DeWitt Scott successfully defended his dissertation in the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership program at Chicago State University on April 8, 2016. You can follow him on Twitter at @dscotthighered.
Conversations on doctoral pursuits often range from the optimistic (“stay focused, you can do it!”) to dreadful (“There have been lots of costs associated with this process that I did not expect”). These anecdotes usually cover many of the major milestones throughout the journey, such as selecting the right program, the application process, studying for qualifying exams, and—the most frequently discussed span of the journey—writing the dissertation. But, arguably, the most mystifying experience of the entire process is the final defense. As current and prospective students, we hear and read plenty of information on writing processes, research strategies, anxiety management, and productivity methods, but not as much about the actual moment when we stand before our committee and defend our work.
Final defense cultures and practices can vary depending on program of study, department, and institution. Naturally, a defense in an arts discipline will look quite different than a defense in Mechanical Engineering. Nevertheless, there are some aspects that are universal and with which all graduates should be familiar.
Students, first and foremost, should understand that the ultimate aim of the final defense is to push you to be a better scholar. The method of obtaining a doctorate typically equips a student to expand the research horizons of a particular field of study. This process culminates with the final defense in which the committee aims to dissect your approach to the topic, your understanding of the research literature, the methodology used to examine your research questions, and your analysis and conclusions. Academics have always believed that if your work can withstand such scrutiny then you are worthy of acceptance into the society of scholars and deemed an expert in your field. Through this very rigorous and demanding process your research abilities are sharpened and you are the better scholar for it.
Secondly, try your best to anticipate questions your committee may ask you about your research. I have never heard of a final defense in which a student presented his/her study and there were no questions asked afterwards by the committee. That’s why it is called a “defense,” because you need to defend your work. Although it may be impossible to be 100% prepared for every question that is thrown at you, be proactive by thinking ahead about what you may be asked. If you have a thorough committee who has constantly kept in contact with you, and provided adequate feedback throughout the writing process, then there will be some questions that you will be able to predict. Do not develop a rigid script of answers, but instead have in your mind certain points you would like to highlight when specific issues are brought up.
Connected to the second point, defenses should not be defensive. All of your answers to the questions your committee poses should be grounded in your research. When asked a question, give the best answer you possibly can. If the answer does not suffice and a follow-up question is asked, pick the best examples or explanations from your research and attempt to give another answer. If the second attempt is unsuccessful, concede the battle and admit fault while suggesting that you will revisit the issue and make the necessary adjustments. The worst thing you can do in your defense is take a challenge from a committee member personally and engage in a verbal and intellectual battle for an extended period of time, increasing the tension and hostility in the room. Do not take direct, blunt, or aggressive questions as a personal attack on your character. Stay objective, lean on your research, and take the high road. Your goal is not to win necessarily every battle but to win the war.
Understand that the defense is not only about your scholarly work but also about presentation, engagement, and presence. I understand that many of us in academia are natural introverts who would rather read a book than speak to an audience. While there is nothing wrong with that, it is imperative that at your final defense you are an engaging and spirited presenter. Command the room, keep regular eye contact with your listeners, and be energetic. Convey to your committee that you enjoyed the work, care deeply about the topic, and are passionate about the possibilities of your research. Dissertations are inherently boring (yes, I said it), but your presentation during the defense can give it some life. Your energy and vitality will more than likely be appreciated by your committee.
Realize that on that day, in that moment, you are the chief expert in the world on your particular topic. After years of research, reading, writing, and thinking about your topic, no one on your committee knows more about your material than you do. Find assurance in that truth and let your understanding about the topic show in the defense. Again, don’t be arrogant and defensive, but be confident and believe that you deserve to be here. You have put in the work, now let the results of that work shine.
Lastly, as great of an accomplishment as this is, know that receiving your degree is just the beginning of more great things to come. We oftentimes conceive of successfully defending our dissertations as the ending or finale of a great feat. And while this is true, there is much more life left after graduate school and plenty for us to achieve. Your ambition will not be eradicated once you walk across the stage. On the contrary, for many of us, successfully completing such a feat will increase our drive to achieve and our hunger for success. It may be the final defense, but it is just the beginning of great achievements and successes that we look forward to in the future.
All in all, the final defense is your day to shine. Lean on your work and preparation, give it all you have, and enjoy the moment.
What are some things you would like to know about the final defense that were not mentioned in this post? What are some things institutions can do better to prepare candidates for defense?
[Image by pixbay and used under Creative Commons license]
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