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For many students, the approaching winter season means focusing on final exams, maybe graduation, and then a well-earned winter break. For those pursuing an advanced degree, the semester break won’t come. Preparing for a dissertation or thesis occurs 365 days a year, many of those days seeming to approach the 24-hour mark.

We have worked with students preparing to present research, defend a thesis or defend a dissertation, and have spoken to myriad students about their experiences.  What we have learned is that there are lessons a student can take from other disciplines when preparing to defend a dissertation or thesis. Here are six:

  1. Defend, But Don't Be Defensive.  Whether running for office, appearing on “60 Minutes” or appearing before your dissertation/thesis committee, appearing defensive never works. Remember, defensiveness often appears not in the language used, but in the delivery -- slight frowns; quick, heated responses; flushed face; impatient tone – all appear defensive, and stay with the person across the table (or screen) for a long time. Keep cool by mastering breathing techniques and techniques to depersonalize questions.
  2. Research Your Research. When running for office, any candidate worth his or her salt not only conducts research on the opponent, but also on himself/herself.  It is far better to know pain points, and be able to prepare for them, then to get “caught cold” in an interview or during a debate. The same holds true for defending your dissertation or thesis.  Determine the questions that upset, annoy, or concern you the most about the research you will present. To the extent possible, address likely questions or any controversial topics upfront in your presentation. Prepare to answer them, and practice those answers.
  3. Dissertation Day Shouldn’t Be Day One. Skilled debaters do not jump into a debate with no practice. Great orators practice great speeches – no one knew that more than Winston Churchill, who, when preparing an address, reportedly prepared one hour for every one minute of a speech. Rehearsing the presentation of your dissertation/thesis, as well as conducting practice defenses, can work. Rehearsing can occur independently, with loved ones or with colleagues. Practice defenses with colleagues can be very beneficial, as not only do you get the experience of live Q&A, you also have an opportunity to work through answers, find holes in your presentation, and often find more effective ways to present some of your research and ideas. 
  4. LPR – Listen, Pause, Respond. O.K., obviously it is never that simple. However, when fielding questions from your committee, responding instantly often indicates that you did not listen to the entire question, as the formulation of a response takes, at a minimum, a second or two. Watch any interview on television – often, the interviewee misses the intent of the question as the response was being formulated before the interviewer finished speaking. Listen to the question -- really listen to the question -- and give yourself a few seconds to formulate your response and determine what you really want to say.  Everyone will appreciate it, chances of mistakes are minimized, and the precious few seconds that feel like forever to you feel like a few fleeting seconds to those who asked the questions.
  5. You Are the Expert! You put years in researching, writing and preparing. You should know at least as much about your material as everyone else in the room – approach this less like a defense and more like a presentation of exciting research that everyone should want to know about. Remember that every person in the room has gone through the process, and chances are you will be on the other side of the conversation at some point. To reach this point you must have confidence in your findings – make sure you project that confidence when you present. 
  6. Clarification, Please. It is the nightmare scenario – a poorly worded answer or misstatement resonates through the committee and builds into a heated debate between the entire committee and the candidate. This is where there is tremendous value in knowing each committee member’s school of thought, personality, conversational style, and how that might work in a group dynamic, no different than if you were going to be interviewed on a particular television program.  If you sense an answer was not received the way you intended, clarify your answer immediately.  This is also another reason to give yourself a second or two after a question is asked before you respond, to make sure you know not only what you want to say, but how you want to say it.

Tens of thousands of doctorates and even more master’s degrees are awarded annually, and every student’s experience will be different. For many, the dissertation defense may be a mere formality, and for others it may include a rigorous defense. Regardless of which scenario you may face, we hope these tips will prepare you to speak more comfortably, confidently and clearly about your research and expertise.

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