In anticipation for my thesis defense, which was scheduled on July 18th, I experienced a wave of emotions: from impending doom and doubt, to a state of euphoria, and RELIEF. This blog is motivated in part by my own experience of having successfully defended my thesis in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta, and to demystify the culture of fear and anxiety surrounding the “big day” because I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one who was nervous going into it. Here are my top five pieces of advice that I hope will help you prep or relax. So grab your glass of wine, or cup of tea and be calm, and read on.
1. What Happens Behind Closed Doors is No Mystery.
I often found that when I asked about what happens during a defense it resulted in more questions and confusion than answers—as if there’s some secret tomb of knowledge that I’m not allowed to have access to until the day of the exam…
In short, the thesis defense begins with your arrival to wherever you are scheduled to be. Arrive ten fifteen minutes early to set up a presentation, if you have one. Once everyone is present, the non-examining chair will ask you to leave the room briefly, and s/he will call you back in when the committee is ready. From there, you may be asked to give a short presentation if you’ve prepared one, and this is followed by the members of the committee asking you questions in order of the member least closest to you. There will be two rounds of questions, and you’ll be asked to spend approximately 10-12 minutes for each question. In-between the first and second rounds, the non-examining chair will ask if you’d like a break. My committee and I didn’t, so we proceeded with the second round. After the second round of questions, you’ll be asked to leave the room while the committee deliberates. And, once they reach a decision they’ll call you back in and announce the results. My defense began at noon and it ended at around 2:30-2:35-ish.
2. How do you Prepare for the “Big Day?”
While getting advice from friends who have recently defended is most certainly useful, the best thing you can do is to consult with your supervisor first and ask him/her questions or concerns that you might have about the defense. They’ve supervised dozens of grad students and have lots of experience. Plan early and schedule a meeting with him/her, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Your supervisor is your greatest supporter. In addition, give yourself some time between the day you submit your thesis to your non-internal external(s) and the day of the defense. My defense was scheduled two months after I submitted my thesis to the non-internal external, and during those two months, I worked on other projects, publications (and played some Zelda BOTW). Two weeks before the defense day, I re-read my thesis and took note of the kinds of questions that I thought I might be asked. For example, these questions stemmed out of the kinds of assumptions I made in my reading/interpretation of texts and theories. Reading my thesis with “fresh eyes” was effective because I was able to predict, or tailor my response to, three questions that were asked during the defense. So, channel your inner Sherlock Holmes and start looking for clues!
3. Treat the Defense with Respect, Not Fear.
It might seem impossible but try to relax. (I know this is easier said than done). I was so excited to defend; that is, until I landed in Edmonton …and then it all started to feel “real.” Several days prior to the defense, I think I may have gotten four to five hours sleep a day due to jet-lag and nervousness. There is no single solution to getting over your nerves, but perhaps the best advice I received was from a colleague that I ran into on my way back to my hotel. He told me, “Go into the exam with respect not fear or anxiety” (Thank you Andreas!). Remember that your committee and externals wouldn’t have agreed for you to defend, if they felt you weren’t ready. During my defense, I felt that my work was respected by everyone on the committee and though some questions were a bit harder than others to answer, the questions they asked all came from a genuine place of interest and inquiry. For me, the defense itself went much smoother than I had anticipated, so breathe!
4. During the Defense
Answer questions using the T-model. This is one piece of advice that my supervisor gave me, which I found incredibly helpful. Simply put, because you have such a limited time to answer questions, begin with a “general” statement, then, narrow it down by providing an example. Remember to be succinct and clear (though I must admit, the first question was the hardest one for me to answer only because my nerves got in the way, but I quickly found my rhythm).
5. After the Defense
If you’re not one of the lucky few who got a tenure track job straight out of your PhD program, then, you’ll want to be proactive about taking your next steps, especially for those who still want to pursue an academic career. As I mentioned before, schedule a meeting with your supervisor (or rather, who is now your colleague) and get tips about turning the thesis into a book, about collaborating with him/her on research/publication initiatives, and find ways to develop your teaching dossier.
Good luck! And remember to eat well and “relax.”