Home Science Communication Less than two weeks to go until PhD defense

Less than two weeks to go until PhD defense

by Eva Amsen

How does one prepare for a PhD defense?

I really don’t know, but I’m pretty sure these things are wrong:

1. Using pile of papers as a little side table for tea:

Getting ready for PhD defense


2. Having the cat review old course material:


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Brian Derby November 27, 2008 - 11:24 PM

I prepared by driving from Grenoble to Cambridge in a snow storm. Arriving very late the night before and crashing at a friends who appropriately worked for the British Antarctic Survey. Next day I turned up for my viva (defense) to discover the snow had delayed everyone and as they all wanted to get home before it started snowing again. Result – the shortest viva on record.

Cath Ennis November 28, 2008 - 12:27 AM

My viva was also delayed by snow – the external examiner was stuck on a train from Dundee to Glasgow.
I prepared by reading and re-reading my thesis, and every single paper I’d cited. I knew even at the time that it probably wouldn’t help much (and with one exception it didn’t), but I didn’t know what else to do and I had a rather morbid thought that if I failed, I wanted to fail with the knowledge that at least I’d done _something_…
Eat well, get some exercise and lots of sleep – that will be the best preparation. Good luck!

Åsa Karlström November 28, 2008 - 1:51 AM

[note that the defense Swedish way is probably much different…. ]
I prepared my presentation (20 mins) and re-read my thesis, had my group read it and ask me questions in a pre-thesis defense, and then read my papers I quoted and thought through some “potential” questions.
And then I really listened to the people who had defended a few weeks earlier who said “remember that noone knows this better than you since you did the work! And don’t panic. Take the time you need to answer”
And also, [pet peeve of mine] don’t start answering questions with “hmm… I don’t know but maybe this….”. [my mentor spotted that habit of mine.] but jump right to “hmmm.. maybe”.
I’m sure you’ll do fine but Good luck! And have a nice day the day after!! 🙂 it’s great.

Eva Amsen November 28, 2008 - 5:23 AM

Snow. Well, I have been _worrying_ about snow. My external examiner is driving in from London, Ontario, which is in the snow belt, so I’m scared that she won’t make it, and I’m already one person short due to administration stuff. (Incidentally, the Ontario town of London always has to be referred to as “London, Ontario”, so people don’t confuse it with the actual London in England. So annoying.)
Going over the papers I cited sounds like a good plan. I have _way_ more papers here than I cited. They’re sorted by topic, so I can quickly find the paper I need when I know what I’m looking for, but they’re not alphabetical. _sigh_
Doing a test run sounds like a good idea as well. I don’t need it for the talk, but I want people to completely baffle me with stupid questions before someone in my exam does.

steffi suhr November 28, 2008 - 5:36 AM

Eva, I’m worried about that teaglass – it looks like it’s going to fall.
Anyway, I agree that the best advice is to remember that _you_ are the expert in this case. As long as you understand what you’ve done and can communicate that, no problem. Speaking confidently is also important, as Åsa mentions. Somehow I don’t think you’ll have any problems with communication or confidence.. 😉

Bob O'Hara November 28, 2008 - 6:09 AM

Lots of sensible advice (remember – they’ll never ask you what you expect). The best defences are conversations rather than examinations, so it won’t be as fearsome as you think.
Several groups here have pre-exam. practices, and the general opinion is that the questions are harder than the real thing.
The defence is really a chance to chat about your work to someone who is knowledgeable and interested. Look at it like that, and you might even be able to look forward to it.

Mike Fowler November 28, 2008 - 8:14 AM

Make sure you know your opponent’s work (and, dare I say, be prepared to be critical of it!)
My department had a policy of selecting the opponent and specifically not telling the defendant who it was before they submitted the thesis. At least you know who you’re going to be talking with, use that info to your benefit as much as possible.

Brian Derby November 28, 2008 - 8:38 AM

Thesis defense appears to be a culturally diverse practice. In the UK it is one-on-one with an internal acting as a referee. In France and the Netherlands it seems more like a coronation. You should have seen the trouble that was caused when I and another external from Belgium raised doubts about a candidate in a French University! I am sure there also massive cultural differences in the way different academic subjects treat viva defenses (in the haumanities, I have heard, they use trial by ordeal and there is normally blood on the carpet).
@Eva: Calmness and serenity is the best tactic. Remember the fundamental tenet of ensuring brain is in gear before engaging mouth. As someone who has examined many students, I can assure you that it is much better to hear a calm and collected view rather than a snap “stream of conciousness” answer.
Good luck, I am sure you will do very well.

Eva Amsen November 28, 2008 - 4:43 PM

Steffi, my dad also just commented (by e-mail) on the tea glass. It was really a lot more stable than it looks in the picture.
Mike, it sounds terrifying to not know who’s opposite you. I got to pick my own exam committee, so I know everyone, except for the representative from the school of graduate studies, and I’ve never met my external examiner, but I selected her based on her research. She’s the only one in Ontario doing cell biology on pigmentation systems. Everyone else who works in pigmentation works on the medical/social side of things.
Brian, my parents are flying in from Holland for my defense here, and I’ve had to mentally prepare them that it’s not _at all_ like a Dutch defense. They’re kind of disappointed, and would have rather seen me do the whole official dress-up thing.

Cath Ennis November 28, 2008 - 5:26 PM

I actually ended up enjoying my viva immensely – at no time before or since have I had three people (internal, external and department head as chair) so interested in my research for so long!
It helped that my internal was a really great guy who opened the questioning with “So, I see that Newcastle are currently top of the premiership. Do you think you can win it this year?” I replied with “well, Iain, that’s probably the hardest question you’re going to ask me today, I really wish I could answer it”, and we were off to a good start!
The one (proper) question that I couldn’t answer came right at the end. The external examimer asked me how I could go about testing a rather speculative hypothesis I’d included in the Discussion. I really couldn’t think of a single reason that I hadn’t already given in the text, and as he continued to push me I started to panic a little bit. He eventually said “what I was going for was that you could do experiment X in the presence of protease inhibitors”, and with a great sense of relief I pointed out that I’d actually written that suggestion in the next paragraph, and thought he was looking for a _different_ method. He’d somehow not read that paragraph… this is where knowing your thesis forwards and backwards really pays off!

Henry Gee November 28, 2008 - 9:14 PM

The best thing you can do is get plenty of sleep beforehand.

Cath Ennis November 28, 2008 - 10:34 PM

Henry, I failed spectacularly at the good night’s sleep thing. In fact I got about 40 minutes all night. The inevitable result was that at the post-viva celebration that evening, I fell asleep leaning against the bar at about 10 pm. The rest of my lab went out dancing, but my friend had to take me home…

Henry Gee November 28, 2008 - 11:23 PM

You wanton young libertine, you.

Eva Amsen November 29, 2008 - 1:38 AM

More advice I got today:
-From someone who defended this afternoon: “OH GOD I’M SO SORRY YOU STILL HAVE TO GO THROUGH ALL THIS!!!”
-From a friend back in Europe, by e-mail: “Tip for defense: cross your arms over your face, and duck when you’re being attacked.”

Ian Brooks November 29, 2008 - 8:13 PM

Excellent comment thread. I’ll just reiterate the common theme here: You know your work bette than anybody. Just think about your answers before snapping something off, and remember: all you have to prove is that you’re worthy of the PhD. You’re not going for a tenured Chair or head of department 🙂
Mine was a blast. I wasn’t nervous at all, and had a great time. But the US system is so different…
My friend had to fly back to the UK from the US for hers. She was delayed for 13hrs at Dulles in Washington DC and finally got to her viva about an hour before it started, literally straight off the plane, onto a train to get to the University. She said it was great in retrospect because she’d had nothing to do _but_ read her thesis at the airport! And she was so jet lagged she felt no nerves what-so-ever! Her external examiner was the guy who “invented” her field of astrophysics and her thesis basically proved him wrong on some rather fundamental issues, so it should have been _very_ stressful LOL

Mike Fowler November 29, 2008 - 9:33 PM

Eva, we’re allowed to know who the opponent is after we’ve submitted the thesis – in my case that was about 3 weeks before the defence (bit of a rush job). I was lucky enough to go out for a few beers the night before with my opponent, which gave each of us a chance to find out that the other was a human being. I heartily recommend this strategy if you get the chance. It’ll also help you sleep!
Theses and defences are culturally different, standards vary, but the letters you get after your name are pretty much equal, regardless of where you get them from.

Maxine Clarke November 30, 2008 - 11:17 AM

I hope it all goes well for you, Eva.

Clare Dudman November 30, 2008 - 5:07 PM

It wasn’t called a ‘defence’ in my day, but a viva, and I had the impression it was all pretty much decided already and the ‘viva’ was just to make sure it was my own work. ‘Defence’ makes it sound so much more combative – and it wasn’t, at all.
The worst bit was the teasing from my friends while I was waiting for the examiners to decide (all of about half an hour but it seemed to take forever).
And as for sleep – nah, I didn’t get much of that either. My son was only a few of months old and he’s an insomniac just like me. Though I am sure it’s a good idea if you can get it!
Best of luck, Eva!

Eva Amsen December 1, 2008 - 5:20 PM

My mom says I should take all the advice you guys are giving me…

Stephen Curry December 1, 2008 - 5:51 PM

Good luck Eva – as long as it was you who wrote the thesis, youll do brilliantly! 😉
A friend of mine had to ‘defend’ his thesis at Yale where the initial part was a public talk followed by Q&A. One of his examiners was a bit late in arriving so, to pass the time, he told them about his calendar.
He had been trying to improve his vocabulary, so got one of those calendars where you tear off a page each day – and on each page there was a new word. Well, the day of his defence had dawned that morning so the first thing he did was to rip off the previous page to see that this day’s word was…
Good luck – and may you not be befuddled at any stage!

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