Undoubtedly, a thesis defense can sound very intimidating. Even the name itself sounds rather formal! Furthermore, it marks the end of a student’s studies and is often represented as a culmination of their coursework and research.
Specifically, after students submit their thesis, they will be required to defend their project in front of a thesis committee. Think of it as a presentation followed by a question-and-answer session.
Although a thesis defense can sound daunting, as long as you have prepared well and have equipped yourself with the appropriate tools, you are well on your way to acing it!
What to Expect During a Thesis Defense
First thing’s first: it is crucial to understand what constitutes a thesis defense.
Whether it is in the capacity of a student still working toward their degree, or simply someone who is interested in applying for one and has done their research — the thesis defense is a key milestone of most university programs, especially graduate programs. Some undergraduate programs also require that their students undertake a thesis defense as well, though this is less common compared to graduate programs. This process is also sometimes referred to as an “oral thesis defense”, but the two refer to the same thing.
In essence, although the exact details might vary depending on what school you are attending or what country you are from, a thesis defense involves you presenting and defending your thesis in front of a selected panel of anywhere from two to five (or even more!) faculty members.
Your oral presentation is just as it sounds — a straightforward introduction and explanation of your thesis, oftentimes accompanied by Powerpoint slides. This typically involves covering the different sections you already have in your thesis itself, such as the literature review, methodology, an overview of the findings, and so on, which makes your contents page a useful guide for outlining your presentation.
After your presentation, you are expected to answer questions from committee members. The process is similar to a job interview and is designed to make sure that you, the student, understand their project thoroughly and are well-versed in their field of study. This means that the committee’s questions are usually not set in stone — they are very much dependent on your presentation’s contents.
Oftentimes, the questions asked by the committee are open-ended and geared toward having you reflect on your research project.
You might be asked about what are the limitations you faced, why you chose your topic and/or methodology, how your study’s findings contribute to the field, and so on.
The whole process usually takes anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours, depending on several factors such as your degree, how many questions are asked, and so on. (A general rule of thumb: the more advanced your degree is, the longer your defense will be.)
Tip 1: Understand the Format and Flow
As mentioned above, the structure of a thesis defense can vary from country to country, and even from school to school. Make sure to read through all the relevant documents provided by your school first, so that you are familiar with the logistics of the thesis defense itself. This can prove to be especially useful if you are an overseas student.
Some things to take note of: the time, day, and location of your thesis, how much time you are allotted, what faculty will be present, and so on.
Also note that while some schools or departments may indicate the proportion of time allocated for the presentation and the question-and-answer, others may not. In the case of the latter, you might have to portion out the time yourself by timing your own presentation accurately.
Once you have the format down pat, it is time to go through the flow of the thesis defense itself.
In a nutshell, this refers to visualizing what the actual day itself might look like. An example of a flow may look like this: arrive at 10 am – present at 10.15 am – presentation for 40 minutes – question-and-answer for 15 minutes.
For some, visualizing the process in their heads can be useful. Think of it as a trial run in which you go through the stressful day first, before having to actually experience it. And for those whose schools allow them to do so, it can be incredibly helpful to sit in on another candidate’s thesis defense, so that you know exactly what the process might look like.
Tip 2: Plan Ahead for Questions.
As with most presentations that involve some sort of back-and-forth interaction, it is absolutely crucial to anticipate what questions might be thrown out. This not only helps you respond to questions more smoothly (and with less awkwardness), it also helps to calm the nerves, with the preparation acting as a security blanket of sorts. A plus point: if you managed to sit in on another candidate’s defense, you can more or less gauge what kind of questions the faculty might ask, especially if some faculty members also sit on your panel.
Begin by searching for common questions asked at a thesis defense. Some of these apply across the board, regardless of discipline, for example:
- Why did you choose this research topic?
- How did you decide on this methodology? Why not choose another technique?
- Present your main argument in a single sentence.
- How does your work contribute to the knowledge in your field of study?
- What would you do differently, if you had the chance?
- Do you have any further plans for future research? If so, what are they?
Take note that at this point, the committee would not only have read your paper but also watched your presentation. This means that they are far more likely to ask questions that you did not cover in your thesis and the defense.
If you already know who is on your thesis committee, look up their areas of expertise; they may ask questions related to their field, even if it may not be immediately relevant to yours.
Another good way of brainstorming for questions is by asking your friends to first read your thesis — which may admittedly be tough if they, too, are preparing for defense — and then generating questions. This is especially useful if they are from the same department, as they would be coming at your thesis from a similar perspective as the committee.
When preparing potential answers to the questions, take note that there is no need to script everything down to every word. Having the main points that you’d like to bring up is more than sufficient. It may be difficult to anticipate exactly what the faculty might ask, and you might end up force-fitting your prepared answers, resulting in a response that does not address their question. If you are too strict, you might end up putting unnecessary pressure on yourself, which then goes on to hurt your thesis defense.
Tip 3: Rehearse Your Presentation.
After you have prepared your slides, it might be useful to do up a script, depending on what kind of presenter you are. For some, having a script that they follow word-by-word is the best option. Others might be more comfortable memorizing the main points for each slide and then improvising the exact phrasing on the spot.
Regardless of what kind of public speaker you are, it is definitely good to keep in mind what ideas and points you want to touch on for each slide. Use your slides as visual cues to guide you on the content for each portion of your presentation.
When practicing your presentation, keep track of the amount of time you take. Make sure that you do not go over the allotted duration, and that you leave enough room for the question-and-answer session.
Start by rehearsing on your own. Once you’re comfortable with your slides and script, it will be very useful to rehearse with an audience and set up a “mock defense scenario”, in which your friends represent the committee.
This can help ease any stage fright that often comes with public speaking. Furthermore, it gives you a chance to get feedback about your presentation — for example, are you speaking too fast, or are the slides to messy? Your audience should also ask you appropriate and relevant questions, so that you become more accustomed to responding calmly and eloquently.
Tip 4: Know Your Thesis Inside-Out.
This goes without saying. Before your presentation, one good trick is to re-read your thesis. Highlight any points that stand out to you, or areas that you anticipate the committee might take issue with. You can even note down any questions that you might have for the committee and take the defense as a chance for feedback.
When prompted, you should be able to state your thesis statement, research question, and hypothesis without hesitation. Other critical segments of your thesis should also be treated this way: methodology, findings, discussion, and so on. These are all important things that are likely to come up during the question-and-answer session. Think of it as adding an extra layer of security, just in case unexpected questions surface.
Tip 5: Prepare Your “I Don’t Know” Answer
Inevitably, it can be very difficult to put aside a scenario whereby you are unable to answer a question asked by your committee member. This is perhaps one of the most stressful parts of a thesis defense, and understandably so. No matter how much you prepare for your defense, you cannot actually plan ahead for every little thing.
However, most faculty members know this as well, and they are fully aware of the amount of stress and anxiety that you are facing when presenting and defending your thesis. Oftentimes, the committee may ask a question simply because they are curious, and not because they expect you to have a well-thought-out answer. No one expects you to know everything.
It is important to prepare yourself for this scenario, so that you don’t completely freeze up in the case that it does happen. This is where preparing your statement of “I don’t know” comes in handy.
This answer can be something as simple as: “I am not too sure, but I think that…”
There’s no need to go on a long spiel about what exactly you think would happen, but just providing a brief explanation is sufficient, so that your examiners know that you have enough knowledge to at least make an educated guess and think critically.
Tip 6: Calm Your Nerves.
A thesis defense is nerve-wracking for most people. But taking a few small steps to calm your nerves in the lead-up to the presentation is one of the best things you can do to ensure that your defense goes smoothly.
For one, remember to get a good night’s rest the day before your presentation. This is especially important if your presentation is in the morning. Make sure that you are well-rested and energized when you present so that you’re fully present and ready to field any questions.
It can also be useful to arrive slightly earlier than your allotted time, for example, by around 10 to 15 minutes. This gives you time to prepare and calm your nerves before the defense. It also provides you with some buffer time, in case you encounter any delays.
Remember to take a deep breath, and keep track of how fast you are talking. Typically, when we are nervous, we tend to talk very fast, so much so that it may be difficult for others to understand us.
Ultimately, remember that your committee expects you to be nervous. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to repeat their question, or to ask for a sip of water midway through your presentation.
Take the necessary steps to reduce any stress or anxiety that you might have. As long as you have put in the work for your thesis and know it like the back of your hand, trust that the thesis defense will go smoothly.