Turns of phrase for thesis defense. Help!
May 27, 2014 9:58 AM   Subscribe

Defending my thesis next week and need help with turns of phrase to kick off complicated answers to difficult questions. Have flopped in conferences past.

I will be sitting my PhD viva (defense in England) next week in a humanities field, and while practicing my answers and framing my project, I’m having trouble coming up with phrases to start off with. My strength is my writing, and I tend to flop at conferences and such when asked really tough questions. I know I need to take a second and compose myself and really think about the question before responding, and I’m practicing this (pausing, taking a breath). I’m looking for academic turns of phrases that can segue me into answering the question in lieu of just blurting out the answer, which is what I tend to do when I am nervous, and I always regret it afterwards. I think in addition to what are sure to be difficult questions, I’m most scared of sounding really ineloquent. I’d love some suggestions on ways of responding to situations such as:

-I genuinely don’t have an answer to their question other than it will require further research, and I thank them for pointing this out.

-I’m not sure I’ll be able to answer their question, but I’ll give it a “go”… as in I’ll speculate based upon what I know.

-What do you say when a question pops up that blows you completely sideways? As in, they propose a new way of looking at things that you hadn’t considered before?

-I disagree with what they have said, or they seem to have read me wrong. I want to argue with their point and say: “actually, what I wrote was…”

-One of my examiners is all over my thesis! What is a way of saying that I owe so much to his work? In my thesis I have written “indebted”… is there another way of framing this?

-If a critique comes up that I agree with, I want to be able to say “yes, you’re absolutely right, I’ve been mistaken”, is there a better way of phrasing this?

-Any other ways of saying “that’s a great question”?

Any suggestions, advice, tips and tricks, is greatly appreciated! I'd be so grateful for any turns of phrase, they don't have to relate to the scenarios I presented. Thanks so much!
posted by hollypolly to Education (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'd say something like:

"I'm not at my best in front of large groups of people. Great question, though, and it deserves a proper answer. Anyone interested can watch this web page I've set up for my talk here [give shortened, easily jotted down URL], and I'll have something up within a day or two. Please feel free to follow up with comments there. If you'd like, leave me your business card and I'll drop you an email when the reply goes up".

Tape your speeches so you remember what needs responding to.

Consider watermarking that custom URL (i.e. blog page set up for this specific talk) into the corner of any video or powerpoint or handouts used during the talk. Remember, on that web page, to also include a conspicuous link to your home page, so those surfing in for that have an easy way of checking out more about you.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:12 AM on May 27, 2014

Well, if you completely didn't anticipate a problem (your third example), I think the classic is "that's an interesting question!" or "I've never thought about it that way... let me see . . ."

I wouldn't argue over words (example 4) -- rather, say "I would make the argument that" or "I take the view that..." and then give the main bases for that point of view, rather than referring to what you wrote and how you worded it there. I think it's ok to have a different viewpoint from your examiners, assuming you can defend your position.

For a critique you agree with, I think it's ok to view it as useful feedback from a colleague -- "I might need to rethink that particular point" or "I may have made the case more strongly than can be justified -- thanks for pointing that out. I may need to reword that section a bit." or "you've raised some issues I hadn't taken into account; it will be interesteing to mull that over a bit."

For "great question" also "oh! interesting." or "a promising direction" dunno, there are only so many ways.

I also think it's ok to hedge for a moment with "Let me think about the best way to answer/explain this..."

Good luck!
posted by acm at 10:14 AM on May 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Generally useful for stalling, especially if they said something you disagree with, or which seems to be a misinterpretation of what you wrote: "I'd like to discuss that last point [a bit/further]." You can add something like, "It sounds like you're saying [X]. Is that correct?"

I agree with acm not to refer back to how you wrote things up in your thesis, but to focus on making the argument in conversation.
posted by chocotaco at 10:23 AM on May 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do a script of possible questions and answers. Try to answer the questions you think you may be asked in advance. If you can, it often helps to practice this with a friend or spouse. Practice is important. Do this with friends, field questions from fellow students, go over this this with your advisor, rehearse in front of the mirror.

When getting a question you are not prepared to answer immediately, a common tactic is to ask the examiner the question back. This does a couple of things: first it ensures that you understand the question and don't misconstrue. Second, it gives you time to start to think about the problem, and for your nerves to settle. Don't be afraid to paraphrase if you think that helps clarity, but do repeat it as a question back, to see if you've got it right.

I don't think it helps to qualify your response to make you seem unsure. You've spent years on this material. You should know more about it than anyone in the room! Be definite, as much as you can. If you are faced with a question that you really don't know the answer to, try not to get speculative. It's easy to get called on that. It's better to say that more study on that would be necessary, or that you would need to do additional research.
posted by bonehead at 10:26 AM on May 27, 2014

This might not be exactly your question, but speaking with polite confidence often makes the diction itself irrelevant.
posted by jjmoney at 10:28 AM on May 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

One piece of general advice - it can be really useful to restate their question to make sure you are talking about the same thing. So:

Examiner: So, you were talking about "load sharing" earlier - don't you think that co-workers will naturally adjust the distribution of the work?

You: So you're asking about the way that the programmers will manage server demand?

Examiner: No, sorry, to clarify, I'm asking about HR management structure.

My example is sort of weak, but in listening to a lot of great appellate and Supreme Court oral argument, you see attorneys do this to make sure that they are understanding the question and answering what was asked. It also gives you the chance to reframe and limit the question a little.
posted by mercredi at 10:29 AM on May 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'll let you in on a little secret about thesis defenses: every single person going into the room (aside from any passive audience you might have) is nervous and worried that they might say something stupid. The profs aren't sitting back and thinking "ha ha, just how much torture will we subject hollypolly to, do you think?"--they're worried that they're going to ask questions that sound dumb to you and to their colleagues in the room; they're worried that you might freeze up and they'll have to find a way to keep the conversation going; they're worried that you might expose some inadequacy in their mastery of their field or in how closely they read your thesis etc. etc.

The thing is, everyone wants the same thing. They want a nice, stimulating discussion of a topic about which you currently know more than pretty much anyone else in the world. All of which is to say that you're fixating on the wrong thing here. Worrying about finding special phrases and formulae to introduce your comments is like worrying--when you're learning a new language--about whether or not you're going to get the pluperfect subjunctive dead right when you go out and order milk at the local supermarket. It's the kind of thing that actually shuts you down rather than getting any natural discussion flowing.

All the examples you give above of "bad" ways of framing questions are actually perfectly fine. "That's a great question..." may be hackneyed, but I've heard the most brilliant, engaging, superstar academics use it over and over and over again. "You know, I really don't have an answer to that question other than saying that's something I'm going to have to do more research on as I go about working on transforming this project into a book" is also absolutely fine. No one, at all, is going to give a damn that you're being plain and to the point. What they want is simply for the conversation to keep moving. Don't worry about "did I introduce this point elegantly" or "did I find a novel way of saying 'that's a great question...' instead, concentrate on identifying what in any of the questions you're asked engages most interestingly with what you understand to be the real beating heart of your thesis and speak--as fully and as engagedly as possible--to how your thesis addresses, complicates, enriches, or just plain answers that question. The person who asks the question wants, above all, for the question to be productive. You're flattering them and making them feel like they have their finger nicely on the pulse of your work and your shared field if the question they ask generates an enthusiastic and engaged response. They're not looking (except in very specific cases) for right/wrong "here is the information you asked for" answers.

This is equally true, by the way, of questions of the "OMG, I really never thought about that" type. Let's say someone asks you a "but what if I rephrase your project in the theoretical language of the obscure philosopher/theorist I happen to be preoccupied with" question (always a Humanities classic), and you've never really read or been interested in that obscure philosopher/theorist. Well, don't worry. It's fine to say: "well, I've never really mastered OP/T, though it's clear from your question that I'm going to have to think more about some of the ways his work could illuminate mine but if I understand the implications of your question the aspect of my argument that you're wondering about is how I frame the problem of X in relation to Y..." and then you're off to the races, talking about the thing you know about. The person who asked the question feels good ("whew, I didn't bring the whole thing to a crashing halt by asking a question that was obviously irrelevant"), the other Profs feel good ("yay, it's all moving along smoothly, we don't have the awkwardness of trying to sift out exactly what OP/T was getting at and then translate all that into the terms of hollypolly's argument") and you feel good ("I'm talking about my work and demonstrating my mastery of my topic.")

I think the major point is to remember that you should be trying to set them rather than worrying about managing your own anxiety. You've been spending years, now, researching, thinking and writing about your thesis. You're ready for anything they're going to throw at you, and if they throw anything at you you're not ready for it's almost certainly not very relevant. If you start talking with passion about your topic you're going to be fine and everyone will have a great time.
posted by yoink at 10:34 AM on May 27, 2014 [35 favorites]

(Basically seconding everything yoink said.)

Before my recent humanities thesis defense, I got really nervous thinking that I needed to, in addition to rereading all of my stuff, read all the other different theories ever and be an expert in them in case someone asked about them. It was liberating when a friend reminded me that I didn't actually need to do that. If someone poses a question like, "Why didn't you use X?", you can give some version of, "While X is valuable to our field, for the present study Y was more useful to me" and go on to explain why. You don't need to rehash the "as I wrote, blah blah blah", but you can subtly steer it back into your expertise while acknowledging their point without saying, "I didn't write about X. I wrote about Y." You chose the theory/methods/whatever else for a reason, so don't be afraid to explain why.
posted by pitrified at 10:48 AM on May 27, 2014

If you can't fit in "that's outside the scope of this piece of work" somewhere in your viva you aren't trying. Remember you are not there to be the fount of all knowledge, just the fount of knowledge on the specific thing you have been studying.

Are you doing a practice viva? If you can arrange one in time then they can be quite useful.

-I’m not sure I’ll be able to answer their question, but I’ll give it a “go”… as in I’ll speculate based upon what I know.

See scope above, its also fine to say, 'I hadn't considered that from that exact perspective' or something along those lines, plus bring it back around to whatever you want to say, at this stage you will know more about your niche so you can bore on for a bit.

-Any other ways of saying “that’s a great question”?

You are now overthinking it. You don't need to have alternatives for this but can always chuck in stuff like 'I think that is a very important point' 'It was really important for me to consider...' 'I'm glad you asked that, because...'.
posted by biffa at 10:51 AM on May 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

In general, you can't go wrong with rephrasing and relaying parts of the question back in your answer. Makes it sound as though they're not asking anything you haven't thought of 100 times before, reassures them that they've been heard, and incidentally offers the opportunity for them to clarify if you've misunderstood the drift.

Also, if their question contains anything you agree with, then feel free to start with an expression of excited approval-- "Yes, I think that's spot-on, and...", or "I think that's exactly right, it's so important to consider..." You're the expert here, so you're entitled to be the one who pronounces on the correctness of what's being said. And every academic, somewhere deep down, kind of still likes to feel that their question just got an A.

-I genuinely don’t have an answer to their question other than it will require further research, and I thank them for pointing this out.

"So you're referring to X, right? I know, that is such a fascinating area of inquiry. I think it has major bearing on Y and Z parts of the research, and I'm still working on getting a sense of what's out there-- so thanks for affirming that that's a direction I should be looking in as I move forward with the project."

-I’m not sure I’ll be able to answer their question, but I’ll give it a “go”… as in I’ll speculate based upon what I know.

"So you mean X?... So interesting! And I'm not sure I can give an answer with complete certainty, but if I had to speculate [/be reductive about it/venture a guess/etc.], I'd suggest that possibly Y.... That leaves out [Z critique], of course, but it does account for A."

-What do you say when a question pops up that blows you completely sideways? As in, they propose a new way of looking at things that you hadn’t considered before?

It's OK to take a couple of seconds to think about this-- carefully write their idea down on a pad to buy yourself time and preserve it for ready reference. And then, I'd say think on your feet to try to triangulate it with everything else you and other people have said, lit-review style. You don't have to accept their redefinition of the topic, but think out the implications and talk through some pros/ cons/ consequences. Something like:
"... Wow, that is a fascinating way of looking at it, and honestly, it's not one I've seen people take in the literature. If one were going to approach the question that way, it would certainly mean [implication]. Although I would question whether [critique]. But yeah, very cool; it's a reframing I'm going to want to think more about as I move forward with this."

-I disagree with what they have said, or they seem to have read me wrong. I want to argue with their point and say: “actually, what I wrote was…”

"I think absolutely, it's really tempting to look at it as though X. But actually, what I believe I was trying to argue was that Y-- so, [detail specifics of the discrepancy]."

-One of my examiners is all over my thesis! What is a way of saying that I owe so much to his work? In my thesis I have written “indebted”… is there another way of framing this?

"This research builds on so much excellent groundwork laid by Advisor..."

-If a critique comes up that I agree with, I want to be able to say “yes, you’re absolutely right, I’ve been mistaken”, is there a better way of phrasing this?

"I would concur, and I think that is so helpful-- I'd been struggling with [research knot], but moving more in the direction of X/ paying more attention to Y would be a really useful way to deal with that problem, I think." And YMMV, but I might try getting into a bit of a dialogue here-- "So you think that Z's work would be a good model for that?" or "So you think B measure would be adequate to deal with that problem?" And so forth.
posted by Bardolph at 10:53 AM on May 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

Something that helped me with qualifying exams (and this may be different because I was in the sciences and you're in humanities) was making the question and answer section into a conversation.

When I had hard questions, I tried to answer them and then asked the person asking the question for insights. As I was in a room with people who were experts in the subject I was talking on, who better than them to have a great discussion about the topic at hand? Obviously you should know your area well, but there are always going to be things that you don't know - admitting this and either moving on to something else or asking the interrogator to provide more detail is okay (at least it is in my experience).

In this situation, someone coming up with an idea that completely changes how you think about things is the opening for a conversation - and one that you're excited to have because that's a totally cool idea that the person just shared with you. Show your excitement for cool ideas!

Good luck and I hope your viva goes well.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:43 PM on May 27, 2014

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