The best defense is not to defend? Chuck Norris, you're no help here.
April 17, 2006 8:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm defending my M.A. thesis on Thursday. Any pointers?

So, I'm defending my M.A. thesis on Thursday, and I am having trouble figuring out what I can do to be better prepared. Though technically I'll be getting my degree in inter-disciplinary studies (English and History), it is largely a literary project, reading a group of texts historically (sort of-- I don't want to duplicate the thesis here, as I am just looking for general advice).

I'm trying to prepare for this, but I am not sure what I can do. I've talked with my supervisor and committee members, and they seem to think that it is no big deal, and I think they're right--their policy has been, basically, that if you're not ready for it, you don't get to defend. And, after all, I'll be the only one in the room who has the level of expertise I do with the particular texts I am studying. But what worries me are the x-factors, such as the external examiner, and the curveballs I may be thrown in questioning.

I have to do a twenty minute presentation, and I think I have that well in hand, but is there anything else I can do? I mean, I've been working at this in one form or another for two years, and I know my own work pretty well. What else do I need to do aside from going in there with my head held high?
posted by synecdoche to Education (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Relax. Get a good night's sleep. You are correct in that you wouldn't be allowed to defend if you weren't ready. You'll do fine. Nobody's out to sandbag you. Been there, done that.

Mazel tov on completing your degree. :) That's a fine accomplishment.
posted by bim at 8:56 PM on April 17, 2006

Agreed. They shouldn't even let you defend if they have any inkling you'd fail. I have an MA in English (creative writing) so my thesis wasn't research-based. They really don't try to stump you... my defense lasted about an hour. I don't remember a damned thing I said, just opened my mouth and started yammering. It flew by and voila, I had a Masters!
posted by miltoncat at 9:10 PM on April 17, 2006

Dude, if you're not ready now, there is nothing you can do in the next three days that will make you more ready by then. Like bim said, just relax and try to get a good night's sleep. Do something the night before to keep your mind off of it. The standard recommendation in my department is to bake cookies the night before. Like 5 dozen cookies. Seriously.
posted by number9dream at 9:24 PM on April 17, 2006

You will be fine. About half way through my M.A. defense I suddenly realized that I really did know what the hell I was talking about. It was the single most unsettling thing about the entire defense.

But to assuage your fears a bit (and, you know, give you more than an anecdote in response to your question); it has been my experience sitting in on quit a few M.A. and Ph.D. defenses that the external examiner is mostly there as a favor to your department (a bit of quid pro quo for your professor's sitting in on students from his department). He will ask you a couple of general questions (because he is probably the least knowledgeable person in that room and so has little command of the subtle points of your analysis) and perhaps a question or two on methodology. That's about it. It is in nobody's best interest for an external member to start grilling the defendant.

Congrats, btw.
posted by oddman at 10:08 PM on April 17, 2006

Best answer: I was on the examining committee of an MA defence last week, have one tomorrow, one on Friday, and one a week today. So your committee members are probably not thinking of you as much as you are of them!

The standard advice I give to my students is:

- give a great presentation. It's the only part of the process you control. If you give a good presentation, I mean, really good, then you set the tone for the whole exam. Stick to your time limit carefully. Review only the highlights of your thesis and review what would come next for you or another researcher. This contextualizes your work nicely. Everyone who counts has read your thesis carefully (really!) and so its not like a conference presentation, it is more like a review of the goodies.

- the committee has a job to do - their instructions usually include (a) don't examine the student at tedious or un-necessary length, but, (b) do examine the student enough to allow the student to demonstrate their mastery of their subject. So consider tough questions as an opportunity.

- if you don't know something, admit it.

- just because you get asked something it doesn't mean there is a problem with that part of your thesis, it may be the examiner wants to consider other, equally valid (or not) points of view. So don't sweat it too much if you get an odd or weird question you can't answer.

- yes, it is true you generally won't be allowed to defend if your thesis isn't in order. The external can be a wildcard, but good supervisors will pick one who at least isn't biased against your kind of work. So don't be nervous.

- half of the questions will be motivated more by the faculty showing off to each other than by the "need to know"

- if you don't understand a question or can't answer, then ask them to rephrase the question. half the time you will get the answer that way, if not, then at least it buys you time to think.

- expect some revisions. Everyone gets them, pretty much. Make sure you leave the room with a clear idea of what the revisions are -- a checklist, not some vague "rewrite this bit" baloney. If the examiner can't articulate what they want they shouldn't ask for it

- Without being obnoxious, don't be afraid to be a little feisty and stick up for your opinions, or argue your corner.

- the chair is a neutral participant who represents the Dean of Graduate Studies and is charged with ensuring a fair meeting is conducted, according to the rules. Essentially, they are on your side and should protect you from unreasonable questioning practices.
posted by Rumple at 10:20 PM on April 17, 2006 [3 favorites]

There is also this thread.
posted by advil at 10:35 PM on April 17, 2006

i had one guy who liked to challenge students--sort of play devil's advocate, to see if the student could defend their work if it is challenged. i agree with rumple: "without being obnoxious, don't be afraid to be a little feisty and stick up for your opinions." if you do get challenged, it's probably not that they question the value of your work, but that they want to see if you can defend it.

another thing is that before the door closed, everyone was real friendly and jokey, but once it closed and we started, they became very . . . i don't know, to me it felt cold. . . the tone changed a lot. everyone was very serious and sort of "blank slate," not showing their reactions much to what i was saying. if you're used to lots of nods and smiles during a presentation or q & a, be prepared that you might not get them and don't let it throw you.

seems to me that none of this stuff was personal. the committee just wanted to see me at my most professional, which by then was a role i could easily assume.

best of luck! you'll do fine :) stop back and let us know how it went!
posted by lisaj32 at 11:00 PM on April 17, 2006

I defended my MA in History just last week. Most of what folks have had to say is what I'd say. One thing that I did do and I felt it scored me extra points, was I made sure that I had at least a few facts, though not in my thesis, were relevant to the expertises of the professors. I.E., if my thesis was on the Japanese navy, and my professor was a Russian focus, I'd look up some information on the Russian Navy's interactions or influences on the Japanese navy.

This helped me out, as some of the questions I was asked was based more out of their expertise area versus straight out of my thesis. It took less than three hours of studying to achieve what I felt was a comfort level to respond to any possible questions.

One thing I did do, was brought in a voice recorder and recorded the proceedings. Now I've got a nifty copy of all that smart(or non-smart) sounding stuff I said.

Lastly, relax. Like everyone else has said, they're not out for blood. They might test your mastery of the subject, but thats the purpose. Just remember, on your thesis, you know more than they do.
posted by Atreides at 5:50 AM on April 18, 2006

In my program (English, M.A.), the oral exams were the hard part. There was a lengthy reading list and everything on it was fair game. The thesis defense was--though I was terrified of it--the easy part. I basically sat down and had a conversation about a bunch of books I knew very well. You may get some left-field questions, but don't let that ruffle you. Remember that you probably know more about this particular topic than anyone else in the room.

Just consider each question and give as fair and detailed an answer as possible. You've already demonstrated your writing ability. You're just there to prove that you can talk intelligently about book--and that's what good at doing anyway.
posted by wheat at 8:03 AM on April 18, 2006

Science background, but a couple of general notes.

- Speak slowly. Think about your answer before you open your mouth. Not only will you be able to present a better answer, but the examination committee may be more inclined to ask fewer questions due to time constraint (ie., if you answer all their questions too fast, they might feel that they have to "fill the time.").

- Be ready to say that you cannot answer a particular question at the current time. If possible, however, try to tell the questioner how you would go about finding the answer to the question.

- While you're proibably familiar with your supervisory committee's special interests (bone up on those), read some of the recent publications of your external examination committee members. Bone up on those areas.

- Get a good night's sleep beforehand.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 11:58 AM on April 18, 2006

My tips:

Give an AMAZING performance for your 20 min prez. They have already read your thesis, so just hit the highlights and the controversial bits. It's supposed to be 20 don't go over. If you are good at these sort of things, then its fine to be shorter. People love succinct presentations, under time.

At least once for every committee member say, "Good question, ..." or some variation (stroke their ego, they love it).

You are allowed to say "I don't know" to a tough question, but try to not to. Once in a session is fair.

Be confident, not arrogant.

Never, ever apologize, it shows weakness. Don't give them an opening. Most of them will be trying to fill time to pick you over for an hour or two. They probably only have 1 - 2 good questions.

Time is limited, if you can talk for a long time on something you know, do it. The more time you eat up, the less questions they get. But be careful not to bore them.

Remember, you are the expert on the subject. You literally just wrote the book on it. That said, be humble. A few, 'good point's' thrown around is always good.

Lastly, ask them what they think after you have answered a question -- this also eats up time, and committee members love to hear themselves talk smart.

Get wicked drunk with your friends afterwards so you can't remember the details later.
posted by maxpower at 8:58 PM on April 18, 2006

All the above advice is good, but y'know something? If you're anxious enough about it to have posted this question, you're probably anxious enough to have the rest of your prep covered too.

You'll knock 'em dead.

Post here afterwards, okay? I know I'm not the only one who wants to read the details of your triumph.
posted by MollyNYC at 7:08 AM on April 19, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice-- I'm back from the defense and it went swimmingly well. I had tried to anticipate the questions, but had them all wrong, but apparently they liked how I handled the ones I did get (I was sure, during it all, that I was rambling incoherently but my external congratulated me for doing one of the best defenses he's seen in a while). All in all, I got a "clear pass" on my transcript, though there are some minor revisions (translation: two of the people thought it was a clear pass, two wanted minor revisions, so they're giving it a clear pass so that shows up on the transcript but they still want a few things tidied up here and there).
posted by synecdoche at 5:08 PM on April 20, 2006

Great news, synecdoche! Sounds like both you and your committee did a good job! A "clear pass" is nature's way of telling you to go get a good bottle of scotch, or whatever your poison may be..... enjoy it.
posted by Rumple at 11:48 PM on April 20, 2006

posted by MollyNYC at 11:58 AM on April 21, 2006

Response by poster: And to boot, this morning I learned that I've been accepted into my first choice PhD program, with some funding as icing on the cake. It has been a good couple of days.
posted by synecdoche at 3:41 PM on April 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Wow, great news. Which Uni you going on to?
posted by Rumple at 6:53 PM on April 21, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks! I'll be off to the University of Western Ontario. Now I just have to figure out what to do with all my crap so I can get myself there with minimal fuss (I'm in BC, and am looking at going with a car full plus a bit that some relatives have offered to carry since they'll be out here anyway this summer).
posted by synecdoche at 11:52 AM on May 3, 2006

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