How to prepare an excellent thesis defense

What is a thesis defense?

If you're about to complete, or have ever completed a graduate degree, you have most likely come across the term "thesis defense". In many countries, to finish a graduate degree, you have to write a thesis. In general, a thesis is a large paper based on a topic relating to your field of study. Once you hand in your thesis, you will be assigned a date to defend your work.

Your thesis defense meeting usually consists of you and a committee, consisting of two or more professors working in your program. It may also include other people, like professionals from other colleges or those who are working in your field. During your thesis defense, you will be asked questions about your work. The main purpose of your thesis defense is for the committee to make sure that you actually understand your field and focus area.

The questions are usually open-ended and require the student to think critically about their work. Note that at the time of your thesis defense, your paper has already been evaluated. The questions asked are not designed so that you actually have to aggressively "defend" your work, often your thesis defense is more of a formality required so that you can get your degree.

How long is a thesis defense?

How long your oral thesis defense is depends largely on the institution and requirements of your degree. It is best to consult your department or institution on this. In general, a thesis defense may take only 20 minutes, but it may also take two hours or more. This also depends on how much time is allocated to the presentation and questioning part. We will talk more about the different parts of a thesis defense below.

What happens at a thesis defense?

First of all, be aware that a thesis defense varies from country to country. This is just a general overview, but a thesis defense can take many different formats in different countries. Some are closed, other are public defenses. Some take place with two, some with more examiners. The same goes for the length of your thesis defense, as mentioned above. So the most important first step for you is to clarify with your department what the structure of your thesis defense will look like. In general, this is what happens at a thesis defense:

Your presentation

You might have to give a presentation, often with Powerpoint, Google slides or Keynote slides. Make sure to prepare an appropriate amount of slides. A general rule is to use about 10 slides for a 20-minute presentation. But that also depends on your specific topic and the way you present. The good news is, there will be plenty of time ahead of your thesis defense to prepare your slides and practice your presentation alone and in front of friends or family.

You can prepare your slides by using information from your thesis' first chapter (the overview of your thesis) as a framework or outline. Substantive information in your thesis should correspond with your slides. Make sure your slides are of good quality - both as regards the integrity of the information, and the appearance of your slides. If you need more help with how to prepare your presentation slides, both the ASQ Higher Education Brief and James Hayton have good guidelines on the topic.

Questions from the committee

As mentioned earlier, the committee will ask questions about your work after you finished your presentation. The questions will most likely be about the core content of your thesis, like what you learned from the study you conducted, but also why you chose your topic or how it will contribute to the existing body of knowledge. You might also be asked to summarize certain findings. Read your full thesis in preparation of the questions, so you know what you have written about.

While you are reading in preparation, you can create a list of possible questions and try to answer them. You can foresee many of the questions you will get by simply spending some time rereading your thesis. In addition, this blog post from researchClue.com lists 25 common thesis/project defense questions and how you may approach to answer them.

6 tips to help you prepare for your thesis defense

When you start your graduate degree, the end of it seems so far away. But then it ends up coming faster than you thought. You hand in your thesis, which was a lot of work, and as a last step before you officially receive your degree, you have to master your thesis defense. Here are a few tips on how to prepare for your thesis defense.

1. Anticipate questions and prepare for them

We've mentioned it before but you can really prepare for most of the questions you will be asked. Read through your thesis and while you're reading it, create a list of possible questions. In addition, as you will know who will be on the committee, look at the academic expertise of the committee members. In what areas would they most likely be focused? If possible, sit at other thesis defenses with these committee members to get a feeling for how they ask and what they ask. As a graduate student, you should generally be adept at anticipating test questions, so use this advantage to gather as much information as possible before your thesis defense meeting.

2. Dress for success

Your thesis defense is a formal event, often the entire department or university is invited to participate. It signals a critical rite of passage for graduate students and faculty who have supported them throughout a long and challenging process. While most universities don't have specific rules on how to dress for that event, do regard it with dignity and respect. This one might be a no-brainer, but know that you should dress as if you were on a job interview or delivering a paper at a conference.

3. Delegate

It might help you deal with your stress before your thesis defense to entrust someone with the smaller but important responsibilities of your thesis defense well ahead of schedule. This trusted person could be responsible for preparing the room of the day of defense, setting up equipment for the presentation or preparing and distributing handouts.

4. Have a backup plan

Technology is unpredictable. Life is too. There are no guarantees that your Powerpoint presentation will work at all or look the way it is supposed to do on the big screen. We've all been there. Make sure to have a plan B for these situations. Handouts can help when technology fails, or an additional fresh shirt for spilled coffee can save the day.

5. What to do when you don't know the answer

One of the scariest aspects of the defense is the possibility of being asked a question you can't answer. While you can prepare for some questions, you can never know exactly what the committee will ask. There will always be gaps in your knowledge. But your thesis defense is not about being perfect and knowing everything, it's about how you deal with challenging situations. You are not expected to know everything.

James Hayton writes on his blog that examiners will sometimes even ask questions they don't know the answer to, out of curiosity, or because they want to see how you think. While it is ok sometimes to just say "I don't know", he advises to try something like "I don't know, but I would think [...] because of x and y, but you would need to do [...] in order to find out". This shows that you have the ability to think as an academic.

6. Dealing with your nerves

You will be nervous. But the good news is - your examiners will expect you to be nervous. It is completely normal to be nervous. Being well prepared can help minimize your stress, but do know that your examiners have seen this many times before and are willing to help, by repeating questions for example if needed.

Two common symptoms of being nervous are talking really fast and nervous laughs. Try to slow yourself down, take a deep breath. Remember what feels like hours to you are just a few seconds in real life. Allow yourself to process the question, respond to it, and stop talking once you have responded. While a smile can often help dissolve a difficult situation, remember that nervous laughs can be irritating for your audience.

We all make mistakes and your thesis defense will most likely not be perfect. You are not expected to be perfect and the examiners already have plenty of experience with this and will guide you through it. Also remember that your thesis defense is often just a formality and the committee actually wants you to pass. If you are still nervous about your thesis defense, read this blog post by Dora Farkas at finishyourthesis.com. She debunks 5 common myths about thesis defenses and helps you see that your committee is not out to get you. 😉