My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I sometimes blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
Before my masters or doctoral students go into a theses defence we usually sit down (or Zoom) to talk about what to do before, during, and after the defence. Having chaired, or been primary, secondary, or external examiner in over 50 masters and doctoral theses defences I figured it was time to put some of these thoughts to paper.
Here is a list of some things that I think are important…and the list may keep evolving as I continue in the exciting high octane and meaningful world of thesis defences.
Do not go ahead with a defence if your supervisory committee is opposed to it. (There may an exception to this – but only in the most bizarre or adverse circumstances,)
Find out the structure and rules of the defence so that you can anticipate the flow of the meeting. Every school has its own idiosyncrasies, so get to know them.
Remember that history professors tend to ask history questions, theology professors ask theology questions, biblical studies professors ask biblical questions, and so on. Knowing that helps you think about what might be asked in the defence.
Try to watch some defences ahead of time (some schools allow observers, some do not).
Talk to people who have successfully defended a thesis to glean some of their wisdom.
Do not contact the external examiner. (You can read what that person has published, but never make contact before a defence.)
Spend time in your document to remind yourself of what you wrote (it may take months between submitting the document and defending), and also look for typos and format issues that can be cleaned up after the defence.
Try to anticipate questions and make bullet point responses on a sheet of paper (which may be brought into the defence to spark your memory under pressure).
Be able to state your thesis in 2-3 sentences.
Know what your unique contribution to the discipline is, and be able to state that in 2-3 sentences.
Keep reading and searching for secondary literature that you may have missed or may have been recently published.
Think about who you want to tell about the upcoming defence – some keep it quiet (to avoid embarrassment if things go awry) and others let everyone know. Just a personal thing, no right or wrong on this point.
Set up a meeting with your supervisor to chat about the upcoming event.
Do not drink too much water before the meeting – for obvious reasons.
Bring a bottle of water into the meeting.
Let the examination committee know ahead of time of any special considerations that need to be taken into account.
Arrive early to allow you to sit and gather your wits.
Turn off your phone for the defence.
Dress up (collared shirt, tie, even a jacket says you are a professional and take the event seriously).
Bring paper copy of dissertation with tabs separating the chapters.
Use “Dr” or “Professor” rather than the first names of examiners. Even if those in the committee uses first names, you should avoid it.
Avoid “tilting at windmills”, or even going after real opponents. There will be opportunities in the coming decades to deal with whatever vexes or inspires you, but in the defence your goal is to pass. Stay focused on that.
Be willing to say you do not know an answer, but try to avoid saying that too many times. One strategy is to say something like “I do not know about _____, but what I can say on a closely related matter is ______.”
Think on your feet, and try to speak on every question, even if it means making an educated guess such as: “I am not exactly sure on that point, but my hunch is that _____.”
Never lie. If you are caught your ship may almost certainly sink. (For not only have you committed a grave mistake in the oral defence, the integrity of your entire document is also now in question.)
If an examiner talks a lot, let the person go on and on. Examiners are allotted a set amount of time, and the longer the person talks the less you have to!
Remember that you are an expert in the room in regard to the thesis or dissertation – so be confident speaking to your findings.
Be confident but not arrogant. Be humble but willing to argue your point. In other words, don’t be a jerk.
Strike a balance between conceding a point and defending your thesis. In other words, know what hill you are willing to die on. Obviously conceding rewriting the whole thing seems too much, but adding or adjusting or tweaking an argument is worth it if it means the examiner will pass the thesis. Remember, once you graduate, you can rework your work however you want.
Take notes on a pad of paper, for the questions asked will be helpful if you do further work on the subject. It also shows you take the comments of examiners seriously enough to record them. Of course, you are not making a verbatim report – but there will be books and scholars and ideas mentioned that you may want to remember.
Talk about scholars and their work as you would like others to talk about you and yours.
Listen well and do not be afraid to ask examiners to repeat the question for clarity.
Speak to the question and make your point, but try to avoid rambling on. (You will often be cut off if you go too long. Examiners have a list of questions they want to get through, so your efficiency is appreciated.)
Do not be surprised by strange behaviour from examiners – if it happens, say nothing and let the chair deal with it. No matter what happens, the key is for you to act well and professionally.
Do not be hurt or feel betrayed if your primary or secondary supervisors ask tough questions – it is their job to do so, even if they support your project and its conclusions.
If not successful, meet with supervisory committee to develop a plan to move forward. Depending on the reason for failure there may be a way to get back on track and finish the project. Also, do not suffer in silence – talk to family and friends for support.
If successful, celebrate but get back to work asap on revisions.
Do exactly what is asked of you for revisions, nothing less and nothing more. Just get it done.
Thank your committee and the external in the acknowledgements
Once revisions have been completed and the process is over you can then email the external to express your appreciation for input and involvement.
Finally, once the revisions are done and you are finished with the program it is time to start thinking about publication. At the very least you should turn your thesis into an academic journal article, but for larger doctoral projects a book should be the aim. Do not take too long starting this process, for you want to strike while your research is fresh and up-to-date.
I have found that in my experience, and in that of students, nerves are an issue ahead of time. But once the process is 10-15 minutes in, things settle down into an enjoyable and thoughtful back-and-forth engagement. After all, you as a student are finally in a room filled with people who actually want talk about your research! And that is a unique experience.