PhD Oral Defense Tips (You Need These)

When you first start your PhD, the required oral defense seems so far away. But then you blink and the time to defend is now!

This is the last step and the only thing standing between you and the title of “doctor.” Ya, baby!

So, what exactly is an oral defense?

After you hand in your dissertation (you know, that large paper you spent the last year pouring your blood, sweat and tears into), your committee will take time to review your work and then assign a date when you will go and “defend” your research.

A PhD oral defense is usually a day-long event where you give a public presentation and/ or a private presentation to some examiners. These examiners will be people from your University or from other universities.

You will spend your time presenting your findings, answering questions about your work and proving to your committee that you have a solid understanding of your field of study and focus area.

If you are in a PhD program, defending your dissertation is most likely the final requirement.

Keep reading for some valuable tips for your PhD oral defense (or sometimes called the Viva).

This post was written by a recent doctoral graduate (it is anonymous to keep the discussion frank) on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. For more on this topic and to see what Dave has to say, watch this video:

*This video  provides some oral defense tips that will be important during your PhD or doctorate. It’s especially relevant for people that are doing a PhD in Business Administration.

Know What They Are Looking For

Generally, by the time you get to your defense you have made any required, last minute edits to your paper. You have received feedback from your committee members and are prepared to present your final product and answer questions.

The exact format of your defense will depend on your university and the requirements of your grad school. So, make sure you check your grad school’s website and speak with your advisor to get as many details about necessities in order to prepare.

Find out if you need to put together a presentation to go along with your speech. If so, you can prepare presentation slides by using information from your first chapter to design an outline.

Substantive information from your dissertation should be included on your slides and correspond with the important aspects highlighted in your paper.

If you are still unsure of exactly what to expect, ask around- ask colleagues that have already successfully defended their dissertation, ask other committee members or see if you can sit in on someone else’s defense.

Gaining insight into the defense process and knowing what to expect can provide you with confidence and reassurance.

You need to watch this video to get more great tips on your defense!

Be Honest with Yourself.

You’ve recently spent day in and day out working on your dissertation and you can probably cite all the literature used during your research, in your sleep. You are an expert on your topic and you’re passionate about your research.

However, you likely don’t know it all. And that’s ok!

One of the most nerve-wracking things about preparing for a defense is thinking about being asked a question that you can’t answer. While we can attend defenses, talk to colleagues, and practice over and over, there is no way to predict every question that the committee will ask.

Luckily for you, once upon a time, your committee was in your same shoes. They know there will be gaps in your knowledge. Your defense is not about being perfect. You aren’t expected to know everything. If you get asked a question and you don’t know the answer, it is ok to just say, “I don’t know.”

You can try to have them rephrase the question or ask for clarification if you aren’t quite sure, but chances are they have asked the question out of curiosity and may not even know the answer themselves.

It is completely acceptable to let them know you haven’t thought of that before but that you’d be happy to do a little more research to find the answer to their question.

Try to create discussions among the examiners. If the examiner asks you a question that you simply can’t answer, you can ask them for their input in what they would do in this circumstance. Show them that you have the ability to think as a scholar.

Be Prepared to Answer Questions

Since your paper has already been evaluated, the questions your committee asks are typically not designed to trick or stump you. Some committees may provide you with the questions before your defense in order to prepare, while others will wait until after you have finished your presentation to decide what to ask.

Questions are usually open-ended and revolve around the core content of your dissertation. They will require you to describe the reasons you chose your topic, summarize your findings and explain how your work will contribute to the current knowledge surrounding your topic. These questions are designed to allow you to show what you know, as well as to have you think critically about your work.

One question that I feel very certain you will be asked in one way or another is, “So what?” Now that you have completed this research and conducted your studies, what have you accomplished? What is your field of study gaining with the completion of your work?

Another question may be, “What’s next?”  They may want to see if your study has influenced your future plans or if this process has brought forward any areas of interest for future research.

You may be able to anticipate some of the other questions you’ll be asked by reviewing the work of your committee members. Then, take another look at your own dissertation through the lens of your committee, keeping in consideration their areas of expertise. You can also try to prepare for possible questions by sitting in other defenses with these committee members to get a better feel for what they will ask.

When you answer questions, don’t rush your responses. It is completely ok to take a few seconds to think before answering. They are looking for solid responses, not quick ones. Also, make your answers concise and to the point; state enough to show you have understanding without going all over the map.

Keep the Discussion Moving

PhDs (professors) have a tendency to be full of hot air and probably could ask a lot of questions. if you feel like they’re focusing too much on one particular area you can guide the conversation on to another topic by continuing forward with the discussion.

Designing an outline of your dissertation and starting your defense with a clear thesis statement can get the discussion off on the right foot.

Try to be crystal clear with your construct definitions and what you did in your study. Many of the questions will be focused on what you did or didn’t do in the limitations of what you chose to do. Understand that every study has limitations and that is okay.

Visual aids, such as PowerPoint presentations with bulleted lists and clearly labeled graphs, can accompany your talk and enhance the flow of your presentation. This will save you if you find yourself rambling or getting off topic; just look back to your current slide, refocus and move to the next.   

Just make sure that your presentation isn’t overloaded with too much text or too many graphics. Your slides should highlight the main points of your research, and include visual representations of data, or other important findings from your study. You may need to sacrifice details from your slides, and just work them into your conversation, if you feel they are vital in telling the story of your research.  

Also know that just reading off of your slides isn’t going to impress anyone. Even the most impressive visuals aren’t going to save you if you haven’t practiced what you are going to say.

The goal with the PhD oral defense is just to make sure that you are comfortable with doing research. It’s a lot like getting the blessing from your examiners, and other people that are going to be your peers, that you are capable of doing research.

It’s All About the Mindset

The biggest hurdle with the PhD oral defense is remembering to view it as a way to improve your thoughts. Your examiners are there to work with you not against you.

Don’t fear your committee. It may seem like they are out to get you once their questions and need for clarification begin, but don’t let that intimidate you. Your advisor or committee chair would not have let you submit your dissertation, or get this far, without thinking that you were ready for the defense.

Believe in yourself!

It’s best to enter your oral defense with a proactive and positive mindset.

If you begin to feel stressed or panicked, take a moment to think before formulating a response. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that you are there because you are an expert on your topic.

It’s impossible to completely anticipate how your committee will respond to your thoughts but taking the time to reread your dissertation and re-familiarize yourself with your work will make you better prepared and more at ease.

(Read here for more advice on how to stay calm and productive during the dissertation process.)

Also, getting in lots of practice and plenty of rest will help reduce stress levels, allow you to think more clearly, and be able to reply to questions in a satisfactory way.

Practice Makes Perfect (Better)

Once you submit your dissertation to your committee, most of the hard work is done. Now all that is left is to practice, practice, practice.

Don’t just write down your presentation plan or potential questions and responses; you need to practice saying it aloud. By speaking your thoughts, you will get more comfortable with the flow of your ideas and it will make it easier to identify areas that may need a little more focus.

It may feel silly presenting to an empty room, or to people that are unfamiliar with the process, but this practice will help rid some of the discomfort that comes with talking in front of an audience. You may also be able to get some feedback that will make your defense day even more successful. (Read this interesting blog post on how to get feedback on your writing).

Watch this video about the secret to writing your dissertation!

Make sure to check if there are any time restrictions with your presentation so that you can prepare accordingly. You wouldn’t want to waste your time preparing for a two-hour defense when you only have thirty minutes, nor do you want to show up with only enough material for a short presentation when you need to fill a longer time-slot.

If there are time restrictions, this makes it even more imperative that you are practicing aloud and that you are timing yourself while you do it.  Run through your presentation several times so that you can get a solid feel for transitions and pacing.

Most likely, you will be nervous before your presentation and with nervousness, comes the inadvertent fast talking. Nerves can also cause logical thoughts to come out as long streams of babbling. So, try to also practice taking pauses and giving yourself time to process and breath.

Practice on your own and practice with an audience if possible. Practice your presentation on your best friend, your mirror, your dog, or whatever you have available.

As your defense date gets closer, you should be getting to the point where you can go through most of your presentation without your notes. The goal is to become so familiar with what you are going to say that everything comes out smooth and natural without making it appear that you have just memorized a speech.

Don’t Procrastinate

If there was ever a time to NOT procrastinate, that time is now.

You don’t want to wait until the last minute to start practicing. You need time to formally practice all aspects of your presentation, get feedback, and integrate any changes into your slides and your talk.

You need time to check out the room where you will be presenting and try out any of the equipment you may use on defense day. Decide if you’ll need a microphone, projector or any other technology. Take note of any tools that are available in that room and make your request to ensure they will be present for your big day. Depending on what is available already in the room, you may need to line up other resources to bring with you. You don’t want the added stress of trying to figure out logistics just minutes before you begin your presentation.

While you’re in this space, take the time to practice your presentation just as you would do it on the day of your defense. This will help you work out any kinks and gain more confidence for the real event.

You will also need a well-developed backup plan.

You won’t have time to run around on the morning of your defense trying to find another laptop or an extension cord. We know that even in the 21st century, technology can be unpredictable. There is no guarantee that your presentation plan will actually unfold the way you have envisioned it.

It’s Defense Day- Now What?

You know your material inside and out; you have practiced in front of anyone that will listen, and your visual presentation is golden.

The day has finally arrived, and it is now time for you to present the work that has been such a huge part of your life for the past few years.

Dress the part and don’t forget your notes.  Both of these things will give you confidence and feel prepared.

On the day of your defense, make sure to arrive at least fifteen minutes before your defense is scheduled to begin. This will give you time to set up your presentation, do one last, quick run through and then try to calm your nerves.

Lastly, make sure to have printed handouts in case your technology fails, water for when your mouth goes dry from all the talking, and definitely have tissues for the tears of joy that come after you rock your presentation!

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