Preparing for Dissertation Defense

You’ve done it, you’ve completed hours, months, perhaps even years of research and writing to complete your dissertation. The only step left on your path to a doctorate degree is the defense of your dissertation. Each university handles dissertation defense differently, so it may be helpful to reach out to other students and gain perspective on what to expect, this way you can prepare yourself for what to expect.

Step 1: Prepare and Practice

Use every moment between turning in your dissertation to committee and defending your dissertation to prepare to defend. This means practicing your speech, preparing slides, and practicing some more.

Do you know what anxiety does to you? Prepare yourself to handle your anxious habits and plan around them. If, during public speeches, you tend to speak with a faster cadence than normal, you may want to practice slowing down. Give your speech and time yourself, this will help you understand how long you should expect to take.

For students of Northcentral University, we offer the ability to attend scheduled defenses at any time through “The Commons”. Watching other defenses may help prepare you further for your own defense.

Step 2: Do Recon on Your Committee

Knowing your audience can not only help you prepare, but also ease your stress as you’ll have a better idea of what to expect. Review the feedback you have already received and look for common themes, perspectives, or questions. Consider how you responded to this feedback in the dissertation process and be prepared to face similar questions again. Ask your chair for feedback on the committee, are there any members who are typically brash or grating in the process? Knowing that there may be someone who presents a tougher obstacle will only help to prepare and not allow you to be thrown off during the time of your defense.

Step 3: Expect the Unexpected

As stated previously, every university has a different way of handling the dissertation defense process. It’s also important to remember that your dissertation is unique, so your defense will be unique as well. You will get questions you won’t expect, you will be asked to explain yourself in ways you may not have thought possible, or perhaps you will move through those obstacles like a warm knife through butter. You put a lot of time and effort into your dissertation, you should be confident in presenting and defending it, your confidence and knowledge of the subject is the only thing you can truly control.

Have your friends, colleagues, family members, or anyone available ask questions so you can prepare to answer them. Read your dissertation and write your own questions so that you can practice answering them. The best offense, is a good defense.

Step 4: Exude Professionalism and Confidence

You’ve spent a lot of time on this dissertation, and no one knows it’s contents better than you. You should keep that in mind when determining how to speak to it. Yes, you will be presenting to a highly-credentialed committee, but they are less versed in your topic than you are. Be sure to speak in a manner that is understandable, formal, and professional, but not overtly specific to your field, or terminology that is only prevalent in your field.

Avoid unnecessary exposition, there is no need to let members know how hard you worked, how many late nights you stayed up, or how you had an “ah-ha” moment. You are presenting an illustrious piece of research, not a pilot script for a sitcom, keep your speech focused.

Step 5: Get Sleep!

Easier said than done with something so important on your calendar, but you will be much better prepared if you are getting a healthy amount of sleep. A good night’s sleep before your defense will not only improve your appearance, but also help to keep you focused and relaxed during your defense. Never underestimate the power of sleep.

Step 6: Relax, You’re the Expert

You’ve put in a lot of work to get to this point, and odds are you know the topic and could recite it in your sleep, remember this as you head into your defense. You will get questions that you have answers to, and questions that you might not, remember that it’s ok to not know the answer as it may be something you plan for future research. Keep your anxiety in check, answer questions confidently, and remember that the committee is there to help you improve.

Step 7: Expect Revisions

There may be revisions to your dissertation after your defense, this is normal and assists in making your document the best it can possibly be. Don’t be dejected by these revisions, instead embrace them and understand that this is simply a part of the process.

Step 8: Picture the finish line, but don’t overindulge

It’s important, in keeping your stress levels in check, to picture the relief you’ll feel when this is all done. The hard work and time you put in will finally have amounted to you being a doctor and a contributor to your field, but use this as motivation, not a distraction. It would be easy to start planning a celebration instead preparing for your defense, but you need to get through the defense first. Use your completion as motivation, and use that motivation to stay focused, you’re in the home stretch.

Hopefully these tips can help you succeed in your dissertation defense. You’ve put in the effort, you’ve put in the research, you’re almost to the finish line. Good Luck!

Additional Dissertation Reading

If you aren’t yet ready to defend your dissertation, or are just starting your path to a dissertation, you might find these other articles helpful:

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