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Preparing for the doctoral dissertation defense (the “viva”)

I did my PhD in Canada, where doctoral dissertation defenses are public, so what I’m going to narrate here is how I prepared for my own defense under the rules and standards of the school where I graduated from (The University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada). I won’t cover other systems as I don’t know them well. My own PhD students have had to defend in a similar way to the one I faced when I did my PhD dissertation defense, so I’m combining both in this blog post.

PhD defense

First of all, if your PhD dissertation advisor told you that “the moment you hate your dissertation the most is when you’re ready to defend”, I can 100% certify that this assertion is absolutely true. By the time I submitted my PhD dissertation for external examination (six weeks before my defense date), I was ready to just about not ever look at it again in my entire life. But the truth is that my PhD advisor wouldn’t let me do that. He suggested that I should start preparing for my defense about 4 weeks before the date, which is exactly what I did.

This is the process I followed, and more or less the process my own doctoral students have followed as well:

  • I prepared a summary of the main argument of my PhD dissertation, using the Dissertation Two Pager strategy (DTP).
  • Based on my DTP, I created a 15-20 Power Point presentation. I sent that file to my PhD advisor for review.
  • Once he reviewed it, I cut the presentation to about 15 slides.
  • We met once a week for the first two weeks, and two times the third week. I ran through my presentation with him and made notes of what I did right and what I did wrong.
  • The last week before defending, I did my presentation in the actual defense room with my best friend, who is also a professor at UBC, as the audience. He suggested additional changes to my presentation (particularly, cutting material and making my argument more concise).
  • The day before I defended, I did one more practice run with a group of cohort friends. I did this in the morning so that I could take the evening off, and the following morning as well.
  • On the day of the defense, I did absolutely nothing connected to my research. I had breakfast with my partner, went for a walk, called my family over the phone, brought my laptop to campus (also stored the presentation in a USB as well as emailed it to myself).
  • At the defense, I ran through my talk, and prepared for the questions by having a jug of water and a notepad and pen near by.

Thesis defense (xkcd)

A few tips that I can offer based on my own defense and my doctoral students’:

  • Make your presentation short. Keep any additional material in slides AFTER the final slide of your presentation. This was an amazing piece of advice from my PhD advisor that I have kept for all my talks now that I’m a professor.
  • Practice, practice, practice. By the time I did my presentation, which I rocked by the way, I was the world’s foremost expert in my topic and I could convince people of my findings and argument. My advisor wanted me to do lots of practice runs and I did them, with various audiences. I strongly recommend that one of the presentations is in front of someone who already has a PhD and has gone through the doctoral defense.
  • Prepare a list of potential questions that committee members could ask and write down their answers. I aced my presentation because I was ready for absolutely everything my committee could throw my way. Why did I not discuss this particular body of theory? “Because I wanted to focus on X, but my understanding of the field is as such…”
  • Remember, your committee is on your side. I was frazzled by the time I started the examination, but then I realized I was spending three hours with brilliant people who wanted me to succeed and hear all about my dissertation research. It became a fantastic conversation that ended with comments like “the book version of your dissertation could include X, Y and Z and Famous Press ABC would be interested in publishing it.” and “I think your postdoctoral research could take this trajectory“.
  • Attend other PhD students’ defenses. A few people told me that this wasn’t a good idea, but in fact it is. Not only does it mentally prepare you for the sequence of events that will occur throughout the defense, but also, if you attend your friends’ defenses, you’re providing them with a friendly audience they can look at and with moral and emotional support. They could in turn also be your allies.
  • Make sure your presentation includes all the elements of a PhD dissertation. I covered all the bases: Justification, Context, Theoretical and Empirical Contributions, Studies I Conducted, Findings and Results, Discussion, Limitations and Future Work. I ask that my PhD students cover the same.
  • Remember the elements of what doing a PhD entails and use those to frame your presentation. I ask that my students make VERY CLEAR what their original contribution to the literature is, and what gap they are filling (or how they are contributing to advancing our knowledge, e.g. by developing a new theoretical construct or constructing new datasets and testing new empirical strategies).

    Hopefully this blog post is of some use to doctoral students as they near their defense.

    If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in my Resources for Graduate Students page, and on my reading notes of books I’ve read on how to do a doctoral degree.

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