There are a few steps toward your doctoral degree that you get no formal preparation for. The dissertation defense is one of those activities. Sure, you have presented in your classes on a variety of topics, including the results of the research you have conducted. You might also have presented at a local, regional, or national conference. All of those activities are great in terms of preparation for your dissertation defense. However, none of them have the same kind of evaluative conclusion.

If you do not pass your dissertation defense, you will not graduate. Being ABD (all but dissertation) is not a badge that you should be proud to wear. Ideally, you will pass your defense the first time. In this blog post, I offer several tips for nailing your dissertation defense.

1. Choosing a Topic and Proposing the Dissertation

When you applied for graduate school, you likely had an idea of the kinds of topics you wanted to research. You might have even applied to the school you are enrolled at for the purpose of working with a specific faculty member. All of this is important as you think about the topic you want to select for your dissertation.

Choose a topic that holds great interest for you. You are going to be spending quite a bit of time with this topic, and it needs to sustain your interest. Additionally, the way you plan to explore the topic needs to be novel. In other words, you need to conduct original research.

Your dissertation proposal sets the stage for your data collection, data analysis, and finally writing your dissertation. Your dissertation committee will likely have a number of suggestions for you. Please take those to heart.

If you do not understand what you are being asked to do, you should either consult with your committee chair or the person who made the suggestion. This is not a time to be shy about your needs. You are not expected to know everything. It is okay to admit your shortcomings. In fact, when it comes time to conduct your annual evaluation, faculty will likely remember this and think upon the experience favorably.

2. Prepare for the Worst, Expect the Best

You have reserved the room and are familiar with the electronic equipment there. You have your presentation saved on a flash drive and have a copy in your email. You have the clothes you plan to wear ready to go. You tried them on the night before and are sure that they fit and are in good repair.

If it is the custom in your program, you have made plans for treats to share with your committee (on a personal note, I really despise that some faculty think of this as an expectation). That is all part of preparing for the worst. Ideally, because you have been so diligent in your planning, everything will go off without a hitch.

The other aspect of preparing for the worst is being ready for questions from the committee. It is not uncommon to conduct a study and have the results not reach a level of significance. This does not necessarily mean that you did anything wrong. However, you need to be prepared to answer questions as to why the results were not significant.

This might include a small sample size, even though you tested for power. You may have had great plans for how you would reach the intended number of participants, but that just didn’t work out. There may have been a change in policy that impacted your participants’ willingness or ability to finish the study. Ultimately, these are all limitations.

If you could have reasonably predicted these things happening, you would have chosen a different research design. Be prepared to answer questions about this and other aspects of the study.

3. How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice!

You may feel as though you are a good presenter and that you have a strong sense of how long your presentation will be. The truth is, you do not know if you are ready or how long the presentation will take unless you practice the material. In an ideal situation, you will be able to convince one or more of your friends to come over and share some pizza while you practice your presentation. Take their feedback to heart.

4. Have a Thick Skin

Believe it or not, your dissertation committee wants you to succeed in your defense. At the same time, they also come in with expectations about your knowledge of the topic and what the defense process entails. To that end, it is good to come into the meeting with a thick skin. At times you may feel like the committee is not on your side, but they are really only trying to get the best from you.

5. Acknowledge Limitations

Students sometimes think of limitations in a study as being a bad thing. But all studies have limitations. As mentioned earlier, if you could have predicted the issue, then it wouldn’t have been a limitation – it would have been a poor study design, and you would have planned differently. So sing out your limitations. They are there, and they shouldn’t be too hard to find.

6. Remember You are the Expert in the Room

One of the things I most like to tell students before they begin their defense is that of all the people gathered in the room to hear their defense, they (the student) are the expert on the topic. I do not mean to imply that you should think less of your committee members. You chose each of them for a reason. I also do not mean to imply that you should not have humility.

But when you begin your defense presentation, own it. It should already be your best work. Your committee would not have approved scheduling your defense if they did not think you were ready.

7. Take Care of Yourself

One last topic. Although this should go without saying, it is so very important that you take care of yourself leading up to and after your defense. This is the time when you most need to be eating well, exercising as needed and getting a good night of sleep. There will be time to celebrate your success, but not if you aren’t taking care of yourself leading up to the defense.

The dissertation or thesis is the academic requirement for earning a doctoral degree. It is “proof” that you have mastered skills as a researcher and gained expertise in a particular area. If there is any way that you can arrange your defense before you go on internship, make it happen. Your internship will be more meaningful, and you won’t have to rely on others to collect your data. You might even be able to enjoy some extracurricular activities during the internship year.

lore m. dickey, PhD
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