also, use your water breaks to your advantage. If you committee asks you a tough question that you need additional time to think about, slowly pick up your water bottle, take off the cap, take a few sips of water, and set your water bottle back down…all the while thinking about how to answer the question.
Your Committee is Not Your Nemesis
For some reason, I had it in my head that a defense was a grilling session in which the committee members wanted to find ways to trick or stump me with impossible questions. Fortunately, this nightmarish idea is far from the truth. Your committee wants you to succeed. They are on your side. So, don’t let fear overcome you when preparing for a defense. If your committee is critical, it is because they want to help you make your research or writing stronger.
Take Care of Your Well-Being
There’s nothing worse than walking into an oral defense with high blood pressure and lack of sleep. Take care of yourself. Get some exercise, make sure to get quality sleep, and eat healthy. Don’t forget to take deep breaths (this is a great relaxation technique).