Preparing for the Dissertation Defense Process

Dissertation Defense

As another quarter comes to an end, many of you may be moving closer to the end of your dissertation process—yea!  While working with thousands of Ph.D. candidates, I still find it funny that instead of being relieved that the end of this journey is near, many are more nervous than ever!  It too often seems that the thought of the dissertation defense process gives more anxiety than the relief of the nearing commencement!

Now, for those of you that are in the beginning or mid-phases of the dissertation process, this article is not meant to scare you.  Rather, a better understanding of the dissertation process ahead will help you align your progress with the preparation of your end goal.  Be motivated by those who are completing their dissertations and it may help you visualize your end date too.

Imagine this…
You’ve finished your doctoral coursework, your proposal approved, data analysis plan completed, data collected, and your dissertation done!  As you head for the dissertation defense, the fear and anxiety of this moment is rushing in….Take a big sigh!  Don’t let your nerves get the best of you.  Remember these key points:

  • Candidates pass! You are not the first to venture through this process and you won’t be the last.  This is not meant to be a torture device, but a normal right of passage through the process.
  • You are the expert! You know more about your dissertation than most of your committee ever will.  You have become the expert in your field and you stand before a committee that will be, in a short amount of time, your peers.  Position yourself as a deserving colleague of the committee that you are presenting your dissertation.
  • And last, but not least, you’ve proven yourself worthy already! You didn’t wind up at that table by accident (any dissertation advisor worth their salt wouldn’t let you get there unless you were deserving).

Preparing For The Dissertation Defense

As you journey towards preparing for the dissertation defense, I recommend the following:

Always address committee issues. Try to address things thoroughly as early as possible.  Committee issues are not like fine wine: they do not age well.  To the extent that you can resolve things early on, all the better.  Everyone is signing your dissertation, if you don’t have a strong support for your dissertation, it will only prolong the process.

Detach yourself emotionally from your dissertation. As you move through the dissertation process your research will change—it will becomes less and less yours. This shouldn’t be discouraging—every great work is a collaborate effort.  Change is part of the process; it will only be painful if you enter the process with the expectation that you are going to change the world with your set ideas.  As soon as you give up on the idea that the dissertation is yours the entire process will lighten-up.  Your committee has power and opinions on what your research should be and they have ultimate say on whether your research is approved.  Feel empowered by this instead of disheartened.  Do not view them as the enemy, rather the support committee that is chosen to facilitate you towards your Ph.D. and end goal.

Keep informal notes on your intentions. This may be counter-intuitive compared to the last recommendation but I think this is important for different reasons.  You will come to a point when you realize: The purpose statement is realized- now what?  Even if your dissertation research becomes so different that it is unrecognizable, your original intentions will help shape your ultimate scholarly framework.

Seek professional help if you need it. We offer dissertation defense consulting that can range from coaching you through your statistics to performing a mock defense.  Outside assistance allows you the chance to validate your results with someone who can act as a tough committee with good intentions.  My goal is for you to pass the defense smoothly.

The Defense Date Is Set

As the day of the defense nears, how you prepare your self for that defense date will help shape how successful you will ultimately be.  I recommend the following:

  • Get feedback. Make sure you receive committee feedback prior to defense if they are willing.
  • Plan your time. Make clear expectations of time that the defense process will take and plan appropriately.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice. Practice your presentation in front of anyone who will listen—the less they know about your research, the more you have to explain it in terms in basic terms.  Also, practice will increase your self-confidence.
  • Make connections. Connect with those that have successfully completed their defense.  They will provide insight that you wouldn’t be able to find otherwise.  It will also help calm your nerves to know that they can do it- you can do it!
  • Know your stuff, but prepare not to know everything. Be positive that you have sure footing on what you did, why you did it, what you found and what it means.  De-emphasize “feeling evaluated” but rather be excited about presenting what you know.   If you don’t know something- admit it.  It’s ok to not know everything (no one can!).  Acknowledge the question and ask to address them at a later time.
  • Think outside of the box. You should feel free to speculate on the theoretical and practical implications of your research.  In my own dissertation defense, I was asked:  “If you had all the time and money in the world- what would you spend your time researching?” as well as “You are now a scholar- what does this research contribute to the field?”  Prepare yourself for questions such as these.
  • Relax. It is inherently nerve-racking process because you are being evaluated, but know-that in 20 minutes you’ll be their colleague.  As I mentioned before, if you make it a collegial conversation rather than a presentation to superiors, you will calm your fears.

There is a Light at the End of the Tunnel!

Groucho Marx once famously said “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”  While I respect Groucho, I have to disagree (at least in this case).  The Ph.D. is a club you want to belong to—and you’ve worked hard to get there!

The dissertation commencement process is not the end; it’s the beginning.  Set the stage for your “after-defense” life.  This is a time for new energy and for exciting career opportunities. Not to mention the positive affect this will have on your personal relationships once the dissertation dragon has been slayed and you have more time to spend with loved ones.  This should be celebrated!

This celebration should be a time to show gratitude for those who have helped you through the process. The dissertation process is not a solo journey. Thank your support team, academically, professionally and personally.

As the quarter comes to an end, some of you may be defending your dissertations or just moving closer to that point—I wish you all luck!

Happy Learning!

James Lani, Ph.D.
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