Thesis defense tips
December 14, 2005 11:15 AM   Subscribe

I am defending my MA Thesis (finally!) this afternoon. I would like advice from those who have gone through this, specifically on things I shouldn't do.
posted by Quartermass to Education (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Congratulations Quartermass! Could you tell us a bit more about the set-up of the defense? Are you making a formal presentation or is it just a Q&A session? Who will be in the audience - your committee only or open to the the public? Etc.
posted by googly at 11:23 AM on December 14, 2005

Don't set up cookies, drinks, etc. for the professors. IAAP, and it gives me the willies when people earning a small fraction of what I do do that (in part because I remember my poor student days).

Unless, of course, it's the done thing in your department. I'm just hoping not.

Don't go too long, don't start with a joke, don't be self-deprecating, the usual...
posted by Aknaton at 11:35 AM on December 14, 2005

You brat! You were supposed to tell me so that I could attend. Well, good luck on it.
posted by arcticwoman at 11:36 AM on December 14, 2005

Maybe you shouldn't waste time reading this, or, alternately, maybe you should. Good luck!
posted by kimota at 11:40 AM on December 14, 2005

(That was meant to calm you down, not to be a smartass answer.)
posted by kimota at 11:41 AM on December 14, 2005

Congrats! I did this about a year and a half ago. It is probably too late for me to tell you to practice it in front of an audience at least twice beforehand. In any case, I would also advise taking a few deep breaths and pausing in between slides or important points. You can actually pause for quite a long time, as it gives everyone some time to think about what you're saying, and it gives you some time to relax as well. As far as answering questions goes, for me it was important to clarify what the audience was asking. Otherwise, I'd just start answering a bunch of things and get totally confused and lose my train of thought. Good luck! You'll do fine!
posted by unknowncommand at 11:42 AM on December 14, 2005

I defended in May. Dress comfortably, if possible. If your commitee is like mine, they've seen several drafts of your paper already. So, don't get into the weeds on every little detail. Be concise as possible. Have a plan for afterwards, whether it's boozing it up, a nice dinner, or whatever.
posted by cog_nate at 11:46 AM on December 14, 2005

May seem self evident, but act like you are interested in your own work, make good use of inflection, make eye contact, it helps.
posted by stormygrey at 12:00 PM on December 14, 2005

Lessons I learned from my MS defense -
Don't go on too long and talk to your advisor ahead of time about how to handle questions you don't know the answer to!
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 12:07 PM on December 14, 2005

Bring a camera and get some photos after it's all done. I'm sure you'll pass and it'll be nice in 20 years to look back at them. And don't not go out for a really great dinner afterwards.
posted by shoos at 12:14 PM on December 14, 2005

Don't worry too much about it. It's the only chance you'll have to discuss your work intelligently with people who have actually read it. You will enjoy this.

If they know their jobs, they should ask you questions they don't expect you to know the answer to. Don't panic because you don't have the answer! These are the most interesting questions, and now you have the opportunity to discuss how you would go about determining the answer, or speculate wildly, or whatever. Admit what you don't know, and then have an opinion on the matter.

Finally, listen to the whole question before beginning to answer it. Some questions will be very simple, and you don't want to find yourself answering a different question you've made up yourself instead.
posted by nowonmai at 12:21 PM on December 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

Mine went pretty well and I only remember a few things:

1. My university needed three final copies of my thesis, so I brought three copies of the signature page to my talk (on my advisor's recommendation). I hadn't finished my last draft (it took about two weeks more to finalize and turn in) but they liked my talk and drafts sufficiently to sign off on the project a little early. That meant all I had to do was finish the thesis and turn it in. No scrambling for their signatures at the last moment, when they were likely off on vacations and sabbaticals. You got several busy people to show up at one time at one place for your defense, might as well get the signatures before they scatter.

2. I was very accomodating to questions afterwards. Don't be defensive even though it's a defense. Answer their questions fully and to the best of your ability, but admit when they might be right and you might be wrong or if you forgot anything in your analysis. I thought the after-talk grilling by my advisors was long, but I learned later that it often goes 3-4x longer when students sort of argue away any criticism and be difficult.

3. Take everything off your plate for a day or two. I was totally and completely spent after my defense, mentally and physically. All those years of work and build-up and all that concentration for a couple hours took it out of me. Hopefully you have nothing more on your dance card for today aside from vegging out in front of the couch for a few hours and drinking yourself into a stupor tonight.
posted by mathowie at 12:31 PM on December 14, 2005

Don't over-answer and don't steer the answer toward territory you don't know anything about.

If they bring up something as a limitation, acknowledge it as one (and if it's not listed as a limitation in the Thesis, they'll expect you to add it in afterward) instead of trying to defend it.

Good luck!
posted by starman at 12:37 PM on December 14, 2005

I have a question about defending an MA thesis as well. Of the 5 sitting members of my defense, only three speak fluently the language in which I'm writing my thesis (German). The other two can read it and are there repesenting sociological/historical aspects covered in it. Is the defense held in German or English? My advisor has no idea, but suggested English.
posted by vkxmai at 1:19 PM on December 14, 2005

I thought you were going to let us read it.

In any case, I would also advise taking a few deep breaths and pausing in between slides or important points. You can actually pause for quite a long time, as it gives everyone some time to think about what you're saying, and it gives you some time to relax as well.

The best way to force yourself to do this (pause) is to use your water. When you get to an important point, take a minute to drink a sip of your water while people take it in. Not too much, of course. You don't want to be...umm..hurried.. during the question period.
posted by duck at 1:22 PM on December 14, 2005

good luck. if it's not already happened, it may help to know that the outcome is already more or less clear to everyone else involved. assuming the work is ok, and there's no nasty politics anywhere, you just have to keep breathing.
posted by andrew cooke at 3:15 PM on December 14, 2005

Hope it went well - I won't relate my experience because it looks like it's too late now, but I hope you'll report back about the experience!
posted by mikel at 3:19 PM on December 14, 2005

Response by poster: I passed! What a whirlwind. Sorry googly, I didn't even see your response until I read this again now. Thanks for everyone who responded, as it helped me keep my composure and helped the whole thing to run smoothly (even though there were a few roadblocks that I came accross).

For the record:
It was a closed session, with a short presentation, and then three rounds of questions (from four committe members). My external (Keith Hampton, brilliant guy) participated through video conferencing (which worked nicely).

The biggest thing for me was how unprepared I felt for questions that I didn't know the answer to, but the advice to be ok with my limitations (and the things I completely missed out on) helped me keep my cool. I gained more confidence as it went on, as I guess I remembered that I wrote the thesis the way I did for a reason.

Overall, I am really happy to be done, and I expect to post it to MetaTalk in the next couple of days (after I take some time off to recouperate, and then I can re-defend it to the community!).
posted by Quartermass at 11:01 PM on December 14, 2005

Response by poster: (oh, in case it wasn't clear, the reason why I would post it to MetaTalk is because my thesis is about the Metafilter community, and the torrid love affair I had with it in 2002).
posted by Quartermass at 11:03 PM on December 14, 2005

Applause for Quartermass!!! Hope you enjoy your down time and I look forward to reading your thesis upon your return.
posted by Lynsey at 4:13 PM on December 15, 2005

Congrats, Quartermass. Now onto the Ph.D. about #Mefi?
posted by Rumple at 7:35 PM on December 15, 2005

posted by arcticwoman at 8:43 PM on December 16, 2005

Post it to Metatalk, damn you!
posted by geoff. at 9:40 PM on December 17, 2005

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