Tips for preparing your PhD defense [EASY dissertation defense]

Embarking on the final hurdle of your doctoral journey, the PhD dissertation defense, can feel daunting.

This significant event involves presenting and justifying years of research to a committee of field experts, showcasing your comprehension, originality, and critical thinking skills.

With various expectations from committee members, it’s crucial to know what makes a compelling thesis and how to adeptly defend your arguments. Preparation is key; from choosing well-suited examiners to meticulously preparing for potential questions, every step counts.

This article provides easy-to-follow tips for this process, from how to approach revisions to the actual defense duration, ensuring a smoother dissertation defense.

Top tips for your PhD defence process

  1. Understand Expectations: Understand what your examiners are looking for in your thesis. They expect it to be relevant to the field, have a clear title, a comprehensive abstract, engage with relevant literature, answer clear research questions, provide a consistent argument, and make a significant contribution to knowledge. They also value the ability to show connections between different parts of the thesis and a confident, positive attitude during the defense.
  2. Choose the Right Examiners: Make strategic decisions when selecting your examiners. They should be experts in your field, open-minded about cross-discipline work, cited in your work, have a constructive approach, align with your methodology, and respect critical viewpoints. Consider your supervisor’s advice, as they can help identify suitable examiners.
  3. Thorough Preparation: Understand your institute’s specific defense requirements and practice rigorously. Break down your thesis into sections, time your presentation, focus on key points, and prepare for potential questions. Consider setting up a mock defense to familiarize yourself with the process.
  4. Master Your Content: Understand your work inside out. Rather than cramming as much information as possible, focus on thoroughly comprehending your research. If faced with an unexpected question during the defense, take a moment to formulate an organized response.
  5. Manage Your Time: Be aware that dissertation defenses usually last between one to three hours, so ensure your presentation fits within this timeframe. Remember, the defense is an opportunity to showcase your hard work. Be confident and composed throughout the process.

What Is Dissertation Defense?

A PhD defense, also known as a viva, is a critical process that marks the completion of a doctoral degree. It varies from one institution to another and between different countries.

It could be a private examination by a panel of experts in the field or a public defense before an audience. 

In this defense, you present and justify the research you have conducted over many years.

You’ll engage in a rigorous academic conversation about the different aspects of your research, answer questions, and explain your findings and their implications. 

The defense is a chance for the panel to test your comprehension of your chosen subject area, your work’s originality, and its contribution to the field. It also tests your ability to think critically, to articulate your thoughts, and how effectively you can defend your arguments under pressure.

The essence of a PhD defense is not only to assess the validity of the thesis but also to assess the candidate’s proficiency in their subject.

What Are the Expectations of PhD Defence Examiners? Understand your dissertation committee.

Meeting the expectations of committee members in the context of a dissertation is essential for the successful completion of the research.

They will have read your thesis and will be looking for any mistakes or areas that they are unsure about to ask you during your PhD defence.

Here are what PhD defence examiners are looking for in your thesis and may have questions at your oral defence:

Relevance to FieldThe thesis must be clearly relevant to the specific academic field.
Clear TitleThe thesis should have a clear, descriptive, and concise title.
Clear AbstractThe abstract should provide a good overview of the research and its findings.
Relevant Literature ReviewThe thesis should engage with the existing academic literature relevant to the research topic.
Research QuestionsResearch questions should be clear, relevant, and answered in the course of the research.
Consistent ArgumentThe thesis should contain a clear and consistent argument throughout.
Conceptual ConclusionsThe conclusions should not only summarize the research findings but also relate back to the literature review and conceptual issues raised.
Contribution to KnowledgeThe thesis should make a significant contribution to the field of knowledge.
Ability to think interconnectedlyThe ability to show connections between different parts of the thesis is important, as it demonstrates a higher level of thinking.
Pleasurable TextThe text should be enjoyable to read, well-written, and explicit in terms of ideas and concepts.
Positive AttitudeThe candidate should demonstrate confidence, enjoyment, and a positive attitude during the Viva (oral examination), symbolized by smiling with the examiners, not at them.
Display of interconnectednessThe thesis should clearly show how various parts are interconnected, ultimately achieving synergy.

A dissertation committee typically consists of external experts (in a similar field) who will engage in robust discussion about your PhD and submitted thesis.  

As committee members, their primary role is to actively engage with the dissertation research, offering constructive feedback and suggestions as well as deciding if you have satisfied the requirements of the university to be awarded a PhD

Here’s my video about the common questions you’ll likely encounter during your defence and how you can answer them:

How to Choose your PhD examiners and committee members

Choosing your PhD examiners requires strategic thinking and insightful conversations with your supervisor. It’s a very important decision and can make your PhD defence much smoother. 

During my PhD, I chose examiners that I had cited and based my work on their preliminary investigations. 

But there are more things to think about before you write down their names!

Here’s a table checklist for choosing your PhD examiners.

Expert in relevant fieldYour examiners should be well-acquainted with your research topic and be able to provide relevant and informed feedback.
Interdisciplinary knowledgeIf your thesis spans multiple disciplines, it would be helpful to have examiners who understand all the fields involved.
Open-minded about cross-discipline workEnsure your examiner is open-minded about works integrating different disciplines, as each field has unique ways of presenting findings.
Cited in your workConsider examiners who you have cited in your work, as they are familiar with the type of work you’re doing.
Constructive ApproachAvoid examiners known for overly harsh or destructive feedback, you want someone who can critically analyze your work but also provide constructive comments.
Alignment with your methodologyThe examiner should understand and ideally endorse the methodology you used. This ensures that they can productively critique your work’s design and execution.
Respect for critical viewpointsIf you’ve critiqued a particular scholar’s work in your thesis, ensure the scholar is professional enough to respect different viewpoints if considering them as an examiner.
Supervisor’s advicePay heed to your supervisor’s advice as they have experience in identifying suitable and appropriate examiners.

First, compile a list of potential examiners who you believe would be appropriate for reviewing your thesis. Discuss your choices with your supervisor, explaining why you consider them suitable. 

If your thesis spans multiple disciplines, consider choosing examiners from each discipline; it ensures intricate knowledge of each field is utilized.

However, ensure these examiners are open-minded about cross-discipline work, as disciplines tend to have unique ways of presenting their findings.

Listen to your supervisor’s advice.

They have experience in these matters and know who would be best qualified to examine your work.

Even if a scholar is high-profile or an editor of a favored journal, they might not be suitable due to methodological differences or varying research approaches. 

Choosing the right examiner is crucial, as an ill-suited examiner could result in undesired outcomes. The goal is to establish a thoughtful academic conversation about your work.

How to Prepare for Dissertation Defense?

To prepare for your dissertation defense, start by understanding the specific requirements of your institute, as the process can vary across countries.

This could include:

  • a presentation,
  • a conversation with examiners,
  • or a combination of both.

Once you know what to expect, practice vigorously. This should not be your first time discussing your work with others – engage in academic conversation, seek feedback and address challenging questions prior to the defense.

Breakdown your thesis into sections and time yourself on each section to manage length. Focus on the key points and avoid irrelevant details.

Creating a mock defense will be helpful in managing time and getting familiar with the process.

Prepare for potential questions. It’s not about cramming as much information as possible, but about understanding your work inside out. Start by preparing answers to common defense questions. In case of an unexpected question, don’t rush to answer. Take a moment, write down key points, and formulate an organized response.

Remember that the defense is an opportunity to showcase years of hard work.

Be confident, and don’t forget to breathe!

How Long Do Dissertation Defenses Usually Last?

 The length of a dissertation defense can vary depending on factors such as the specific requirements of the institution and the complexity of the research being presented.

On average, a dissertation defense usually lasts between one to three hours.

During this time, the candidate will present their research and findings to a panel of experts, often including faculty members and fellow researchers.

The defense typically begins with an introduction by the candidate, followed by a detailed presentation of the research methodology, results, and conclusions.

Panel members then have the opportunity to ask questions and engage in a discussion with the candidate.

It is not unusual for defenses to be quite intense and challenging, as the panel seeks to assess the depth of the candidate’s knowledge and understanding of their research. In some cases, the candidate may be asked to leave the room while the panel deliberates before ultimately reaching a decision on the acceptance or rejection of the dissertation. 

Wrapping up

As the culmination of the doctoral journey, the PhD defense demands meticulous preparation and understanding of its unique rigors.

This entails knowing the expectations of your dissertation committee, choosing the right examiners who offer constructive feedback, and putting considerable time into preparing for your oral defense.

The defense process isn’t a mere formality; it’s a critical examination of the candidate’s comprehension, originality, and critical thinking skills.

It provides an opportunity to exhibit your research and its contribution to your field, defend your arguments, and validate your years of labor.

Thus, selecting well-qualified examiners, anticipating potential questions, and honing your presentation skills are vital for a successful defense.

Students must be registered for their PhD program and finalize their dissertation prior to the defense, which can last anywhere from one to three hours, depending on the institution and the complexity of the research.

Any corrections or major revisions suggested by the dissertation committee members must be completed and submitted weeks prior to the conferral date.

A PhD defense isn’t just a rite of passage for doctoral candidates—it’s the final, decisive step on the journey to earning a doctorate.

It requires the full commitment of the candidate, their dissertation advisor, the committee chair, and all members involved, ensuring that the graduate studies department’s requirements are met, and that the student is admitted to the next phase of their academic or professional journey.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.