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The Thesis Defense

You've worked hard through the courses, the research and the thesis drafts. And now there is just one final step before your thesis is complete: the defense. Grad Source spoke with a recent Master's and Ph.D. graduate about their own experiences with preparing for and presenting a thesis defense to help you know what you can expect.

Dr. John E. Guiniven completed his Ph.D. in Mass Communication in 2001 and now works as an Associate Professor of Public Relations at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

Meredith Allison completed her Master's in Psychology in 2002 and is now continuing her studies there towards her Ph.D.

Grad Source: What happens at a thesis defense?

Dr. John Guiniven: My defense took two hours total. For the first half-hour, anyone could ask questions, including students. Then, students left the room and only the five committee members could ask questions. The committee had met beforehand and staked out areas of interest. They questioned me for an hour and a half. After that, I left the room and they had their private discussion before calling me in and telling me I'd passed.

Meredith Allison: The entire process took about an hour and a half. In my school, the defense is open to the public, however, it's tradition in my department that interested students and faculty ask the candidate if it's ok to attend so there are no surprises. I gave a 20-minute presentation on the thesis-just an overview of the background, methods and major findings. This was followed by rounds of questions from the committee starting with the member most external to my thesis. After questioning, all non-committee members (other students and me) left the room while the committee voted on whether 1) my written thesis passed 2) I passed the oral exam and 3) what revisions must be made to the thesis before publication. I was then called back in, told I had passed and given the revisions. In my case, I had very few revisions and was able to complete them in about 2 days.

GS: What should students do to prepare for a defense?

JG: Anticipate, anticipate, anticipate! Go through a dry run. Get friends (especially if they've been kind enough to have read your stuff) to ask you questions in a mock defense. Ask students who have faced your committee members to share their experience. Be familiar with the research interests of your committee members, and be especially aware if any of your material is at odds with what they believe (regardless of how well documented your own conclusions might be).

MA: About three weeks before the defense, I re-read some of the major articles I discussed in my thesis. It was a good review of the previous work in the area, and it also gave me ideas about potential questions. I also read my thesis over several times and as I read, I jotted down some questions I thought might be asked. I gave my thesis to a friend who also read it and came up with questions. We set up a mock-defense where I practiced my presentation and then he asked me his questions and I had to think up answers on the spot. I also talked with my supervisors in the days leading up to the defense. We talked about the format of the defense itself and we talked about the committee members' areas of interest.

GS: What is the most valuable thing you learned from defending your thesis?

JG: The most valuable lesson was simply to expect opposition to what you have written and what you will say. That is a good lesson to take into teaching because it also happens in the classroom.

MA: You learn how to think on your feet and answer difficult questions coherently. At professional conferences, you present your research and are often asked difficult questions afterwards. In a way, a professional presentation is like a mini-defense. A thesis defense teaches you how to defend your work when confronted with educated and knowledgeable questioners.

GS: Dr. Guiniven, what did you find different in the expectations for your Master's versus your Ph.D. defense?

JG: The level of seriousness on the part of the committee members. My committee took the idea very seriously that my Ph.D. thesis defense was an entrance examination for the "academy". I was surprised how detached they were from the personal relationships we had built up over the years.

GS: Meredith, what advice would you give to students preparing to defend a thesis?

MA: If you are nervous before the defense, then talk to your supervisor. He or she may be able to put your mind at ease. A defense is not supposed to be like the Spanish Inquisition; it's a gathering of individuals who are interested in your research and it gives you a chance to talk about your research with an attentive audience!

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