Picture this: after countless hours of research, writing, and refining, you’re now standing on stage with your cohort, in a gown and funny hat, because … you’ve finally completed that last important milestone in your academic journey – defending your doctoral dissertation. It’s a culmination of years of dedication, determination, and sleepless nights.
You’re not there yet—but you’re close. So how do you make it past this final, nerve-wracking hurdle?
In this article, we’ll deep-dive into the dissertation defense process, with tips, strategies, and straight-up information. I’ll share my expertise as a coach whose job it is to get people up on that stage.
What to expect during the dissertation defense
A dissertation defense typically consists of an oral presentation to your dissertation committee, who have already received and read the final draft of your dissertation manuscript. Other members of your cohort and institution, and outside readers or experts, might also be present in the audience.
Without fail, I see two different reactions to this news from my coaching students: either they are terrified of having their work scrutinized by their committee in public, or they are extremely laid back, knowing that they’ve already done all the hard work in the manuscript. (These later students are the ones paying attention to me).
You probably already know the general gist of what happens in a defense presentation: you present the highlights of your study, the committee ask questions, and then they vote on whether you pass or need to complete further revision. So, here are some things you might not yet know:
• The oral defense gives the committee the opportunity to ask you about any areas of your study that are still unclear or weak on paper – so that you can prove they are not unclear or weak in real life. In other words, it’s a chance to get anything that got stuck in your head (rather than making it on to paper) out and in front of your committee.
• Your chair or supervisor and committee should not be allowing you to complete the defense process unless they are already confident that the biggest issues with your work have already been resolved.
• Questions are normal – your committee are working with you because your work interests them (hopefully), so questions are as likely to indicate their excitement about your work as a problem they have spotted.
• Revisions are normal – from requests to polish the grammar to insisting you add more supporting sources or develop your recommendations more thoroughly, “pass with revisions” is a normal, common, and expected end result. To pass with no revisions is pretty rare (although I have had a few students achieve this – looking at you, YY!) – like getting 100% on a calculus test in school.
In short, your defense presentation is nothing to be scared of. You are lined up for defense because both you and your committee feel you know your stuff, and now all you need to do is share what you’ve produced and learned and engage people in discussion about it. You got this!
Preparing for Your Dissertation Defense
Still nervous? Ok, that’s fair enough. As with many things, good preparation can help you get those nerves under control, so here are some top tips to help you get ready.
Tick the Boxes
It’s essential to understand the requirements and expectations of your defense committee. Get familiar with the specific guidelines and procedures set by your institution, and make sure you meet all necessary criteria. If you’re giving them what they ask for, you are definitely off to a strong start.
Know Your Stuff
This defense is about you showing off what you know, so before you stand up in front of the crown, take a deep dive into your own research masterpiece. Thoroughly review your dissertation, scrutinizing each chapter, section, and argument. Make notes. Look for anything that might provoke questions or debate. Remember, this is your opportunity to showcase your expertise and demonstrate the depth of your knowledge.
Seek Wise Counsel
Your advisor and committee members are the best resources you could ask for about defense. They set the guidelines, and they judge whether you have done well. Reach out to them for guidance, feedback, and advice—their collective wisdom and support can be instrumental in honing your presentation. And, if they are not all that … well, remember there are others out there who can help, including coaches, mentors, and past students.
Just like any performance, practice makes perfect. Take the time to rehearse your presentation multiple times, refining your delivery and strengthening your command over the content. By doing so, you’ll build confidence and ensure a smoother delivery when the day arrives. Even more importantly, you’ll settle the key points of your study firmly in your brain, making sure you sound like the expert you are.
Anticipate the Unknown
Obviously, you can’t predict every question or comment that will come up during your defense. However, you can still prepare yourself for potential challenges. Get cozy with the research landscape in your field and the interests of your committee members. Step outside of your own perspective and view your work through a stranger’s eyes to anticipate areas of critique or alternative viewpoints. This will enable you to respond thoughtfully and demonstrate your ability to engage in scholarly discourse.
Managing Nerves and Anxiety
You know what’s coming and you know how to prepare – are you still nervous? If so, know that that is completely normal. Here’s how me and two of my students got their dissertation defense nerves under control.
An Awesome Supervisor
For my own dissertation defense (known as a viva voce in the UK), I was incredibly lucky to have a supervisor with whom I had a strong, supportive, and nurturing relationship. Although the main examination of my work was handled by the external reader, who sat across from me behind a big desk, my supervisor sat behind him and nodded and smiled encouragingly every time I said something.
Words can’t describe how much that calmed me down and gave me confidence. If you are as lucky as me and have an awesome supervisor, tell your nerves they can stand down – your supervisor’s got your back!
You Can Get Used to Anything
One of my students, who graduated last year, suffered from terrible defense nerves because she was worried about holding so much complex information in her head and delivering it coherently. Her solution? She practiced endlessly, over the course of about a month.
With me as her coach playing the role of audience, or with her kids and other family members, her cohort peers, her dog, and even other academics, she presented that study until she could do so in her sleep. The point was that, by the time the actual defense day rolled around, presenting the study to people was comfortable, familiar territory. Done and dusted!
Another student, who graduated shortly after, took completely the opposite approach to managing dissertation defense nerves. This student was burnt out from a huge rush to meet an unexpectedly tight deadline for the final manuscript when her chair decided to retire at the last minute. Rather than burn herself out further, she hit send on the manuscript, paid a designer to polish the design of the presentation rough draft, and then shut down her devices and went on holiday with her family.
For one week, she did not look at or talk about her research at all. Instead, she sat on the beach, ate ice cream, and scrolled Instagram (probably). Then, she returned to work (a week before the presentation), refreshed and feeling excited about her work again. The break enabled her to practice and prepare in a calm frame of mind.
Some Parting Thoughts
I won’t walk you through the other obvious stuff, like what makes a good presentation PowerPoint or how body language and appearance can improve your presentation skills—that stuff is what Google is for. You’re an expert by now at finding the information you need, so get out there and find it.
However, know that if you need help getting ready for your defense, there are definitely humans around you (and some dogs) who want to help – whether that’s your chair, your family, or a coach like me. I recommend you find them now and let them tell you just how ready for this you are.