Successfully Defending your Dissertation- Some Tips Based on my Experience

For the past few years, since completing my coursework, I've seen a definite (but faint) light at the end of the PhD tunnel. Over the dissertation writing process, there were some great peaks, but also some tense valleys. I was slated to travel to the West Bank to collect my data right in the midst of the 2014 Gaza War, and concerns mounted that I wouldn't be able to cross Jordan's Allenby Bridge into the West Bank. When I finally got my data, test after test essentially rejected most of my hypotheses. There were a lot of stressful times, and moments I certainly thought, "Well, I guess I could just be a student forever..."

But alas! My rejected hypotheses led me into a whole new field of literature about resilience. My discussion section ended up being the most fun part of the entire researching and writing process. My committee liked the direction I went, and next thing I knew, I was preparing my dissertation defense announcement. I'm proud to say I defended (successfully) last week, and I felt confident, capable, and ready to move on to the next stage of my career. It wasn't always a smooth ride, but the following tips helped me get through the bumps and come out a little older, a lot wiser, and an overall better academic.

1. Maintain open and honest communication with your committee. I really can't emphasize this enough. I kept my committee updated regularly, even when there were lulls in the process. I wanted them to know I was still on top of things, and I planned to be on to the next stage in X weeks or months. When I ran into problems, my first instinct was thinking of how to massage what I would tell my committee chair so it didn't sound so bad. In the end, I took the approach of being as straight up with her as possible. This allowed me to tackle problems quickly and directly, and also built trust between us. Whenever committee members gave feedback, I responded immediately to their precise concern. I think sometimes as students, we have the tendency to work around problems rather than right through them, but that makes the feedback cycle difficult. By the time I got to the defense, I knew exactly what concerns I had discussed with each committee member, and that allowed me to predict their potential questions ahead of time.

2. Read your dissertation again...and again. By the time I was defending, I had written parts of my introduction and literature review nearly two years before. Not only did I need to see if there was new literature to add, but although your dissertation is old news to you, you have to consider that to your readers, it is mostly fresh. I also had two deans sitting in on the defense who had just read the dissertation for the first time. Thus, while I was focusing on the big picture of my project and on my results/discussion, I never knew which seemingly small concept or statistic from the first half of the paper someone might fixate on and ask questions about. Even though I was SO tired of revising and editing those parts of the paper, I made myself read them a few times in the week before the defense. I refreshed my memory about some of the more minor points I made, and caught a few typos to boot.

3. Make your slides ahead of time, and practice! I'm not going to lie, I have definitely gone to conferences where I was making my slides in the hotel room the night before. You figure, I know what I'm talking about, how hard could making the slides be? Usually, this will fly (even though it's probably not the smartest). But for this, what I perceived as one of the most important presentations of my life to date, I did not want to leave anything to chance. I wanted to make sure the text showed up clearly against the background. I wanted to have the timing down to a science. I wanted to make sure the slides weren't too wordy, that there were no typos, that I covered all the main points evenly and consistently. I practiced in front of a mirror, with a timer. I added a few slides, and deleted a few. I changed the font size. Some of the changes were minor, but the last thing I wanted was to be giving the presentation and be thinking about that tiny, minor thing I could have easily changed. By the time I gave the presentation, I felt confident in each and every word on each and every slide.

4. Make it a comfortable environment, and bring a support system. On my way to campus, I stopped to pick up a dozen donuts and a box of coffee for the audience. I brought myself a bottle of cold water. I wore professional but comfortable shoes. I got to the room 20 minutes early, set up my Powerpoint, and did some stretches. My mom came, and about a dozen of my classmates and colleagues also attended. Looking out into the crowd to see friendly faces, who I knew wanted me to succeed, really helped boost my confidence. We had all been regularly talking about our stress and anxiety as we wrote our dissertations, and a few of my classmates were planning to defend just a few weeks after I did. E-mailing our worst fears to each other ahead of time really made them look silly once written down, and knowing that we all felt the same way, and yet each thought the others were so smart and accomplished, helped bring us back to reality.

5. Have a few potential questions prepared, but be ready to think on your feet. I tried to brainstorm some potential questions I thought my committee would ask. I talked to people in previous cohorts to see the types of questions they got. I had a few alternative theoretical frameworks in mind, thought through "what I would have done differently" (a standard question, it seems), and had responses prepared for each of my study's weaknesses and limitations. But after that, I knew I just had to leave it to chance. My biggest fear was that my stats committee member would ask me some question about the data analysis that was really in depth or technical. I read up on the concepts of the statistical methods that I used that I was the most uncomfortable or unfamiliar with, but knew there was a chance I simply would not know the answer to something. I just forced myself to come to terms with that and be okay with it. Your committee and the audience are generally not there to trip you up or make you look stupid. Again, it helps to have a good relationship with your committee. Your success at the defense reflects well on them too, and conversely, if you look bad, so do they. And no one expects you to know everything about everything. It's okay to say, "That was outside of the scope of my research," or even "I don't have the answer to that, but I will be sure to look into it." Unless you missed something super critical in your paper or presentation (which you should know long before the defense), you will know what you need to know.

In the end, there were a few background statistics the college deans wanted me to add to the final paper. Nothing major. I didn't get any crazy questions that completely caught me off guard. In fact, I didn't get 97% of the questions I had so diligently prepared to answer. I'm still glad I prepared for them, but it was just a reminder that events like this are generally never as bad or difficult as we build them up to be in our heads. In the end, I did know my stuff. My paper was good, and my presentation represented my work well. That's the best we can hope for.

Remember, while your dissertation and your defense are the end of your career as a student, they are just the beginning of your career as an academic or practitioner. Based on my dissertation work, I have a million ideas for other projects I want to work on and research questions I want to explore. I'm finishing my PhD program in what I think is the best possible mindset- ready to be finished with this stage of my life, but energized to continue my work and see where my career takes me. 

Now, I'm working on finding a job and revising pieces of my dissertation for eventual publication. The work never ends, but it changes, and the best we can hope for is that it remains gratifying and fulfilling.