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Doctoral dissertation defenses are always among the happiest days of my academic life. Nothing is more rewarding than experiencing the rite of passage of a newly trained scholar into the world. It is a day of celebration for both student and mentor.
Of course, graduate students can become rather stressed as they prepare for the defense that is designed to challenge the work they are presenting. It is the job of the examining committee to ask both detailed and thoughtful questions about the scientific study or the scholarly work. In many cases, that is just a formality, and checks and balances have ensured that students do not arrive at the defense with work that has not already been challenged and passed scrutiny. In the back of every student's mind, however, is a horror story they have heard about previous defenses that went off the rails. I personally know of several such stories, and they usually have more to do with faculty politics than the student's qualifications and readiness to be a scholar. Thankfully, such situations are rather rare.
I recall my own dissertation defense stress, which stemmed from not knowing what my committee was going to ask and whether I was prepared to answer the questions. I had one committee member from a completely different discipline who was supposed to provide some distinct expertise in several quantitative aspects of the work. Unfortunately, that professor barely gave me the time of day in the lead-up to the defense and was a bit of a wild card in my mind. My defense ended up being a breeze and was more of a discussion among colleagues and less of an actual examination or hazing. As a side note, the wild card professor was impressed with the work, and I could tell he felt guilty for brushing me off.
I have personally been involved in more than 40 dissertation defenses in my career and have seen many types of questions asked. Some professors dig deep into the methods and results, and they challenge the student on why they made certain decisions. Such lines of questioning are certainly fair, common and usually easy for the student, who has been in the weeds of the project for several years. Other questions probe how the work is related to other published studies or scholarly work. Those questions reveal how much the student has thought about their work in the context of the existing body of knowledge.
Dissertation committee members also raise what-if questions that challenge the student to think about alternative outcomes or methods. What if the experiment had not worked? What would you have done? Finally, committees usually ask the student to pontificate about the state of the field or possible next steps with the work. Those types of questions are more fun for the committee because they usually lead to interesting academic discussions.
Where Innovation and Impact Come From
My approach to the defense is a little different than most I have encountered. Assuming the student has had appropriate checks and balances along the way, I really see it as more of a formality; the details should have been worked out in prior committee meetings and the peer-review process that is common in scientific domains. I view it as a time to celebrate the work of the student and to think more broadly about its implications for the field of study. In fact, I think it is the committee's responsibility to help the student have a special day, one that could rise to the level of getting married or the birth of a child. I certainly recall my own defense in that light.
With that said, I do have one question I ask of all students in their defense, and many seem to struggle with it. I do not ask this question to put the student on the spot or to challenge them, as I articulated earlier. Further, the answer they give does not ever sway my decision. I ask it because it is an important question and one that we all struggle with as scientists and scholars. My basic question is “What does the future hold?” In other words, I ask them where the field is going.
More specifically, I ask them, how would this work be different if you were to conduct it a decade from now? I love this question because a big part of scholarly success is being able to see into the future and to anticipate what is next. It is something all scientists and scholars should be constantly thinking about. What will be the important issues that need to be addressed in the next five to 10 years? What new research methods need to be developed to address those questions? How can I position myself to be a pioneer in my field? Without doubt, it is more exciting to be leading a discipline along the cutting edge rather than doing incremental work on methods and approaches already developed.
This is a difficult question for students during the defense, and I am sure it generates some unwanted and unintended stress, as several students have indicated to me later. My intention for asking this question is that it will be memorable for the student throughout their career and keep them seeing their work in a larger and longer-term perspective. Anticipating and working toward the future is where real change happens. It is where innovation and impact come from.
We admire most academics who have the gift of seeing the future and positioning themselves and their scholarly work in that place. We are not all blessed with this gift. Regardless, it is a worthy ambition. I recommend all dissertation defense committees ask this question, or even have the student prepare an answer ahead of time. It is good practice for all to imagine where the field and their work is going.