Great news! You are now almost at the end of a long and challenging journey. It’s so very, very close.
You never thought this day would arrive, but miraculously, you have completed your dissertation. It’s been vetted by your advisor and the other members of your committee. All that is remaining between you and that highly anticipated doctoral degree is the final defense.
Most university programs require you to orally present and defend your work to a critical committee of internal and external scholars in your field. Although it is ideally a positive experience, it is also rigorous and you will understandably experience some anxiety before the big event.
So, how do you get through this academic grand finale and convince your future peers across the room that you are ready to join them in the ranks of those who have completed the highest level of academic attainment? Several key preparation practices will ensure you move through the process with relative ease. Now is not the time to walk into the room unprepared and hope for the best!
First, it’s invaluable to witness other dissertation defenses – ideally in the same program area at your university. There was a time (pre-pandemic) when many universities opened defenses to the public. Now, however, defenses are primarily conducted online via Zoom. You may need to make special arrangements to view the defense of a peer or friend. If that’s not possible, you can access a range of defenses online. Go to YouTube and narrow your search to both university and subject.
In terms of the platform for your defense, now that more campuses are opening up, you may be given the option to do your defence either on-campus or via Zoom. After coaching many clients to the defense stage over the past year, I’ve noticed that students defending over Zoom generally find the experience less stressful and easier to prepare for. Instead of facing down a formal committee across a room, the Zoom platform allows for a more egalitarian and conversational experience. Plus, you can have extensive notes (for yourself) organized on your desk beside you or on the wall behind the computer – and no one will see them! Even if you don’t need them, having them at the ready does give you a sense of security.
Part of your defense will invariably be a presentation of the key components of your dissertation project, including a summary of each chapter. If you are using Powerpoint as part of the presentation phase of your defence, make certain that it’s well structured and clear. Don’t include too much text on each slide and prepare notes to enrich the slide information – rather than reading verbatim. Make sure your slides are to the point, well composed and visually attractive.
As you approach your defense you can think of yourself as preparing for a performance of sorts, albeit one for a highly specialized audience. As any accomplished actor will tell you, the open secret to an accomplished, interesting, and sometimes witty performance is preparation and rehearsal.
Practice your presentation in front of colleagues, friends and family and get feedback on timing, pacing and clarity. Get your breathing and nerves under control by doing some simple yoga exercises and try some basic vocal exercises to get your tongue loose and articulate.
Compose a long list of relevant questions you think you might be asked and give them to said colleagues and family members. Ask them to frequently question you over several days by mixing up the order and content of the questions, so that you so that you become comfortable with the response process and practice articulating your ideas clearly. Practice, practice, practice – while walking together, having dinner and between breaks at work. Considering recording yourself on Zoom so that you can review your performance and make adjustments as needed.
Putting these suggestions into action will help ensure your defense is a great success and that you leave the room with the coveted new title before your name. Congratulations are in order, Dr.!