It’s Finally D-Day — Here’s What to Expect

It’s finally here — the day of your public oral dissertation defense. You’ve got your slides loaded, your laser pointer locked, and your game face on. You’re ready to stare down the equivalent of a congressional subcommittee with the sternest opposition. You’ve practiced your Ted talk “power pose” and done your Ujjayi yoga breathing. You have friends and maybe even family in the audience. Now it’s time to defend the research you’ve been slaving over for most of the last few years.

So how did you get to this state of complete readiness? What was the careful planning that brought you to this place of total confidence and poise?

A Special Day

For those who have decided to embark upon a research thesis, the dissertation defense is a unique experience. Often, PAs who have decided to pursue higher education will be tasked with a defense. Many of us are familiar with our own PA students completing some type of oral defense of their master projects or even formal thesis defenses. But most PAs are not at all familiar with the vagaries of the arduous research thesis defense of formal higher education.

There is usually not just one final defense but many opportunities to defend. Let’s call these defenses “opportunities” or “defense lite.” These opportunities include: an oral defense of the qualifying exam, a defense of a 5-page proposal to the full faculty, or a defense of a 20-page proposal to a 5-member dissertation committee. Each one of these offers a set of circumstances to practice defense skills and to understand the potential dynamic of the committee. Use these defense lead-ups as a chance to work out any difficulties.

The “Why” of It All

Be ready for the “so what?” question. This advice is from my friend Christine Everett, whom I will give credit to for putting the fear of God in several of us nearing our final defense. Dr. Everett attended a practice presentation of one of her friends readying for her defense. At the end of the presentation, and with no malice intended, she asked her friend, “So what?” “What was the point of doing all that research?” She pressed on. “Was the world made a better place because of your work?” Her friend froze. The research she had done for her PhD didn’t necessarily amount to a whole heck of a lot in the end, and it was clear she was a bit thin on her answers.  Although it may have appeared cruel at the time, Dr. Everett wanted her friend to be prepped, to be prepared to answer the hardest of questions. Some of the most challenging questions are based on the “why” of it all. So be ready with an answer to “so what?” A practice session among colleagues is a wise idea.

Along those same lines, be prepared for the tricky cousin of the “so what” question. This is often a question framed like this: “Why do you think we should give you a PhD for this?” As graduate students, we can get caught up in the weeds of the research — coding and cleaning data deep into the wee hours of the night. So remember to stop and ask yourself: How does your research fit into the larger picture of your field? Do you understand your own arena and your place in it? These are the questions that clever committee members like to ask. Be ready.

All questions can and should potentially be answered by stating one of the following: “My research suggests …” or “The theory is …” or “ The research by so and so suggests …” Do not be afraid to paint with a large brush in your defense.

Limitations of Your Research

Most graduate students are ready for research questions. However, it takes a bigger person to admit to the limitations of their research. And the committee will ask. My stepsister, who earned her PhD in biology, told her committee during her presentation that she realized the analysis had a flaw in it and had to be redone. Better to fess up to any problems right away — always.

Last-Minute Tidying Up

Often there are several last-minute requirements. Read your graduate student handbook. Do not rely on your advisor — especially a faculty advisor. Make friends with the staff. There should be one staff member who is in charge and should be able to help you get the flyer printed and announcements made in a timely way, schedule the room, and schedule enough time for the defense. Make sure all committee members have the time blocked out on their calendars. Overlooking these things often can be a source of problems, but they need not be.

Schedule the final thesis office evaluation with plenty of time before the end of the semester. If you’ve done all the formatting yourself, inevitably there will be some margin that is 1/8 of an inch off. The thesis office will be very nice to you at the beginning of the semester — not so much at the end of the semester. Any minor mistake could result in the delay of graduation and even your ability to walk in the graduation ceremony. When I first visited the thesis office, I pictured some older ladies with colorful half glasses measuring the margins with rulers. And it was true! Except there was only one of them.

Inevitable Bumps and Bruises

Don’t be surprised if the defense is more about the relationships among your committee members than about you. One of my friends had a dissertation defense where she basically watched her committee members lob grenades at each other. She simply stood there like the audience at a tennis match, watching it happen. Sometimes dissertation defenses can be like watching fireworks from a faculty meeting spilling over at your feet. Weddings similarly can be less about the bride and more about the family dynamics. Remember, you will still get to throw the bouquet over your shoulder at the reception and receive the certificate.

Also be ready for technology to fail. Gone are the days when members were flown in from around the country. Now more often, committee members are Skyped into defenses. In fact, it was required for my dissertation committee that one member be from outside the university. I chose to use a second computer, because I was nervous about using my slides for my presentation and switching back and forth to the committee member Skyping in. If you choose to use just one computer, be ready to speak without access to seeing your slides. You can use old-fashioned flash cards or slides printed out with your notes. I recommend having a low-tech backup if you plan on going high tech.

The Long Wait

About half way through the process, you will be asked to leave, and they will talk about you.  This long pause where you are “put on ice” can really cause a lot of anxiety. My step sister had a committee member who excused himself during the deliberations just to stop by and say, “Hey, things are going fine.” Remember that they will bring you back and ask a few more questions. Then perhaps put you on ice again until you are brought back in for the final congrats. Usually they will call you in saying, “Congratulations, Dr. so and so!” Most of us are shelled shocked by this point, hardly registering the fact that we passed.

The Finish Line

Careful planning and discussions with those in your program who have recently passed their public oral defense should be of paramount importance. With an eye to these possible pitfalls, your dissertation defense can end up being a memorable experience with a successful outcome.