Again, I recommend starting with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series before reading this post. This is my forth and final post in this series (unless someone contacts me and asks me to add information on another component of the dissertation process that didn’t occur to me).
Today I am going to write about the defense: The pinnacle of your dissertation project. Once you have defended, there are no more drafts, no more revisions, no more late nights in front of the computer pondering why you ever chose to go to graduate school in the first place. Your proposal defense and dissertation defense are the two most important presentations you will prepare in your doctoral career. This can be incredibly anxiety-provoking (because if it weren’t stress-inducing enough to interfere with your sleep, graduate students would not do it). Remember, your committee members should not let you schedule your defense unless she or he honestly believes you will pass with flying colors. Your program will most likely not allow you to book a room or formally announce your defense without the go-ahead of your chair, so try to keep calm. You are ready. You can do this.
In my program, the only people allowed to attend a proposal defense are the committee members and those personally invited by the student presenting. I chose to invite only my partner, who was under strict instructions to provide silent moral support. A classmate of mine asked a couple of other friends and me to attend her proposal because she felt more comfortable speaking before a larger group. For the dissertation defense, however, an announcement is posted to the entire university, and you technically are not allowed to turn away anyone who wants to observe your presentation. They can ask questions and provide feedback, but they cannot do or say anything to override your committee’s decision about your completed project. The night before my defense, I had a nightmare that the entire university community showed up for my defense – professors, students, my former employer – and my adviser’s only response was “I guess you will need to find a bigger classroom.” Fortunately, it turned out that no one other than I was preoccupied with my presentation, and only my committee and invited guests showed up.
The key to surviving either defense is to remain calm and have a solid support network there for you. Your committee will most likely tell you that passing is contingent on at least a few minor revisions. (Remember their job is to be thorough, so they have to give you SOME feedback, no matter how minimal.) This project is your baby, and you know more about it than anyone else. Make sure that your presentation covers all the main points of your project, and bear in mind that your committee members have already read your dissertation at least once, so your presentation is less about telling them what you did and more reminding them what they read, with a summary presented for any guests. Your chair should have some advice about specific templates or information that you should be sure to include. You can also ask program graduates or students who have already defended to send you copies of their presentations.
Following your presentation, anyone present may ask you questions about your project. Again, it should not be anything you do not already know – this has been the center of your life for the past one to three years, after all! If you are feeling overly nervous, you can always ask your support network to throw you a couple of easy questions to make you look smart. When I defended my final dissertation, my friends brought along signs to cheer me along, similar to those you see at sporting events. It made me smile and lowered my stress level immensely.
Get it? D-fence? Defense? I found it hilarious.
Just like with your motivation routine, the things that will reduce your defense stress will be unique to you. You need to determine what that is and use it to your advantage. Don’t forget, you would not be here if you couldn’t do this. Good luck!