Help me survive my thesis defense
September 8, 2014 10:14 AM   Subscribe

Hi, AskMe. A bit more than a year after this miserable question and this happier update, I am finally defending my MA on Wednesday. While my confidence is nowhere near as shot as it was when I first asked that question, I feel like my grasp of the subject I have dedicated the last several years to is nowhere near as comprehensive as it should be. Please help me get through this without crying.

My supervisors have been so wonderful to me, and they have confidence that I can just get through this. After all, "I'm the expert". I want to trust them, but damn, they're the experts in what I have written on, and I feel like I have just been writing what they told me to for the last year, and the only reason why this got finished is because they told me exactly what to write. How am I supposed to answer their questions (and the questions of two others) when as recently as three weeks ago it was evident that I wasn't really engaging some of the core concepts correctly? Wait, don't answer that - I don't want to acknowledge that I'm feeling that way. This question is really a question about faking my expertise and confidence enough to get through this.

This morning, one of them wrote "In our grad seminar a few years ago, you would often start a very interesting comment, and then trail off, unsure of how to conclude/the validity of your point. It goes without saying that you should avoid this in the defence.". (I expanded on what went down in that class in my first link.) Psyching myself up to avoid this is my biggest hurdle over the next two days. The big question: how do I do so? The other big question: how do I ensure I don't cry? I'm even crying while writing this. Shit.

Good thing: my last few meetings with them have gone okay. I have been told to treat this like a really long meeting, with two extra people.

Any advice as to how to prepare for this is greatly appreciated.
posted by avocet to Education (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It's important to realize the defense is a formality. It's often the case that you aren't even allowed to defend a thesis until the entire committee has already approved the thesis. Even if that's not the case at your institution, you will not have a defense with committee members that expect you to fail. Although there are always exceptions, examiners are, surprisingly enough, there to support you rather than attack you. The faculty have to deal with each other all the time - if faculty members develop a habit of attacking students, they will not be particularly well-liked by their faculty colleagues. They also have no particular incentive to attack you - the only thing it can result is dealing with you for an even longer time! A thesis committee that allows a defense with any expectation other than a resounding success is highly uncommon, veering on unethical.

Do not be afraid to consider a question before answering it. Thoughtful questions should result in thoughtful answers, which you are not expected to provide off the top of your head. It is highly likely that even what you consider the longest possible pause will be immediately forgotten by the question-asker. However, your response will be remembered, even if it takes you a while to formulate it.

Do not be afraid to provide an answer after the defense. Especially thoughtful questions should result in especially thoughtful answers, which are not well-handled in a defense setting. You should make sure you prepare an overly-complete answer after the defense, but you do not need to provide it in-defense.
posted by saeculorum at 10:31 AM on September 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Practice practice practice. It's only two days but try to organize a mock defence with other grad students if you can. Also try to anticipate the likely questions you might get and practice answering. Video yourself answering and try to get a good tone and pacing.

Here's a good way to conclude an answer. 'Have I answered your question? '

Also don't bluff. Practice this as well. 'I'm not really confident about this, but if I had to take a guess, I think perhaps that...' Or -- 'I don't really know a lot about this one, to be honest, but I would guess that...'. It's totally okay if you don't know. Nobody knows everything. The search for truth that is academia is largely about recognizing the limits of ones own knowledge. The thesis defense is probing whether the work is solid but also whether you understand its limitations -- likewise it is probing whether you have a solid understanding of the field and you understand your own limitations
I know it sounds weird, but it is okay to be confident and own your own lack of confidence about certain subjects. And it is far better than bluffing and then getting caught. Again, practice.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:35 AM on September 8, 2014

Well, first off, you have good and kind supervisors, and they wouldn't have allowed you to schedule your defense if they didn't think you were ready. So that's point one. You've got this.

This is all going to be field dependent, but in my field you generally start the defense by giving a brief overview of your research. It is good to structure this opening in such a way as to naturally lead to questions about things you want to talk about and avoid those things you don't. If, say, you've struggled with methodological issues, don't highlight that in your overview.

I would make a list of questions that might come up and jot out my answers to them. You know the kinds of questions that will come up because these are likely to be the questions that have come up throughout your project--professors are generally very predictable in this respect.

I would also buy some pizza and beer and ask my friends to play the role of my committee in a practice session. Friends aren't going to have the same expertise, obviously, but it is still helpful to practice answering questions that someone may raise in response to your overview.

In most defenses I've been involved in, there has been a period of back-and-forth between members of the committee; this is perfectly fine, and can take the spotlight off you for a bit.

I know this is hard, but try and think of this as a conversation between you and your committee about a topic you all care about. While you may not feel like an expert at the moment, you are intimately involved with the literature in a way that your committee members probably are not. Given this, you are bringing something important to the discussion. Good luck!
posted by girl flaneur at 10:36 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

"I feel like my grasp of the subject I have dedicated the last several years to is nowhere near as comprehensive as it should be" - it never will be. This is not a reflection on you, this is the nature of the beast with academics. You are the expert on your work, but you might not be the expert on everything else that's related to it. That is okay. How are you supposed to be, when compared to the combined knowledge of your entire committee? I have seen job talks, where the potential hire has their phd and is giving a seminar on their work, and they still get stumped by other researchers on their own published work. And, quite frankly, this: "It goes without saying that you should avoid this in the defence" - was a bit of a jerky comment, and unhelpful at this stage.

Remember that they are the ones who said you can defend. They are vouching for your work to the university, and to your field at large. If you have already had meetings, recently, and they went fine, you will be fine.

Look for weak spots in your thesis, and be ready when they bring them up. Practice saying things like, "That is an interesting point, and would be great for further research - here's how I would do that," and "Yes, absolutely - it is beyond the scope of this project, but I should address that in the conclusion." Look at this as a way to show that you are open for improvement and that it is a dialogue between all of you to make your thesis even better.

And last, if you feel like you are getting overwhelmed, take a deep breath, and take a drink of water, and then look back at the person asking the question, and say, "That's a very good point." And then ask for elaboration, or start thinking aloud, or ask for suggestions.

You can do this.
posted by umwhat at 10:36 AM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Let me start by saying you got this. Never ever forget, you got this.

Now, a couple of things to help you get through this:

1. Remember, by and large a thesis defense is getting the horse's tail through the gate. The horse is through. What this means is -- you've got this far, this is just the end and so it's unlikely they'll fail you at this point. If they were to fail you they would have done it before.

2. It may help you with your confidence to think about all and every question that may arise with your work. Write them down, answer them in your head, keep on doing this. For my defence I wrote down and answered over 500 questions. Sure questions turned up that I had not thought about but because I had questions that were close I was able to answer them. More importantly the confidence allowed me to go through.

3. Your examination committee wants you to pass. Remember that. They're there to help you, not hinder you. They're on your side.

4. Don't fight the crying. It's perfectly reasonable to excuse yourself saying you're nervous. The committee will understand.

5. Remember one thing. They may have told you how to write it but you did the work. Nobody knows the runes of the work like you do.

6. It's perfectly reasonable to restart answering a question or retract a statement if you realise its wrong. Again, they're not there to mark you down on each mistake. They're there to make sure you did the work, understand it and can defend your position.

7. If you don't know say you don't know. Hazard a guess or offer to come back with an answer offline.

8. Try and frame this as a friendly conversation between you and them. It certainly will put you in a better frame of mind.

Finally, psyche yourself up. You got this.
posted by gadha at 10:38 AM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'll just say this: I enjoyed my defense.

And you can, too.

I didn't have the easiest time in grad school either. For example, I failed my oral qualifiers the first time around. That was a horrible, stressful experience that made me question whether I wanted to be doing what I was doing at all. My defense was a PhD defense, so I had a little more time to get my confidence back, but in the end, it was basically a party. Well, maybe not quite a "party," but it is really a celebration of your work.

The "defense" is so antagonistically named but, as others have said, if your are allowed to get to the point of defending, you are not going to fail. If you can think about it as a conversation about your work with your peers, I think that's much less stressful. That, for me, was a hugely beneficial way to think about it. It means that you're much less afraid to say stuff like, "Wow! I guess I screwed that up!" or "That's an interesting point. I'm not sure I agree, but I'll look into it more."

The first person to ask a question during my defense started the question by pointing out a mistake on page one of the document. By thinking about the defense as a conversation between peers, I was able to laugh rather than cry.

Another question was prefaced by someone asking, "I don't know if this is a fair question to ask you, but I'm going to ask it anyway." When I gave my answer and looked to the member of my committee who I thought was the WORLD EXPERT on the topic I just answered to see if I was right, he shrugged and said, "I'm not sure, but it sounds reasonable."

My point is that no one on your committee is out to get you or trip you up. They want you to succeed. And just repeat: "A conversation between peers."
posted by Betelgeuse at 10:49 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some of the answers above suggest using the word "guess" when answering a question outside your comfort zone. Instead, frame those responses as "Well, [topic] is outside of my primary area, but it seems to me that x, y and z based on a, b and c." Or: "to answer that question I would start by researching x, y and z based on a, b and c." You're not guessing: you're reasoning, which is what they want to see. They know what you know, so that type of question isn't to trip you up on facts; it's a chance to show other skills. Have fun!
posted by carmicha at 11:11 AM on September 8, 2014

When you're answering a question, always start off with a broad-brush positive answer, then qualify it. That leaves you looking confident rather than defensive, and it helps your confidence a lot. e.g. if they ask, "Is A the cause of effect B?" you say, "I believe it is, for reasons C, D, and E. However, F is a complicating factor, so it would be interesting to study to really pin this down."

By "expert on this topic," they don't really mean you know everything about it — you never can, and they don't know everything about it either. It just means that you've spent more time thinking about the topic than other people, and have encountered the literature that bumps up against it, so you have context and a particular point of view that's yours alone.

But again: I think you'll be surprised at how supportive they are and how painless the process ends up being. Mine (and everyone else I know whose advisors weren't total malicious jerks) was just a conversation about a subject, where a bunch of people got a chance to talk about something they had all studied to some extent or other, and everyone learned something by picking one another's brains. If your committee is even a little bit decent, they'll treat you like a peer having an academic discussion, not like a student under examination. And that's a nice feeling, I think you'll discover :)
posted by you're a kitty! at 11:42 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I just wanted to say that these answers are all amazing so far (and are making me cry in my office, hah...). I am going to stay quiet for now but will update you on Thursday. :)
posted by avocet at 12:19 PM on September 8, 2014

Greet everyone on the committee when you come into the room.



Chat a bit about that thing you wrote about.

Enjoy it all -- what an accomplishment!

You're done!

That's what Mrs. Rumbles just did in her PhD defense -- easy peasy!
posted by rumbles at 1:01 PM on September 8, 2014

It doesn't matter if you cry.

I was terribly nervous for my thesis defense, but it was so different from what I thought it would be. It's funny how the view of the that event changed so quickly once it was behind me. The anticipation was awful, but in retrospect it was a few hours of one afternoon of my whole life. They talked and argued with each other more than I thought they would, and they asked me more about the directions I would take my research than about the pages before them.

I also know, aside perhaps from my director, that no one read it like I did, no one looked with as much agony at every sentence. On my committee of five persons, I know now that two were bullshitters extraordinaire.

And I agree with the comments about your committee wanting you to pass. My director was powerful in our department. She would have come after the other members with a rusty rake if they had messed with me.

I did cry (a little). They probably tell other people "hey, at least you didn't cry like Feste!"
posted by feste at 1:06 PM on September 8, 2014

Also, I totally cried during my acknowledgements slide. No one seemed to mind. And especially given the stuff you've had to fight your way through, I think you've well earned some solid proud-of-yourself-and-the-people-who-supported-you crying time.

If that gives you any inkling of the tone of a defense.
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:16 PM on September 8, 2014

Reading through this thread you've had some great advice - can I just add three things that really helped me through my own PhD defence?

Firstly, make a one line per page summary of the thesis in a notebook to take in with you (assuming your regulations allow you to bring in such materials - mine did, YMMV).

Doing this will build your confidence and that of the committee too - it shows that you have prepared well, and will also give you an intermediate level of 'zoom' between the view from orbit that is your contents page and the actual terrain of the text itself - think of it as a 'treetop' view.

Summarising each page in one line makes you really think about what's the key point on each page; is it an important quote, a section that qualifies your argument or context on an important source? If you just end up with a few keywords on each line that's fine - it's really just an aide-memoir which will help you to feel confident about finding your way around your thesis on the day. I did this and it was an enormous help. It may not be for you, but it's perhaps worth considering.

Also try to make notes on those key concepts that you find problematic - try to find a way to reduce them to a simple formula that you know will lead you through the development and deployment of that concept.

Finally, the best advice I was ever given was to defend without becoming defensive. Smile, and enjoy this as much as you can - it's your day!
posted by Chairboy at 3:00 PM on September 8, 2014

One thing that I find helps in situations where I think I might get emotional is to have a very cold bottle of water with me. (Vodka might be even better,but probably to be avoided.) Then when you start to feel emotional, take a sip of the water and concentrate on the sensation of coldness in your mouth, and in your throat. Just having something concrete and physical to focus on can help, I find.
posted by lollusc at 3:06 AM on September 9, 2014

Response by poster: It went so well. So well. It was actually an enjoyable experience. Minor revisions due in three weeks. :)

Thank you all for this incredible advice – all of these replies count as best answers in my mind.
posted by avocet at 4:54 PM on September 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

Yay! I'm unsurprised, but so happy for you :)
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:00 PM on September 19, 2014

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