Remain Calm and Carry On: PhD Defense Version
August 26, 2009 3:20 PM   Subscribe

Ph.D defense. What to know? How to keep calm? All tips and strategies welcome.

So far, you wonderful Mefites have helped me find research material, walked me through my first academic conference and titled my thesis. Now there's one last thing: What should I know in regard to and how on earth to keep calm in my Ph.D defense? (It's in the UK, so technically a viva voce.) I have about 6 weeks until the big event.
posted by meerkatty to Education (35 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Get How to Survive Your Viva from the library. Short and helpful.
posted by grouse at 3:38 PM on August 26, 2009

First: the format of the exam will vary widely across schools and even departments, so try to attend other people's defences if you can, and ask graduates of your own program what it was like. Your goal is to figure out what to expect, so that you can adequately prepare yourself.

The best way to keep calm is to practice. You can and should schedule a mock defense with friends and colleagues and ask them to be harsh. If you can, have them read your thesis beforehand as well so they can give it the full treatment. The things that confuse them are likely to confuse your committee as well. If you know about the trouble spots ahead of time, you can prepare an answer ahead of time, or even revise your thesis so that the trouble spots are gone.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:41 PM on August 26, 2009

Best answer: When I give conference papers, I always avoid drinking coffee beforehand because I get nervous and will have to pee five minutes after I get there. This may or may not apply to you.

I've been to a bunch of PhD defenses in our department. We had one a couple of years ago that was absolutely brutal. I didn't go to that particular one but apparently it was just two hours of awkward. I read the dissertation afterward and wasn't surprised. It was poorly written and there were entire sections that I was pretty sure the author never went back and read over after they wrote it. My supervisor told me that this person had already done major rewrites after having it rejected by her committee the first time. She passed. Barely.

That's not the norm. Most people know that sucker inside out and upside down by the time they're done. I didn't have to defend for my MA, but I felt like I totally could have. The ones that really impressed me held their heads high, smiled, made eye contact, spoke slowly and clearly, and weren't afraid to take a few moments of silence to formulate a great answer.

Talk to some people in your department who have been through the process.

Congratulations! Give yourself a giant pat on the back - this is your moment to shine!
posted by futureisunwritten at 3:49 PM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding PercussivePaul's very good advice to attend other defenses and to practice in front of others.

It was helpful to me when my advisor reframed my (MA) thesis defense as not so much a grilling as a chance for me to talk at length about my work with people who were genuinely interested and knowledgeable in the area. She reminded me that in fact I was the expert on this particular topic, since it was I who had done all this research, and that the defense was my opportunity to share this knowledge. I ended up having a very positive experience.

Congratulations on being at the end of your PhD journey, and good luck! You will do just fine, and possibly even enjoy the experience.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:53 PM on August 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

P.S. It should be obvious, but bring lots of delicious food to your mock defence in order to encourage attendance. Also, anyone who actually reads your thesis gets beer.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:55 PM on August 26, 2009

Best answer: The best "defenders" I've seen were the best listeners--good at hearing the questions and criticisms and responding to them directly, thoroughly, and if possible, not "defensively." But I don't know much about the culture of these things in the UK. Another thing I'd heard and repeated to students was that this is a rare time when so much attention from so many is focused on your work, so it's worth trying to savor it even if it's challenging or even painful. Best of luck!
posted by Mngo at 4:04 PM on August 26, 2009

Best answer: One piece of advice I got from already defendeds right before mine was: "Relax, they wouldn't let you get here if you were going to make them look bad."
posted by neustile at 4:05 PM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

You really need to ask this question of other people who have defended in your program. The details vary so much from program to program. There are places where the defense is an acid test and other places where its a pro forma victory lap.

As for keeping calm, just remember that you are the number one world expert on this material. Your committee doesn't know it nearly as well as you do.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:21 PM on August 26, 2009

Bring food and water.
posted by k8t at 4:22 PM on August 26, 2009

Best answer: Vivas in the UK are very different from the US defense process, judging from my recent experience in the UK vs stories I've heard from US colleagues. Can you even attend other vivas? I'm glad I didn't have extra observers when I met with my internal and external examiners. Frankly, I'm not sure 'practicing' would have helped: even in my department, and then in my field, very few people can ask expert questions of the sort you deserve. Even if I had turned to friends for practice, they wouldn't be my friends if I made them read my thesis in its entirety. That's key: reread the thesis, painful as it might be; read work by your examiners, revisit important criticism with which you engage, and be prepared for a dialogue with some of the only people in the world who really understand what you're doing. They find it interesting, too: they wouldn't have agreed to be your examiners otherwise. Submitting is the hard part, and you're past that now. Hurrah! You've done a lot of hard work, and your supervisor believes you deserve a PhD. Very best of luck, soon-to-be Dr Meerkatty : )
posted by woodway at 4:37 PM on August 26, 2009

If your committee has good people on it, they wouldn't have let you get this far if they thought you couldn't make it. So you're fine- relax. Try to make the defense an interesting time for all of you. Think about "the big picture". Remember things your committee members have said in the past, because they'll probably say it again. Come up with thoughtful comments. Good luck!
posted by acrasis at 4:50 PM on August 26, 2009

Wear comfortable shoes.
posted by pluckysparrow at 5:10 PM on August 26, 2009

Yeah, so much depends on department culture but, generally, you should be sure to re-read your dissertation at least once. If you're not sure exactly what's being asked, it's fine to ask for the question again. Lastly, take a moment and breathe before you answer, that way you can control things a little. Best of luck and congratulations on finishing up!
posted by ob at 5:12 PM on August 26, 2009

Think about the worst college professor you ever had. Then, remember that they passed their defense. If they can, you can.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:28 PM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have a drink before hand? Maybe one, to take the edge off? I know people at conferences who have done this before presenting, and they said it helps. YMMD.
posted by elder18 at 5:40 PM on August 26, 2009

Best answer: Really listen to the questions. If you don't understand what you are being asked get clarrification.

Don't be a push over. Sometimes your examiners may raise a point they know has little merit to see if you can knock it down.

Keep thinking even when the pressure builds.

Once you get to this point no one wants to fail you.
posted by Fiery Jack at 5:40 PM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I did my PhD in the UK so this answer might be more relevant than the ones about the US-style public defenses; the field was biology and the institution was Cambridge so my experience might therefore be entirely irrelevant to you. So pinch of salt and all that.
Firstly, you should ENJOY your defence. I genuinely enjoyed mine. Sad to say, it's the only informed, intelligent conversation you will ever have about the work that has consumed the last three years of your life, so get the most out of it!
Good examiners will ask you some easy questions to settle your nerves, and then some progressively harder ones, and they're not doing their job unless they ask you some stuff that you can't answer. Don't panic when you can't answer the question; you're not expected to be omniscient, but you are expected to have a good idea of how you would go about finding out something you don't know.
You shouldn't have been allowed to submit unless your work and your thesis are good enough to pass, so the only thing they're really testing is whether you did all the work yourself. If you know how you did everything you did and really know all the previous work you have cited, you're golden.
Have fun!
posted by nowonmai at 5:48 PM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If it is anything like U.S. dissertation defenses, conventions vary so widely by schools, departments, and committee members that giving general advice is not that useful (but I will try to do so below anyway). Ask your adviser what to expect and talk to others who have made it through the process. In our college I would be disappointed in any adviser who brought a student up for their exams who was not sufficiently ready or prepared.

About the only question that is reliably asked at every exam is for the student to summarize their dissertation. You would be surprised how many students get flustered by that question. You should think ahead of time how you would give a 1 minute summary and what you would include in a 5 minute summary. Both will also be useful for the job hunting later. Furthermore, in most defenses the "hard" questions that most faculty ask can be anticipated based on their interests, the comments they provided on the drafts of the dissertation, and the areas of the dissertation that are naturally weak. Finally, in the US there is typically a member of the committee from outside the department. The most likely question that member will ask is for you to explain some part of your dissertation that is in the jargon of your discipline for an outsider or to explain the significance of your research if it is especially technical or narrow.
posted by Tallguy at 5:54 PM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I personally wouldn't reread it again, likely for the 30th time, now. Your defense (in the US at least) is a big picture moment. Think about what you've said/argued. Think about why you did so. Think about who will care and/or why they should care. Think honestly about what you did wrong or would do differently given the time, resources, and unlimited access. Think about what you did very well and/or what was truly insightful. Be prepared to answer these kinds of questions. Think of it as an extended conversation with your potential peers. They won't know the material nearly as well as you do and will be genuinely interested in what you have to say.
posted by B-squared at 5:58 PM on August 26, 2009

Attending others' defenses is something you should have been doing whenever possible, and that will help some, but if your department has a format like I went through (a public presentation followed by questions, but then followed by an hour of private committee grilling) then the closest thing available to practice for that grilling session will have been any oral exams you've had for quals or for a dissertation proposal.

However, here's why you should be calm and happy: If you worked your ass off on the dissertation, if it contains interesting and original research, and if you really understand the subject behind it, the defense should be a piece of cake.

Seriously. I was as nervous as I'd ever been before in my life, and there were certainly some tough questions asked about my work, but what turned out to set the tone of the discussion was simply that all these people were really interested in my thesis! In hindsight I shouldn't have been surprised, because I don't think my case was exceptional: get a group of people together who are smart enough to understand new research and who are passionate enough about it to have picked academia over the many better paying jobs elsewhere, and you can't help but end up with people who are going to be in a good mood when they learn something new and have an excuse to spend an hour or two talking about it.
posted by roystgnr at 7:01 PM on August 26, 2009

Beta blockers
posted by zentrification at 7:14 PM on August 26, 2009

In the US, your advisor/committee generally won't let you schedule your defense unless they think you're ready to pass it. In more than 15 years of grad school plus teaching, I've never seen anyone fail their oral defense. (But I certainly *have* seen people's dissertations get rejected or bounced back for revision, prior to that stage.) So, yeah, be nervous, in that it's a public speaking event. But don't be nervous that it will mark the end of years of work.

Again, though, US -- maybe the UK is sufficiently different that this is irrelevant?

Also, what B-squared and Tallguy said.
posted by kestrel251 at 8:11 PM on August 26, 2009

Best answer: Every time I am asked this by a colleague or student, I recommend Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson's article, 'In the dark? Preparing for the PhD viva.' The full text PDF is available here for free.
posted by yellowcandy at 8:36 PM on August 26, 2009

Best answer: A lot of the answers here seem specific to US doctoral conventions, rather than the UK ones. In the UK, it will just be the candidate, the internal, and the external, locked in small room for anything between an hour and three. Mileage varies, of course, because every single viva experience is going to be a unique-chemistry occasion between three people who will never be in that situation again. Firstly, as has been said before, if you have a good supervisor and a good department, they are not going to let you get into that room unless they are confident you are going to make it. No-one wants you to fail. That said, there are always horror stories that graduate students pass around amongst each other about particularly brutal encounters. In my experience, these always seems to centre around one of the examiners being young, recently-appointed, keen to appear to know his or her stuff, desperate to put the candidate on the back foot from the start just as a means of showing off; these stories may turn blood to water, but in the end the young examiner always lets it through, because to do otherwise would be to rock the boat in a way that might not be useful for their own career, the thing they care about the most. All of that is said not to frighten you, but just to remind you that, in a very odd way, there may be career dynamics going on between the examiners that might not include you at all, and that if this is the case, just hang on and ride the storm out, as it will blow over. I would absolutely advocate re-reading the thesis the day before, even though you may be sick of the thing, and indeed, it might feel like a dog returning to its own vomit. On the day itself, the examiners will know nerves, they will expect you to be nervous. How could you not be? If they're worth anything, they will try to calm you down, so just allow that to happen, chat, loosen up, get a feel for the fact that you will be sitting with them for potentially quite a long time. And then, deep breath, it will begin. I can't emphasise enough how much I agree with nowonmai above: enjoy it, dammit! You have spent three or four years writing this fucking thing, and mostly when you try to talk about your research to people, you get about five minutes of discussion before eye-glaze sets in. Here are two of the smartest people in your field, and they've not only read, they have absorbed and climbed inside, everything you've done for several years, and they want to talk to you about it in detail. So this is your chance. As for more specific preparations, again, subjects vary so there's zero chance of any of us guessing particular questions, but in general, don't be afraid to indicate that their question touches on something you didn't cover in your research. Conferences are the place for bluffing and bluster, the viva is not. You did what you did, it's there in front of the three of you, and if they ask you something you didn't cover or is tangential, speculate sure, but don't pretend to be secure on anything you're not. Perhaps a general question that seems to come up is 'what's the next stage with this, where does this go?', which can mean anything from 'how are you going to publish this?', to 'what would you like to have included but didn't have space for?', to 'what are the wider implications of this research for the subject as a whole, and what are you going to do about that?'. Last of all: Good Luck.
posted by hydatius at 12:21 AM on August 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Firstly, remember in the UK its only going to be a couple of examiners, no audience, with your supervisor maybe there depending on practice at your uni/dept. I had mine there but had the opportunity to request he not be there.

Don't talk to people like me who have a list of horror stories about people's vivas.

Do have a practice viva.

I found it quite useful to go through the document before the viva, looking for errors, but also refamiliarising myself with it.

Don't be afraid to pause for a bit after a question while you think about your answer, or to ask for clarification of what a question is meant to ask.

The first question will usually be "tell us about your PhD" or some variant on that, have an answer prepared.

Remember: You don't have to know everything about everything in your field, there will be an expectation that you know the underlying stuff but you can get away with not knowing every detail of all of it. Its also worth remembering that you will (or at least should) know more about the particular bit of your field than the examiners do.

Rehearse this phrase: "That is outside the scope of this piece of research."

NB: mamy institutions will not allow you to fail at your first atempt, and fails are very rare creatures. Minor corrections is most common, followed by resubmission. Its worth knowing exactly what options are available to examiners before you go into the exam, there are variations, for example, my PhD institution had a category of majot corrections between minor corrections and resubmission, my current institution does not have this. Your examiners should know how this works but you should know too!
posted by biffa at 3:41 AM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There's a list of viva questions on my old school's internal wiki. I prepared short answers to most of them before mine - none of the exact questions came up, but it really helped me to be prepared, and some related questions did arise, so the preparation wasn't wasted.

As it's an internal wiki I've taken the liberty of reposting them here - i expect they have been cribbed from various viva preparation sites on the net so apologies if there's any copyright issues:

* What's original about your work? Where is the novelty? Don't leave
it to the examiners to make up their own minds - they may get it

* What are the contributions (to knowledge) of your thesis?

* Which topics overlap with your area?

* How does your work relate to X?

* What do you know about the history of X?

* What is the current state of the art in X? (capabilities and
limitations of existing systems) What techniques are commonly used?
Where do current technologies fail such that you (could) make a

* How does/could your work enhance the state of the art in X?

* Who are the main `players' in X? (Hint: you should cluster together
papers written by the same people) Who are your closest

* What do you do better than them? What do you do worse?

* Which are the three most important papers in X?

* What are the recent major developments in X?

* How do you expect X to progress over the next five years? How
long-term is your contribution, given the anticipated future
developments in X?

* What did you do for your MPhil, and how does your PhD extend it?
Did you make any changes to the system you implemented for your

* What are the strongest/weakest parts of your work?

* Where did you go wrong?

* Why have you done it this way? You need to justify your approach -
don't assume the examiners share your views.

* What are the alternatives to your approach? What do you gain by
your approach? What would you gain by approach X?

* Why didn't you do it this way (the way everyone else does it)? This
requires having done extensive reading. Be honest if you never
thought of the alternative they're suggesting, or if you just
didn't get around to it. If you try to bluff your way out, they'll
trap you in your own words.

* How have you evaluated your work? intrinsic evaluation: how have
you demonstrated that it works, and how well it performs? extrinsic
evaluation: how have you demonstrated its usefulness for a specific
application context?

* What do your results mean?

* How would your system cope with bigger examples? Does it scale up?
This is especially important if you have only run your system on
`toy' examples, and they think it has `learned its test-data'.

* How do you know that your algorithm/rules are correct?

* How could you improve your work?

* What are the motivations for your research? Why is the problem you
have tackled worth tackling?

* What is the relevance of your contributions? To other researchers?
To industry?

* What is the implication of your work in your area? What does it

* How do/would you cope with known problems in your field? (e.g.
combinatorial explosion)

* Have you solved the field's problem that you claim to have solved?
For example, if something is too slow, and you can make it go
faster - how much increase in speed is needed for the applications
you claim to support?

* Is your field going in the right direction? For example, if
everyone's been concentrating on speed, but the real issue is space
(if the issue is time, you can just wait it out (unless it's
combinatorially explosive), but if the issue is space, the system
could fall over). This is kind of justifying why you have gone into
the field you're working in.

* Who are your envisioned users? What use would your work be in
situation X?

* How do your contributions generalise? To what extent would they
generalise to systems other than the one you've worked on?

* Under what circumstances would your approach be useable? (Again,
does it scale up?)

* Which aspects of your thesis could be published?

* What have you learned from the process of doing your PhD? Remember
that the aim of the PhD process is to train you to be a fully
professional researcher - passing your PhD means that you know the
state of the art in your area and the directions in which it could
be extended, and that you have proved you are capable of making
such extensions.

* Where did your research-project come from? How did your
research-questions emerge? You can't just say "my supervisor told
me to do it" - if this is the case, you need to talk it over with
your supervisor before the viva. Think out a succinct answer (2 to
5 minutes).

* Has your view of your research topic changed during the course of
the research?

* You discuss future work in your conclusion chapter. How long would
it take to implement X, and what are the likely problems you
envisage? Do not underestimate the time and the difficulties, you
might be talking about your own corrections<
posted by handee at 5:05 AM on August 27, 2009 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all of this wonderful advice. I am slowly calming down.

At a UK viva at most schools (including mine) you are in your internal examiner's office with the external examiner as well. Just the three of you - your supervisor can sit in if requested, but no one else. So watching vivas hasn't been a practice strategy, unfortunately. And I was feeling okay about the process until I spoke to a recent graduate of my program at a conference a couple of months ago. He did not pass first time - had to do 12 months of revisions and submit again. (And he had a top notch supervisor.) *Gulp*. So to ease my anxiety in the weeks leading up to the big event, I want to feel as prepared as possible.
posted by meerkatty at 5:27 AM on August 27, 2009

Best answer: Another thing to note: My (UK based, academic) husband says that "the decision" is usually made before the viva when the examiners go to lunch. In the viva, people can talk this decision up, but it is a very rare case for viva performance to end up making the initial decision any worse. If your thesis is good, you know your stuff, and you have a broad knowledge of the field and how your work fits into it you'll be fine.

In my viva I was extremely lucky - the first thing my excellent external examiner said was "Stop worrying - you've passed, we're just sorting out the details in this meeting". That almost made up for the fact that the fire alarm went off 3 times over the subsequent 4 hour viva period...
posted by handee at 5:46 AM on August 27, 2009

Hrm. Just my feelings on the matter based on what I've experienced and word of mouth.

Unless you are in an evil department or have an evil committee, they are demonstrating a fair degree of confidence in your skills and abilities by agreeing to serve as your examiners and advocates. So while they will ask you hard questions, they are (generally) one of the friendliest audiences you might have to face in your career.

As part of doing your research, you may very well have surpassed their skills and expertise on your particular thesis topic. So a part of your goal in your defense is to explain your methods and reasoning.

Your thesis isn't perfect, and unless your committee is evil, they don't expect it to be. As far as I'm aware, it's really rare that they will throw you back into the tedium of data collection and analysis. However, a more frequent outcome is that they will make suggestions for framing your discussion and conclusions.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:48 AM on August 27, 2009

Best answer: He did not pass first time - had to do 12 months of revisions and submit again. (And he had a top notch supervisor.)

A good supervisor goes a long way to ensuring your viva goes ok, since a good supervisor should not normally sign you off if your work isn't PhD ready. However, this only goes so far, and in my experience *some* PhD students aren't brilliant at taking advice. They might get to vivas but if they have been dicks then they might get pulled up. I can think of two peers of mine who got 12 months of rewrite, one because he refused to consider other people's work in his field when carrying out his research, one because he just thought he was the dog's bollocks and he was right and they were wrong, sadly he got this the wrong way round. there is always the possibility of getting an examiner who is at odds with your fundamentals but this is failure that your supervisor should block when choosing your examiners. I fear I am moving into nightmare territory so will stop there, but these are few and far between, I know 150+ people with PhDs and most get a few days to maybe a few months of changes at the longest. (A few get full passes of course, the smart-arse anal retentive bastards.)

While I know from experience with multiple friends (and me!) that it won't stop you worrying, once you're at the viva stage its very likely the worst is behind you.
posted by biffa at 9:37 AM on August 27, 2009

Response by poster: Update: got it yesterday!

I just wanted to pop back into the thread to thank everyone profusely for their advice. I found the lists of questions mentioned here really helpful - just to feel like any broad question I could answer without sweating as soon as I walked in the door. Your personal experiences were much appreciated as well.

A fellow PhD student in literature defended at my university the day prior to me - and got 12 months of re-writes. So in my near hysterical state the night before my own defense, I came back here and re-read this thread several times to calm myself down. It worked - so thank you Mefites. Hugely, hugely appreciated.
posted by meerkatty at 6:33 AM on December 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

Yay! Congratulations on your new PhD!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:04 AM on December 3, 2009

Congratulations! What else will you do to celebrate?
posted by Mngo at 8:49 AM on December 3, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much! Dinner last night was dumplings, a banana split and champagne. Now a weekend in Copenhagen and then back to the reality of job interviews next week.
posted by meerkatty at 9:17 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh congratulations! Feels good, doesn't it. Enjoy Copenhagen.
posted by handee at 1:07 PM on December 3, 2009

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