Often referred to as a rite of passage, the defense is a ritual that marks the transition from student to a full member of the academic tribe. The purpose of defending PhD Thesis is not made clear to students. Is it an exam, where one passes or fails, or is it a celebratory event to publicly unveil years of solitary work? Defenses cause much anxiety for students who approach them because they are unsure if they will pass and this failure will be announced publically. “Defense” is an unfortunate word to describe this event as it suggests defensiveness, which students need not feel. Wellington (2010) notes that supervisors are not helpful in preparing students for their defense, and often revert back to their own defense for advice. This article provides an inside view of the defense process to let students know what to expect to alleviate some of the stress that comes with the ritual.
Each country, university, and program lends specifics to the ritual, but most involve peer review. Once the supervisor, and in some cases the thesis committee, deems the thesis to be ready to defend, the student submits it to the school of graduate studies or the university’s thesis office. Some universities permit students to submit their thesis without their supervisor’s approval, but this is highly discouraged. TDhe supervisor has experience in this matter and probably makes this decision in the student’s best interest. In any case, the thesis is a reflection of the supervisor, the department, and the university and no supervisor wants to damage her or his reputation by sending a subpar thesis to a colleague from another department or university (Mullins & Kiley, 2002).
The defense begins with examiners reading and commenting on the thesis. For master’s students, one or two faculty members from their home department independently read the thesis and provide written comments. They may ask for minor or major revisions. Minor revisions are completed at the discretion of the supervisor, whereas major revisions usually mean the thesis will be returned to the examiners for a second reading after the student has made the required changes. Oral defenses, if required, usually involve the student meeting with their thesis committee. However, some master’s programs involve externals to the department, but usually not to the university.
Doctoral defenses in North America typically involve at least five examiners, who form the examining committee. In some cases, the committee consists of thesis committee members, the supervisor, and one or more external examiners. Some universities do not permit the supervisor to be part of the examining committee. External examiners are subject experts from other universities or other departments within the university and are expected to be at “arms length,” having neither collaborated with the supervisor or student. Usually, if there are several external examiners at least one external examiner is from the student’s university, but from outside their department. This “internal external” may have some knowledge of topic or method and serves a gate-keeping role, ensuring a consistent thesis quality across the university. Many universities in the United States do not require examiners external to the university. Supervisors and thesis committee members may suggest names of individuals to serve as examiners. In some departments, a graduate committee approves the examiners. Students have little input in these decisions, but should be part of the discussion.
What Is the “Good Enough” Thesis?
How do examiners judge theses? What criteria are important to them? While the answer differs for each examiner, most start reading in hopes the thesis will be good or at least good enough to pass. Some read the introductory chapter, and continue to read as one would read a novel. Others start by checking the references. Some are careful readers, while others read for overall impressions. Some scrutinize specific chapters more closely than others, such as the methodology or the analysis. And, I suspect, some read only the abstract. Mullins and Kiley (2002) interviewed 30 experienced thesis examiners to determine their criteria and expected level of student achievement in completed doctoral theses. A majority of those interviewed said that first impressions were important, and influenced how they judged the thesis. This impression was usually formed by the second or third chapter, and “often by the end of the literature review” (p. 377).
Examiners cited two factors as being particularly problematic: sloppiness and inconsistency. Sloppiness was defined as “typographical errors, or mistakes in calculations, referencing and footnotes” (Mullins & Kiley, 2002,378). Examiners regarded these mistakes as red flags, signaling a larger problem. Sloppiness might mean the student was in a hurry to finish the thesis and may have submitted a first draft. If the writing was careless, the examiners thought the student’s reasoning might be careless as well. Did the student take time to analyze the data, or was the thesis speculative? Would greater insights have surfaced in later drafts? Typographical errors and a lack of attention to details always detract from an otherwise good thesis and causes examiners to “flip” from positive to negative. As one examiner stated, “Once flipped (and I am aware of this happening), I am irritated and have to work very hard at overcoming this irritation and not letting it influence my view of the thesis, although this is not easy” (p. 378). Missing and incorrect citations signaled a larger problem of possible plagiarism. Locating sources after the thesis has been submitted is time consuming and can be avoided if citation is done habitually.
The second issue was that of inconsistency. Did the student actually do what he or she set out to do? Was the thesis coherent? Did the literature inform the findings? Did the student answer the research question? Some theses were the result of several years work, and early chapters may not have reflected the research. The findings might have suggested different literature than what was provided in the literature review. The writing style may have been inconsistent. These problems occur when students write early chapters but do not revisit them before submitting. Students who write theses with their publications should take care to bring the publications into a cohesive document. The publications must be linked theoretically and together demonstrate a substantial contribution to knowledge.
Good theses, on the other hand, were coherent, and had a well structured argument. Reflection was also mentioned as a characteristic of a good thesis. An outstanding thesis was described as “artful,” both exciting and sparkling. However, it is helpful to remember as one examiner noted, “A Ph.D. is three years of solid work, not a Nobel Prize” (Mullin & Kiley, 2002, p. 369).
The examiners are given a specific amount of time, usually between six and eight weeks, to read the thesis and submit a written report. Some universities allow students or supervisors access to the report but others do not. If a majority of the examining committee agrees the thesis is of a sufficient quality to defend, then an oral examination will take place. If the examining committee finds significant gaps, or believe the thesis to be poorly written, the oral examination can be cancelled. The student must make all corrections and resubmit the thesis to the supervisor, who restarts the process.
What Does an Oral Examination Entail?
Oral examinations are the norm in North America. Only a few Australian universities hold oral examinations, and only at the request of one of the examiners. In the UK, the term “viva” is used rather than “defense”. Defenses differ from university to university, and from program to program. For some, they are public performances, with the academic community and friends in attendance. Others are private affairs, including only a student audience, or only the student and the examining committee.
If the university permits it, the best way to prepare is to attend as many others as is possible, starting in the first year of study. If students attend only one, they may think it to be typical, when it was not. They will be either too casual or too worried. Defenses can be lively affairs, well attended by family and friends offering support to the student. Or, they can involve the student sitting alone at one side of long table, facing five stern looking examiners. Students can take careful note how other students present their research and what kinds of questions are asked.
Usually, a doctoral defense has two components: a timed presentation by the student and a question period. Students should prepare for the defense presentation as they would an important conference presentation. It should be rehearsed and take the time allotted, not more and not less. This is usually around 30 minutes. Very short presentations diminish the contribution of the research, while those that drag on indicate the student is not able to reflect on the over all research process. These students walk the audience though every detail of the thesis but miss the major contributions. In some cases, the chair of the examination will stop the overtime presentation before the student gets to the conclusion.
The presentation is intended to demonstrate public speaking skills and ensure the examiners that the student did the work. Students who cannot explain their analysis will face tough questions later. Technology allows for a wider number of examiners and increasingly, external examiners attend the oral defense remotely. Students with examiners attending remotely should prepare the presentation and send it to the examiners in advance of the defense. When presenting, students should periodically check that the examiner is on the same slide or page.
Very early in the presentation, students should clearly state the thesis’s original contribution to knowledge and highlight the contributions the thesis makes to the field. This statement must be balanced in telling what the thesis does but without overstating the contribution.
Immediately after presentation concludes, committee members launch into their questions. The question period can take many forms. They can follow a round table format, starting with the external examiner, and giving the last question to the supervisor, if they permitted to attend. Or, they can be open discussions with dialogue, or fights, between members of the examining committee. It is important to remember that the questions are on one hand directed to the student, but are also a display of the examiners’ competence for their colleagues. Their questions are in many ways intended to make them look good in front of their peers. No examiner wants to ask a stupid or obvious question.
Oral defenses are performances and students may encounter people playing various roles. Some appear to use the defense to impress the examining panel, and anyone who attends, with their own knowledge. The rambling examiner goes on and on, but never asks a question. He or she is thinking aloud, or musing from topic to topic, and arrives, after a long aside, at a comment that resembles a question. This is rarely in the form of a question, but a request to “elaborate on.” The forensic investigator is the opposite of the rambler. He or she asks specific questions about passages or even words. They often preface their question with, “On page 243, paragraph two, you use the word…” They have usually prepared twenty or thirty questions prior to the defense.
Examiners external to the department often attempt to make links with the student’s thesis and their own research, regardless of how removed it is. Recently, a student, defending a thesis about Byzantine icons, was asked to make a connection with puppetry. Fortunately, this student knew his subject well and managed to answer the question. And, of course, there are examiners who, frankly, did not read the thesis. Invariably, they ask a question to which the student devoted two chapters.
Wellington (2010) and Chen (2011) posit that the majority of questions can be predicted. They usually pertain to motivation, researcher position, theory, the literature review, methodology, and generalizability, or applicability. They identify over fifty questions routinely asked at defenses. These questions are useful for mock defenses. A general question, for example, might ask how the student arrived at the thesis topic. Examples of analysis questions are, “Why did you analyze the data in this way? What would be some alternative ways?” (p. 103). The defending student should be able to identify his or her coding system and describe the audit trail. Chen (2011) recommends that students conduct a background check on examiners’ research. Their research holds clues as to the subject, theories, and methodology questions they may ask.
When addressing questions, students should strive to make examiners feel good about their question. Taking a moment to reflect before answering does this. Some respond immediately with the phrase, “Good question.” However, students should follow by explaining why this is the case. Students are anxious to answer the question, and have the tendency to interrupt the rambler to address the first thing than resembles a question. However, the examiner is only taking a breath and more is to follow. Students should wait until the examiner settles back in his or her chair and then attempt to compose a question. It is acceptable to ask for clarification about a question before answering. Students should also keep notes, writing each question. No matter what is asked, students should never argue with the examiner or attempt to correct the examiner’s (mis)understanding. However, some examiners enjoy playing the devil’s advocate and students should defend their work.
After at least two rounds of questions, the chair will confirm that everyone is satisfied and no more questions will be asked. The chair either asks visitors and the student to leave the room, or the committee leaves to deliberate. A vote is taken as to whether or not the thesis has passed, and if any revisions are required. Generally, the decision is taken by a majority vote, but not all members of the examining committee have the same impact on the decision. More importance is given to examiners external to the university. However, any problems should have been indicated in the external’s report prior to the defense. Additionally, a vote is taken to determine if the student passed the oral defense.
The thesis can be accepted “as is,” or with minor revisions. Some universities regard the need for major revisions as not passing while other consider it to be accepted, conditionally. Major revisions will mean the supervisor must prove to the committee that the changes have been met. Sometimes, the examining committee must read the thesis a second time. The thought of having to read a thesis a second time prevents many theses from being judged in this category.
Students want to do more than pass their defense. They want to feel challenged and confident they met the challenge. They want to know experts in their field engaged with their work. Most students pass their exams, but not everyone recalls their defense as a positive experience. Using a sports metaphor, the best defense is a good offense, which means submitting a carefully researched and well-written thesis, and making an organized presentation.
After the defense, many students experience a well-deserved sense of elation and accomplishment. Others, however, may be surprised to discover they feel sad. Their experience may be similar to a post-partum depression. For others, the experience is like the break-up of a close relationship. Many, who have been students for a greater portion of their adult life, experience a loss of identity. Additionally, some may feel a loss of purpose. Those who dreamed of the day they had no thesis to write now find a void. There may be a sense of “so what” or “now what?”
It is important to recognize that these feelings are a normal part of the journey, and that they will pass. Writing and defending a thesis is life transforming and it takes time to forge a new identity and set new goals. Be confident that the skills needed to research and write a thesis transfer to all aspects of life. The passion and curiosity that led to pursuing a graduate degree will return. Congratulations on achieving this milestone.
Blair, L. (2016). Writing a Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation. Springer.