Defending Your Thesis
Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated August 2010
Thesis writing is one of the most important and challenging tasks you will encounter as a graduate student, and the thesis defense is the culmination of that process.
The thesis defense procedure may vary from college to college but generally you will be expected to announce your thesis defense appointment in your graduate department, and your committee is likely to meet before and after your defense. By the time you are ready to present your defense, your thesis paper should be nearly complete, and some schools may require that your thesis paper be completely finished.
During your thesis defense, you will be expected to present and defend your thesis in front of your advisor, faculty thesis committee, and other audience members - and to do so in a cohesive manner. You can expect to be asked a number of questions after your presentation, and you need to be armed with the knowledge and skill necessary to answer the questions confidently.
When preparing to defend your thesis, familiarize yourself with the guidelines and requirements your department has put into place. Speak with your advisor to be sure that you know exactly what is expected of you. Each of your committee members should have a copy of your thesis at least a couple of weeks before your defense, and your written defense should include an abstract and a summary. All your forms need to be filled out ahead of time, including any and all signatures you are required to obtain.
Speaking with people who have already defended their theses can be extremely helpful, as it can provide you with confidence as well as a stronger sense of the expectations you are facing. In addition, attending the defenses of others will afford you the opportunity to observe interactions between students and committee members, hear the types of questions you may face, and identify the characteristics of strong and weak thesis defenses; it will provide insight on what to do and what not to do.
When it comes to defending your thesis paper orally in front of your advisor and committee members, practice really can make perfect. Take any chance you can get to discuss your thesis with other people. If you can find someone to sit through a practice defense, take advantage of that. Your audience may ask some of the questions the committee is liable to ask, which can help you identify the portions of your defense that need to be honed.
At some point before you defend your thesis, you should sit down with your advisor for a strategy session. Use this time to organize and plan your defense. Pay close attention to your advisor's reactions to your thesis and heed any advice they give you - he or she has heard many defenses and knows what committees look for. Having your thesis defense structured well ahead of time will make you feel more comfortable and focused during your presentation.
Know your lines
The thesis defense is your opportunity to take the stage and to demonstrate the growth and progress you have experienced in your years as a graduate student. This is your chance to showcase your research abilities, as well as to finish your degree requirements. Defending your thesis statement can help you obtain helpful feedback and recommendations that you can incorporate into your final draft.
Make sure to get across the fundamentals while defending your thesis. First, state your thesis/research question. You need to describe the importance of your topic and detail how your research was conducted, including any methods of measurement you have used. The major findings of your thesis should be made clear, as well as how your thesis contributes to the body of knowledge in your field. Finally, you must state the conclusions and recommendations you have made based on your research.
You must expect, in some fashion, to be required to answer the crucial question "So what?" What has your research and writing accomplished, that may be of importance in your field? Professors will tell you that graduate students tend not to be bold enough, in making claims for what they have discovered or compiled, during the process of working on their thesis. If you don't express confidence about your findings in the thesis, your committee may develop their own doubts about the value of your work.
Be aware of the fact that you probably know your topic far better than most or all of the professors who form your thesis committee. You've likely been researching and contemplating your topic for well over a year, and the material will be fresher and more immediate for you than for them. If you pause to think about this, it should give you extra confidence going into the thesis defense.
At the same time, your thesis committee members will likely know your field in a much broader sense than you. They may well ask you to indicate where in the larger scheme of things, where in your field, your thesis will fit. That's where the big "So What?" question will arise during your defense. You've been warned; prepare for it.
Additionally, one question you should anticipate from your thesis committee is, "What do you plan to do with the thesis, beyond graduate school?" Do you intend to revise it for publication as a book? Do you intend to do further research on your topic once you've gotten a job coming out of grad school? Do you intend to seek grants to help you further develop your project? Do you intend to collaborate with another scholar before you offer your work to a broader audience?
When defending your thesis, you want to prove to your committee and advisor that you are capable of producing more broad-ranging, in-depth pieces of scholarly writing. With this in mind, you should look the part. You will want to wear professional attire that is comfortable - the last thing you want is to distract your audience from the masterpiece that is your thesis by tugging at clothing while you are presenting your defense or fielding questions. Nor do you want to disrupt your own ability to concentrate by squeezing into those cute shoes.
No matter how nervous you are, be sure to focus and to listen with care to the questions posed to you. Take a moment to pause before you give your answer if you need to - they are not looking for quick responses, but they are looking for solid ones. You should expect to be asked to address the more controversial aspects of your thesis. Keep in mind that you don't have to defend everything about your thesis. If you don't have an answer to a question, don't fake it or make any promises - reply that the question is interesting and that you will consider it in the future. Defending your thesis requires you to be political to a certain extent.
If you are having trouble with managing your fears while defending your thesis, you may find it helpful to use visual aids during your presentation. They can help you stay focused and confident, as well as help you pace yourself. Visual aids, if you use them, should clearly state the research problem, objectives, approaches, and the contributions of your thesis work.
You may also decide to videotape or audiotape your defense, as it can help you keep track of the reactions, suggestions, and criticisms that you receive. Often your thesis committee members will offer tips for revision. These could be crucial as you revise your work for later publication or development. But you will be so focused on what you need to say next during your thesis defense that you will very likely not remember much of what the professors said after the fact. If you document the session, you will later be able to retrieve and follow the expert advice your thesis committee offered during your defense.
One of the most crucial things to remember when defending your thesis is to maintain a level of passion about your research. If you are passionate about your work, your advisor and committee will take note of this, and it will underscore the importance of your thesis. After all, who isn't passionate about the concluding event of a long and difficult journey?
After you have presented your defense, you will either be told that you have passed, that your thesis needs minor revisions, that your thesis needs to be resubmitted, or that it has not been approved. The last two possibilities are rare, especially if you have followed the thesis writing process properly, and if you have stayed in meaningful contact with your advisor. If you have been diligent, there really should be few surprises.
Find out more about the Graduate Thesis | Dissertation Process
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