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How to Prepare for the PhD Defense

The preparation for the PhD Defense was just one step in the long road to the defense, that started with the first draft, then dealt extensively with the committee members, and ended with the celebration of getting my degree (I got the diploma in my hands right after my defense).

Between returning from a conference in the USA, and my defense, I had less than a week of time to get over the jetlag and prepare for the defense itself.

In an earlier post, I summarized my approach for the defense as follows:

I didn’t really know how to prepare for my defense, and I’ll write a post about it specifically in the future, but essentially I didn’t have much time for preparing my defense all in all. Certainly, I had to prepare my “lekenpraatje”, and I reread my dissertation once more, but preparing for possible questions was a little more vague. I summarized my dissertation in a sentence per page, as suggested by Phillips and Pugh, I went over my meeting notes again, and I tried fishing for information from my committee members (unsuccessfully).

Let me break that down into more detail, so you have an idea of how I prepared for my defense (which, honestly, went really smoothly after I got a hold of my nerves):

1. The presentation

In Delft, we give a “lekenpraatje” for our friends, colleagues and family, but not for the committee members. Therefore, the presentation doesn’t really matter towards the result of the viva itself, but it is nonetheless a very good opportunity to show an overview of your work to everyone you invited to attend your defense.
I made the slides about a month before the actual defense date, but then needed to reshuffle a number of times to be able to fit the talk within the 20 minutes of allotted time. While in Pittsburgh for IBC, I took off an afternoon to practice this presentation, and during the week before the defense I ran through my presentation a couple more times. I wanted to have it rehearsed very well so that I could almost run it on auto-pilot.

2. Rereading the dissertation

Before the conferences that I attended, I reread my dissertation a final time. It was already printed by then, and of course, I found a number more mistakes in my text. While rereading for a last time, I made a summary (see point 3), and paid extra attention to my theoretical chapter, as most criticism from the committee members had been geared towards my proposed model.

3. Making the summary

As suggested by Phillips and Pugh, I summarized my dissertation in one line per page as I was rereading it. Certainly, having the activity of writing something down, and thinking of how to summarize a page, was a good change from all the reading of the same text that I had done earlier.
However, I am not sure if it was really worth the effort. I never looked at that summary again after making it. I’m just assuming that spending time with my text in this manner triggered some extra area in my brain, or something like that, but it might have been too much effort.

4. Going over meeting notes

Based on my notes of the meetings that I had with the committee members, I tried to distill their main points of criticism, and turn that into a question. I also verified if I made all the changes they required, or if I had left loose ends on a few topics. For those topics, I made sure to be able to explain why I didn’t pay more attention, or to give an outline of a possible solution.

5. Fishing for information

Sometimes, committee members are known to give you their questions in advance. In my case, only my copromotor and promotor gave me some ideas of what they could ask, but I had no clue of what the other members would be asking. By going over my meetings notes, I refreshed their “pet peeves”, and in some cases that turned out to be a good direction. I also contacted my committee members to see if they wanted a final meeting to prepare for the defense, or if they wanted me “to bring some extra material to put on the projector during the defense” (this is how I tried to fish for information, but they all just told me that there was no need for a meeting or additional material).

6. Thinking of possible questions

As I was left with my meeting notes and some advice from my copromotor, promotor and colleagues, I sat down to make a list of possible questions. These questions, I started to work out on paper, in an orderly fashion, so that I could put them on the projector during the defense. One of these questions indeed popped up, and my friends thought the committee member had given me that question before the defense. It was good guesswork instead. I tried to list about 5 possible questions per committee member.
Moreover, I used the top 10 viva questions that I got through Twitter.

7. Working out some additional material

I found some more interesting papers a few days before my defense, so I made some notes and played around with some of these ideas. That material came with me to the defense, and I was planning to show it while answering the final question, but I was interrupted by the Beadle. My dissertation is not a completely finished piece of work, there are always additional questions that remain to be answered, and I focused on continuing a little bit on the loose ends to show the committee that I have given these leads some good thought.

8. Gathering relevant literature sources

I took the “really important” papers with me that I had used as a basis for my theoretical work – just in case I needed to put something on the projector during my defense.

9. Get enough sleep

Getting past the jetlag and getting the fog out of my brain were about my major concerns for the defense. Somehow I knew that if I had a sharp mind, I’d be doing well that day.

10. Look around online

An excuse to browse the interwebz once more? Maybe, but I certainly found great advice about the defense here and here (also check the list of references).

How did you prepare for your defense or viva? Did you spend a lot of time on it, or were you pressed for time like me?

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This Post Has 11 Comments
  1. Hi Eva! I found your blog today through this particular post because I'm starting to prepare my defense. Thank you for sharing your experience! I think I'll put your blog in my blogger list! 🙂

  2. Hello! I have three days. One of the committee members told me she didn't like my material so I had to rewrite the last three chapters…originally, I had three weeks and now I have three days. I am trying not to get overwhelmed. Your resources are very helpful. Thank you!

  3. Thank you very much for the post. I am defending my thesis soon. Your preparation tips would be of immense help.

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