Today, Richard Newton talks about his experiences during his PhD defense. Richard is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania (USA). He took his PhD in Religion from Claremont Graduate University in 2009. His research focuses on the anthropology of scriptures: sacred and profane, ancient and modern, written and not written. He curates the web magazine “Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations on Religion, Culture, and Teaching” and hosts the companion podcast, Broadcast Seeding. You can find him on Twitter @seedpods and at sowingtheseed.org.
My doctoral advisor was of the old school. He came from a tradition in which the PhD was not a degree earned but taken. To reach the defense stage was to reveal yourself as expert and colleague. Somewhere along the line, I was told that I would not be able to move into the defense stage until the committee was confident that I would pass. For my part, getting there wasn’t just about mastering content. It was about learning as much as I could about what the defense entailed. That way I could focus on having the best showing possible.
My defense was an intimate affair. I had a committee of three, including a chair who was responsible for facilitating the examination. With a few exceptions, my university insisted on open defenses, meaning anyone from the community was welcome to observe. I invited family, friends, and colleagues to be there for moral support. After a brief introduction by my chair, the gallery and I were asked to leave the room while the committee conferred on the matters they wanted to discuss. It also gave me one more moment to get encouragement from my guests.
Upon our return, the committee asked me to provide a prepared ten-minute overview of my project. This was intended to bring everyone up to speed on my research. I detailed the topic, research question, thesis, and its contribution to scholarship. The exercise would be my last chance to frame the conversation that was to ensue. This proved helpful as my committee referred to my overview as much as they did the tome before them.
The chair proceeded to describe the defense format. The second and third readers had ten to fifteen minutes each to engage me on my work. These questions focused on the nuances of my sub-arguments and cited research. My chair reserved the privilege of a fifteen to twenty minute discussion of my project’s implications and place in the field.
The gallery and I were again asked to leave the room to allow the committee to discuss the defense. Afterward I was called back in and congratulated on my success. I was informed that no revisions were necessary (save for another go at proofreading) but was encouraged to incorporate any final insights that resulted from my now-colleagues. My advisor and I celebrated the occasion at a local pub.
I went into the defense thinking that the event would be painstakingly slow. To my surprise, it turned out to be the fastest hour of my life. Somewhere in the midst of the questions, I found myself in a flow state where I was hyperaware of the event as it transpired.
The questions came at me as if at half-speed. By this point, I had asked myself variations of nearly every question. There were a couple that caught me off guard, yet none merited the description of surprise. These had more to do with perspectives that only a reader could have on one’s own work.
The idea of “taking” the PhD no longer sounded like a strange euphemism. Rather, it was license to own my work. I was, after all, the author. I was finally free to shake that impostor syndrome and be confident.
The Lessons I Learned
I am convinced that self-knowledge is as important in the doctoral process as expertise. For me to be my best self at the defense, I knew I had to account for every possibility. I spent a lot of time at other people’s defenses, visualizing how I would handle any challenges that arose. Here are some things that I learned along the way.
Take Notes, Take Your Time, Take Water.
The defense is daunting enough as it is, but a lot of doctoral candidates burden themselves with unfruitful asceticism. Have a legal pad to jot down questions and possible responses. Pause to take a moment to collect your thoughts. Have a glass of water to help you stay hydrated. These little things went a long way in keeping me relaxed.
Questions of clarification are your friend.
Truth be told, this lesson didn’t sink in until well after my own defense. I feigned an answer to a question that I did not fully comprehend. I could have saved a lot of energy by asking for clarification or attempting to restate the question in my own words. Instead I had to stumble my way back to the original inquiry. I have no doubt that I would have appeared more confident had I allowed myself to admit that I didn’t understand what I was being asked.
The best defendants pivoted all questions and answers back to the dissertation.
Many PhD candidates treat their defenses as an opportunity to show how much they have read. More often than not, this actually perturbs committees because it moves the conversation away from the candidate’s work.
Before the defense, I wrote a note to myself saying that my dissertation is the primary source – stick to it. It was a little reminder that, more than anything, the committee members were trying to determine the extent to which my conclusions would hold true. I didn’t need to show them anything other than that.
In my experience, the defense was the victory lap to a race already won. The hard part was starting and finishing the dissertation. Once I realized that, there was little else to do but to show how far I had come.