When you start your graduate degree, the end of it seems so far away. But then it ends up coming faster than you thought. You hand in your thesis, which was a lot of work, and as a last step before you officially receive your degree, you have to master your thesis defense. Here are a few tips on how to prepare for your thesis defense.
1. Anticipate questions and prepare for them
We’ve mentioned it before but you can really prepare for most of the questions you will be asked. Read through your thesis and while you’re reading it, create a list of possible questions. In addition, as you will know who will be on the committee, look at the academic expertise of the committee members. In what areas would they most likely be focused? If possible, sit at other thesis defenses with these committee members to get a feeling for how they ask and what they ask. As a graduate student, you should generally be adept at anticipating test questions, so use this advantage to gather as much information as possible before your thesis defense meeting.
2. Dress for success
Your thesis defense is a formal event, often the entire department or university is invited to participate. It signals a critical rite of passage for graduate students and faculty who have supported them throughout a long and challenging process. While most universities don’t have specific rules on how to dress for that event, do regard it with dignity and respect. This one might be a no-brainer, but know that you should dress as if you were on a job interview or delivering a paper at a conference.
It might help you deal with your stress before your thesis defense to entrust someone with the smaller but important responsibilities of your thesis defense well ahead of schedule. This trusted person could be responsible for preparing the room of the day of defense, setting up equipment for the presentation or preparing and distributing handouts.
4. Have a backup plan
Technology is unpredictable. Life is too. There are no guarantees that your Powerpoint presentation will work at all or look the way it is supposed to do on the big screen. We’ve all been there. Make sure to have a plan B for these situations. Handouts can help when technology fails, or an additional fresh shirt for spilled coffee can save the day.
5. What to do when you don’t know the answer
One of the scariest aspects of the defense is the possibility of being asked a question you can’t answer. While you can prepare for some questions, you can never know exactly what the committee will ask. There will always be gaps in your knowledge. But your thesis defense is not about being perfect and knowing everything, it’s about how you deal with challenging situations. You are not expected to know everything.
James Hayton writes on his blog that examiners will sometimes even ask questions they don’t know the answer to, out of curiosity, or because they want to see how you think. While it is ok sometimes to just say “I don’t know”, he advises to try something like “I don’t know, but I would think […] because of x and y, but you would need to do […] in order to find out”. This shows that you have the ability to think as an academic.
6. Dealing with your nerves
You will be nervous. But the good news is – your examiners will expect you to be nervous. It is completely normal to be nervous. Being well prepared can help minimize your stress, but do know that your examiners have seen this many times before and are willing to help, by repeating questions for example if needed.
Two common symptoms of being nervous are talking really fast and nervous laughs. Try to slow yourself down, take a deep breath. Remember what feels like hours to you are just a few seconds in real life. Allow yourself to process the question, respond to it, and stop talking once you have responded. While a smile can often help dissolve a difficult situation, remember that nervous laughs can be irritating for your audience.
We all make mistakes and your thesis defense will most likely not be perfect. You are not expected to be perfect and the examiners already have plenty of experience with this and will guide you through it. Also remember that your thesis defense is often just a formality and the committee actually wants you to pass. If you are still nervous about your thesis defense, read this blog post by Dora Farkas at finishyourthesis.com. She debunks 5 common myths about thesis defenses and helps you see that your committee is not out to get you.