The Perfect Defense: The Oral Defense of a Dissertation

I'm Dr. Valerie Balester, I am the
executive director of the University Writing Center. I am an English professor with a
specialization in rhetoric and composition in other words in writing. I was thinking about it before today,
I have been on at least 60 and probably 75 defenses, and not all in english: in English, in
education, in linguistics, and then also in engineering, in
architecture. We used to have to have somebody from
outside your home department sitting on each dissertation defense, as what they
call them: a graduate committee reviewer to make
sure that the process went smoothly, so I did that for for many different

I think a many in the sciences and
engineering. So I'm very confident about about the
structure of a dissertation defense. I'm wondering what you know about the
structure a dissertation defense, anything that you know at all about it
that you could tell me? What do you think happens in that little room? You go with your committee
into a little conference room usually, right? Sometimes it's open to the public and
sometimes –I mean technically it always open to the
public– but whether you announce it to the
public or not is going to determine whether people come or don't come and in my department, in English,
it's not customary for the public to ever attend. if it's open to the public there is a
point at which they will even you will be sitting alone with
your committee cell what you're doing here is you have to
muster up I love your confidence now this is about
confidence okay it's very important and you have to
present yourself as a scholar in the discipline and
authority on your subject you have to show them what you have to
offer as a scholar and that's really what it's about.
Nervousness is probably the biggest problem, but I've seen all of them work through

I've never seen anyone fail and have only seen one person ever fail
a dissertation in all of those defenses. Only one person didn't pass,
so your odds one out of sixy. Your odds are good, you're
going to pass. So go in there with that impression. The
person who did not pass wasn't prepared and hadn't talked to his committee
beforehand. So, you are most likely going to pass this. You're going to be expected to clearly and cogently explain your work
and explain how your work fits in with your discipline. Where's your place in this big
conversation that's going on in your discipline? What have you contributed to the field,
because a dissertation is supposed to be an original contribution to knowledge. What have you contributed to
the field? What more needs to be done? That's the
kind of thing they're interested in, so it's not really a grilling. In your head I want you to turn it from
a grilling, because I've never seen whenit is a grilling and the word grilling means where they put you on the grill and cook you until
you're finished.

It means where they ask you this, this, and this do you know this, do you know that,
where they just ask you lots of questions. It's usually not that, it's usually
conversation among equals. They're trying to see
if you can function as an equal with them now. It's their
first opportunity to say you are now an equal, please come in and give me some
information, but as an equal, I expect you to be able to explain your
ideas, defend your ideas, tell me where your
ideas fit in, because they expect it of each other.
They're not asking you to do anything that they don't do with each other and
that's why you shouldn't worry if they suddenly
stop talking to you and start talking to each other–that's a
good sign actually– that means that you have stimulated
their brain. This is what these people live for, they're academics and they like that. Sometimes they get
into arguments with each other it's okay and your chair should gently bring that back. If your chair
doesn't do it, just let it go, let it happen.

If they disagree
with you, they expect you to come back with a
defense and that's where the word "defense" comes
from. You need to know what the rules are. Have a talk with your advisor and find out. If you don't know
now, You can talk to other students, but you
definitely need to talk to your advisor a good while before the defense and say,
"I would like to know what to expect.

Can you explain to me how defense
happens in our department? What is the usual thing that happens? What do you want from me as your
candidate?" and then know your committee as well. Sometimes when we work on a
dissertation, we get isolated from our committee. Make sure that the committee
gets the dissertation in plenty of time– that's something your advisor can tell you.
If you give it to them two weeks before, they'll probably read it the night
before and then any objections they have they didn't have chance to tell you
about, so if you can give it to them like a
month before, even more, you can work that out with your
advisor, but the sooner they get it, the more time they have to respond to it
and to let you know before the defense–where are their areas of concern.

If you go in then and meet with them, but
you get your– I think you should get your committee
chairs' advice and permission before you go meet with all your members, but when you do that, they even sometimes
tell you what question they're going to ask you or
maybe they'll give you a hint about what question, because they'll tell you: "What
concerns me about your work is this," "what I like about your work is this," "I
see this, but did you do that?" and then when they read it again, their
minds are going to go back, and "oh we had a conversation, we talked about this– that's the question I'm going to ask," because when
I'm a committee member, and I'm sitting there on the hot spot and I
have to ask an intelligent question, I'm gonna go back to what I remember
most about your dissertation.

Now the first
thing you should be able to do is answer the question: tell me about
your dissertation. This will come in handy on the job
market as well. So, in your head write a speech, just a brief speech and you can break it
up so that you're basically repeating
the information in your abstract. This is the question or problem that led
me to research, this is the method I used, the way that I
decided to to deal with that–I should have added
method in here– this is what I found and I put the thesis
separate from here. Thesis is really, what is my
hypothesis? This is the problem and this is what I think is gonna happen,
then this is what I found happened. In the Humanities we're gonna call it a
thesis, in Sciences we might call it a a hypothesis, but I had a question, here's how I thought it would be
answered and here's how I actually was answered.

Then this is the significance of my
work: how it can be applied, what it means
for the profession, how it changes our theories, how it changes our practices, whatever
the significance might be, and don't forget to bring a copy of the
dissertation with you to the meeting, because usually the committee brings their own copy. Again, that's a thing you want to check
within your own department: will they bring their copies or do I have
to provide copies for everybody? But usually they bring their own copies and they'll say: "on page 55, you said blank, blank, blank.. explain it." Then you
need to have page 55, so you need your own copy. Try not to wait until the last
minute. If it's not finished, say here's what
I have so far, just put a deadline date and say I don't
have everything finished, but here's what I have so far. That give them the opportunity to
respond and you'll know and they are gonna say, "but you don't
have this," and then you're working, so be ready to
answer about it.

So you have to practice, just like the
little girls doing ballet, you need to practice. Write down, just so you have it in your head, how you would answer the question: tell me
about your dissertation. Then practice it practice in front
of a mirror, say it out loud. Don't memorize it, because you want to be agile. If somebody interrupts you, you want to remember where you are. You don't want to be just rope. You want to be able to say it even in a
few different ways, but you want to be able to say. You get so focused on what you're doing, you want to talk about the details and you
forget that other people don't even know what what question you're trying to
answer. What brought you into the research
interests people. What's the problem? How did you approach the problem? What
did you think you were going to find? What did you find and what does all this
mean? Of course you want to dress for success
and you want to stay calm and you want to smile.

It's important not to be too serious. To show that you can do this and you can do this, remember the success
rate is high. In some fields, it's optional to present and in some fields it's always done. First is prepare for technical difficulties. If I came in here today and this was not working, I have my handout,
so I could use that. For yourself, if your slides are reminding you what to say, make notecards or make a copy of your
slideshow, so you see every slide to follow
along. Be ready for technical difficulties. It could be that you are in a room where
there's never a failure and the electricity goes out that day,
and you have worked a month to get all these people into the same room at the
same time–it's not easy to schedule a defense, because every professor has a different
schedule and they are all very busy, so you're gonna have it even though the electricity is out.

Okay? So, be ready. Consider handouts, you don't want to give
everybody lots and lots of handouts just to give out handouts, because you don't want them looking
at the handout, you want them looking at you. You want them looking at your slides, so make sure your handouts are only used to present things that can't go on
a slide, that can't fit on the slide, or things that you really want them to
remember maybe it's a photograph or an illustration. Maybe it's a chart or a graph, maybe it's a
quote, but whatever it is, it should be things you
want them to take away with them, to remember, to be very vivid or things
that are hard to put on a slide.

Find out how
long the presentation usually is.
Typically they're eight to ten minutes. In many cases you're going to need time for questions, in other cases not, because you're just
presenting to the committee and that's just what they're going to do. They're going to
start with questions as soon it's over. Find that out from again from your advisor. Ask how much time do I have to do the
presentation, do I have a public audience, if I do have
a public audience, how much time should I give
them for questions? It's usually five minutes for questions
approximately. So if they say you have ten minutes total,
it's five to talk, five for the questions. We have a handout in the Writing Center
called "Designing Effective Presentation Slides" and it's under oral communications, so I suggest you look at that. You want to be sure you don't put too
many words on the slide.

Make sure your slides basically cover your main points, but that people are looking at you as much as
they're looking at the slides. The slides help them if they lose their
place. The slides emphasize your main points,
but they should be listening to you not just reading the slides. I recommend the handout "Designing
Effective Presentation Slides." They will tell you how to divide your
presentation, how to organize. It's the same thing I told you to
memorize, the problem or questions that led to your
research, your methods for answering the question
or solving the problem, your major findings, the implications, significants, or application of your
findings, and add to that, your next step in your
scholarly career. They'll be interested, if you
don't say, they'll probably ask at least. They might want to know if you've applied
for any jobs, but when I'm talking about your scholarly career, I'm talking abou your research
part, what will you research next? Will this dissertation lead to articles? Will it lead to a book? Will it lead to
another grant? Another research program? So, where will this take you from here? The chair will probably say, "okay, we are going to ask you to leave
the room." They're just deciding what procedures will be followed, so
everybody agrees on the procedures.

If they're gonna be allowed to interrupt
each other with a follow-up question or they have to each wait their turn,
that's all they're deciding now. The next they're going to do is have you
come back in and your chair will tell you, "okay this is what we're going to do:
we're going to start with Dr. Balester–" and Dr. Balester has to
sound very smart, give a really good question right and sometimes in the process in her head,
she is still forming the question.

So she may ramble on a bit that's why
you have to listen. Listen, really focus, don't be
thinking about what I'm going to say next, listen to what they're saying now,
because then she's going, "well in chapter three, you
did blah blah blah blah… and in chapter seven you said la la la la etc.. and then there's
a contradiction here, but I kind of think that if we bring in so and so scholar, this might resolve the contradiction
and etc.." and she keeps going on and on.. You're like and you wanna know what?
What is your question? She might say, "what do you think of that?"
So you have to be listening closely.

Now you don't know what she
said, so what do you do? Ask her to clarify or repeat the question
or you clarify, you say I think I heard you ask ".. that correct?" Okay, now what happens
when you don't know the answer? So you have lots of options
when you don't know the answer, but I came up with a few options: "You asked me whether I think that this is a regular phenomenon, I'm not sure, but I think.." So you don't have to go: "yes
it's a regular phenomenon, no it's not a regular phenomenon." You can
say "I'm not sure," but take a stab at the answer, try to
answer and let them see your thought process.
That's what they're doing for you, they're letting you see their thought
process when they're going on and on, so you do the same thing. They want to see
that you can think. That's what they're looking for: can you
think? Is this a regular phenomena? "I don't know, but that question has
interesting implication.

For example, if I knew the climatic changes in
August, then knowing that would help me do this." Keep
yourself focused on your data you are the expert on your data, on
your project, on your ideas, you are the expert and
they're actually trying to treat you like the expert, they want you to answer like the expert. They respect you, believe me. There's
never any perfect data, so the dats are saying of man if I
only could have done this, so that's good talk about, be confident
however. Say: "given the constraints I was working with,
this was what I was able to do, but if I could do more, if you know, this is my dream, if I could really have
done this," or "in doing this, I learned a problem with
this kind of data collection.

Next time I'm gonna do it this way." Is it okay to just say, I don't know? It's okay if you really don't know, this may
be a little better, it's better to say I don't know than to
fake it. The thing you don't wanna do is fake it.
These are not people that will be fooled. So don't fake it at all.

Sometimes when they ask
the questions and they're coming and you're trying to listen, you need a little time: you can slow
things down. You can slow things down by pausing, take a breath look at your notes, even state, "you think this is a
regular phenomenon?" "I need a little time to answer that, can I
just have a minute to gather my thoughts?" They'll always say yes. Don't take three
minutes, but just a few seconds, maybe at that point
look down so that you're not distracted by them. Focus, focus.. Okay I can answer this
question, boost your confidence and then go for it. Another thing is to
ask them to repeat the question both when you don't understand the
question and when you need a little time.

Maybe you did understand it, but you
just want to slow things down. So if you have said something wrong or
you realize that you started answering a new
question and suddenly, "oh, I should have said that too." How do you
handle that? Well it's a good idea to just admit it: "oh, wait a minute I'm wrong about that aren't I? I realized that just now." Just correct
yourself. or you can finish answering the question
you're on and then go: "May I also add something
else? I realized that when you asked me this, I
answer, but I could have said something more," and just go ahead and say
it. So you have the opportunity and you have
the right to say "I want to say something more I
want to correct it." Thank you for that question, I
wish I had thought about earlier, that is a really good point. At the end, they
finish asking you questions, they ask you to leave again.

Don't go too
far, go outside, now you really sweating. Remember the odds, you're going to come back in and they're going to say, "congratulations!" "Now, we want you to
rewrite the conclusion however you have passed, okay?" Just remember it is very common
that they wil ask for revisions. They did for me, in fact one of my
committee member said: "Valerie you know that conclusion just
won't do." That's okay, because I managed to pass
the defense part, they knew I knew what I was talking about, but they knew that my writing fell down
in the hardest part.

The conclusion is usually the hardest part
where you have to think about the significance and fit it into the are the literature that you've done. So it's very common for that part, or
could be that you have some tables that are not in the right format, or it could be something else they noticed. Some
problem they thought that you just did not quite capture. Sometimes you
said something in the defense, but they want you to put into the

Usually when you come back into the room and they say you passed, but
we want you to make the revisions they expect your chair to keep notes, and he or she will actually make sure you
make the revisions. However, you could also suggest at that point when they say
we're gonna any revisions, you can ask them, "could you please summarize the major
revisions you want for me to make so I can make some
notes now." Now, whether each committee member is going to
have to see those changes or not will also depend
on what they decide with your chair.

Many times they decide that the chair
will be responsible for making sure those revisions are made and they don't have to see it again, but
you know they still have to sign your dissertation. So sometimes they'll sign it there if
you take your title page in with you they will sign it right there, and sometimes they won't sign it until
they see those revisions. So that's another reason, you go see your
chair to find out how it's normally done. At other times, everything is fine, they don't even want anyrevisions and as I said, it's possible they will say you did not
pass the defense knowing your material is extremely
important. Don't go in there without having read your
own work. You think you've read it, because you wrote it, but you haven't read it. Even if
you finish writing it a week before, give yourself a little time, read it

Practice and knowledge of your topic
will make you feel really confident and remember positive self-talk,
remember who you are. You probably know more about this topic
than anybody, I can guarantee you know more about this topic than anybody, even
more than your advisor, because that's what a dissertation
is: it's going farther than where your advisor can take you, you have to go rest of the way. So hopefully even though your
davisor is going with you and following behind, you really do know
more if you stop. Think a lot before you get there,
that's why you need the time to prepare it.

Read your dissertation well. I really
appreciate that you came today, you can always reach me at the Writing
Center as well, It's Valerie Balester and if you go to "about"
the Writing Center, you'll see the staff directory and my
email. So if I can give you some
confidence, let me know. Thank you..

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