Ideas for a PhD defense

By four newly pressed graduated PhD students

In continuation of Joern’s blog entry on strategies for a successful PhD, and since all of the four PhD students working on the Romania project have just finished their PhD, we would like to take a reflexive step, and share our experiences with you about our PhD defenses. At Leuphana University in Germany, the common procedure is to present one’s work in about half an hour, followed by one hour of questions and discussion, the actual “defense”. This procedure can be seen as a last formal step to being accepted in the “scholars’ club”.

We hope our thoughts will be useful for the next generation of PhD students, or to anyone who googles this topic.

The following is not an exhaustive list and there are plenty of other good posts on the topic (e.g. 1, e.g. 2). Similarly, this post is not intended as a blueprint for preparing a PhD defense. It is up to the candidates how they would like to approach this step. As we had the chance to see the strengths in each others’ presentations, it contains what we thought worked well in our defenses, but also what we now believe we could have done better. As a little disclaimer, we should mention that none of us respected all of the following points… that is why we entitled this post “ideas”, and not strategies for a successful PhD defense, as we actually did not test all the suggestions below. Moreover, merely having a list of useful things to think about is not sufficient, since they also need to be put in practice, which can be difficult in conditions of stress, nervousness and limited time. Likewise, there is always the possibility of over preparing which can distract one’s focus from the achievements of the research (see one of the points below).

So here’s a collection of lessons learnt and useful tips.

Before the presentation

  • Take time. We would recommend two to three weeks in total: One to two weeks for the preparation and practicing of the presentation, and approx. one week for refreshing the memory.
  • Re-read your papers or your monograph several times to be very clear about the methods (and eventually theories) used, the key findings, and what you could have done differently. Arguably, no research is perfect and while you should be aware of potential faults or weaknesses of your research, you should also focus on the positives.
  • Also in relation to refreshing the memory, be able to articulate some important milestones in the evolution of your research field, together with some recent trends as well as potential critique to the theories and approaches you used.
  • On a secondary note, if time allows, tackle the matter of working out additional material and continuously building your knowledge and understanding by trying to mentally integrate some new ideas presented in recent publications. Simply put, stay updated about recent developments in your research field.
  • If not already, get familiar with the work of your reviewers so that you will be able to answer questions in a common “language”. This may also improve your understanding of their way of thinking, and help to anticipate their potential questions during the defense.
  • In the case of a cumulative dissertation, the presentation would benefit from clarifying the overall internal logic and coherence of your papers combined. Also, how does this show in each of the papers?
  • Some distinctive slides on the knowledge generation, significance, and/or applicability of one’s research to the broader academic world are very much welcome (i.e. the “so what?” of your findings, as well as research gaps closed).
  • In the case of co-authored papers one should be able to shortly and clearly explain one’s contribution (it might be obvious, but less so in conditions of stress).
  • Write down the answers to the examiners’ comments on your thesis (which you receive approx. one month before the defense). Try to tackle their main points of criticism during the presentation, and ideally have some “backup” slides prepared for the actual defense afterwards. One may also prepare supplementary slides with some of the questions you thought about yourself or you were asked during test defenses; it can help to use these slides when answering questions during defense.
  • Prepare for the typical questions. These may be content related such as the strengths and limitations of the applied method(s), justification of the use of a particular conceptual framework/theory, explanation of the normative assumptions underpinning one’s work or theoretical framings that were used, and eventually the ‘policy relevance’ of your findings. At least three of us were asked “how would you put into practice and/or translate into specific policies your general recommendations”.
  • Other questions may be rather related to the overall experience as a PhD student: what did you enjoy the most, what would you do differently, what have you learned, what would be your next research goals/steps, what would you do research-wise if you had an unlimited amount of money? Arguably, one cannot pre-empt all (un-)foreseen issues, but we found it a useful reflection exercise. There is also the danger of over preparing, and trying to prepare for every possible question or situation can dilute one’s focus from the main points of the research.
  • Presentation: Focus on your achievements (findings) and their implications. Focus on what you are knowledgeable about. Try to be as precise as possible, and avoid “unnecessary” details.
  • Practice your presentation. At the beginning alone, then with the cat, aunt, on the balcony, on the roof, with pointer or not, etc. Finally, give at least one test defense in front of your colleagues, friends, etc. and kindly ask them to comment and ask questions. We differed greatly among each other in the number of times we practiced. If possible, try to practice once in the actual room where you are going to give your talk. This helps checking whether the projector properly displays the colors you selected for your graphs, and also gives you a feeling for the actual “defense situation”.
  • Stress management; this is crucial and often not tackled well enough. Despite giving a fair number of public presentations until the moment of the defense, some may still be overwhelmed by the amount of emotions. Here again, it varies enormously from person to person, so we will just mention some of our own stress coping strategies: during the days prior to the defense, having someone to bounce back all the accumulated potentially negative energy; try to make sure to have some close friend/family member/colleague sitting in the defense where you can focus at while presenting your thesis; doing sports during the preparation period to clear one’s mind, working on the defense in a different and quiet environment where people would not ask every five minutes how preparations are going.
  • Logistics: prepare the room so that you feel comfortable in it; bring sufficient water for yourself and the examiners, adapters, chocolate, a “don’t disturb sign” on the door, pointer, an extra connection cable for the projector (in case it collapses), pen and paper. Have a copy of your thesis handy in case examiners refer to an exact page in your thesis, etc.

During the presentation

  • We all had very different talk speeds and rhythms, so it depends on what one feels comfortable with (breathing seems a good idea, for example between sentences, but may not always be possible…).
  • Use the pointer to make things more accessible.
  • Show you acknowledge the formality of the procedure by being dressed appropriately.

During the defense

  • Write down the questions you receive in case you are susceptible to forgetting them (it also gives you some seconds to think about, and eventually structure your answers already).
  • When answering try to link to papers you authored or that you read; it may be difficult to remember authors, but it may be worth it. Maybe make a “top ten list” of papers that you really liked during the PhD and that are useful to support more than one argument.
  • Try to underline your arguments with examples (e.g. from other policy fields/world regions). Admittedly, the purpose of a PhD defense is to argue for the importance and validity of one’s results, especially when those results are challenged, but the extent and ways this is done varies.
  • Enjoy your defense as it is a nice occasion when so many bright minds focus on what you have to say and on having a dialogue with you. The defense is also the time when you can confidently showcase several years of research and effort. One can think of this experience as a discussion between peers. This may also be an opportunity to maybe go beyond your work and think about it holistically. Use the time to talk to your examiners afterwards, as you might be working with them in the future. Finally, it is also a time to possibly have nice conceptual talks with researchers you admire, not fearing that you are wasting someone’s time.

As we wrote the above, we have realized that probably the most important point is the last one. “Enjoy the experience of the <<fall>> and worry about the landing when you get there”, as Dave so nicely put it in one of his comments.

These ideas are open for debate. What other points would you add?

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2 thoughts on “Ideas for a PhD defense

  1. For the record … the four authors of the above are Andra Horcea-Milcu, Friederike Mikulcak, Jacqueline Loos and Ine Dorresteijn. Thanks guys, for the nice post!

  2. Pingback: Ideas for a PhD defense

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