The Dissertation Defense

Hello, All. It’s been a while since my last update or post; no excuses or apologies, its just the nature of the Spring term. As a professor I deeply admire told me once during a conversation about being overwhelmed, “At the beginning of the academic year, I always feel like I’m on top of things. You know, I’ve had the summer to clear some big projects off my plate, there’s nothing yet to grade, I’ve planned at least the first few weeks of my classes. And then, by Fall Break, I’ve got some new writing projects to work on, and a dissertation or two to read and comment on, and some peer reviewing for a journal, and a slew of letters of recommendation to write, and at least one set of papers to grade. And then the end of the Fall term shows up and I’ve got three sets of finals to grade and a couple of conferences and maybe a research trip to book and the next term’s classes to plan and syllabi and lectures to write; and then Winter Break comes along and suddenly I’m realizing how much is on my plate, so I scramble to try to clear some of it off again, but by the beginning of Spring term it is always painfully clear that I am never going to get to All The Things by May, and then without warning or fanfare a couple new things are showing up on my to-do list each week, and by the middle of Spring term everything is utter chaos and I’m just trying to remember if I brushed my teeth and put on deodorant before I raced out the door to a class, a meeting, a conference, a workshop, a lecture, a disertation defense, a whatever’s-on-the-schedule-today. And then that’s pretty much every day until graduation. And then the cycle seems to reset itself over the summer, and I’ve come to understand that this is really what amounts to a normal working schedule in the career of an academic.”

And, as you may have noticed, it’s March 17, which means we’re in the middle of the Spring term. (Yes, I brushed my teeth and put on deodorant this morning.) It also means that the final date to schedule an oral defense of a dissertation has come and gone at our institution, which might leave those of you who are not among my IRL friends or Facebook followers but who have been following this blog with the burning question: Did she or didn’t she?

The answer is: She did. On March 1, I woke up, went for a 1.5 hour workout to wear out my anxiety, came home and performed the necessary ablutions, strapped on my bought-expressly-for-the-occasion heels, and gave my Introduction a final read-through; then I packed up the goody bags I prepared for each committee member (more on this below), drove in to campus, and sat down from 2:30 to about 3:15 p.m. in the English department’s conference room with my committee to undertake the defense of my dissertation.

Dissertation defenses are handled differently at different institutions and even within different departments at the same school. Some programs hold them as open, scheduled events that pretty much anyone can attend, and require you to put together a formal presentation and host a Q&E; you might even have a reception before or afterward. At other programs, you give the formal presentation in an open forum, either with or without the Q&E session, and then sit down with your committee in private to determine the outcome of the defense. In my program, the standard is for the defense to be held privately between the student and the committee. We are asked to begin with an informal preamble explaining the subject, scope, methodology, and results of our project, and what original contribution we think we are making to the field with it. Then, each committee member takes turns commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of the project in its current form and asking questions about anything that seems unclear or might need further development and explanation. The conversation then turns to our future plans for the project–publication as articles? As a monograph? Not publishing from it?–and the committee members offer suggestions for things we might want to think through as we develop the work towards that goal. After this point, the candidate is asked to leave the room while the committee deliberates on his/her/their performance, and then the candidate is called back into the room to be verbally informed of the results of the oral defense. The entire process, start-to-finish, generally takes no more than two hours.

One of the major differences I have noticed in how dissertation defenses are handled is that at some institutions, this really is a defense in the truest sense of the term–meaning, you enter the situation with no degree of certainty as to whether or not you are going to pass. Everything hinges on your performance during the presentation and Q&A and how satisfied your committee members are with your answers to their questions (and may even, unbeknownst to you, already be determined against your favor, with the defense being your last chance to prove the committee is wrong and still pass). Sometimes, the situation breaks down in unfortunate and damaging ways; I have heard stories about defenses where the candidate felt personally attacked and became defensive not just about his/her/their work, but in general, to the point of shutting down and refusing to answer more questions, or where the committee members felt put on the spot or challenged uncomfortably by a candidate’s findings or answers and responded with venom, or where the candidate dissembled out of anxiety, even to the point of crying out of fear or frustration. I like to think this is not a common thing, and maybe even that these stories are specious in nature, because even when you feel reasonably confident about how things will go, the oral defense is a nerve-wracking experience. I can’t imagine what it would be like to walk into that room with no advance notion of what is about to transpire and worrying like mad about whether you were going to fail.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to undergo that special kind of torture. In our program, the norm rather than the exception is that the oral defense is a formality; if your comittee doesn’t think your project is ready to be defended, they simply won’t let you schedule the defense until it is. When my chair gave me a date and time and told us all to mark it on our calendars, I asked her what I should do to prepare for the defense–did I need a Powerpoint presentation? A formal, memorized lecure on my project? She told me to go home, have a glass of wine, and not look at my project for the next month. I could glance over it a few days before the defense, but no need to go nuts with reviewing. I was ready, this was going to be great, just come in and talk a little bit about the project and the process to get to it and all would be well. (I think being on the deciding end of things permits you to be more confident about these things……! I was still a bundle of nerves, albeit slightly less so than I might have been had she expressed reservations at this point.)

However, because our program is structured so that you defend not as a defense-proper, but as a formality, in my experience, the real defense happened during the first two revisions of the chapter drafts, when I tussled mightily with incorporating the sometimes vastly different comments and requests for revisions from three people, all the while despairing over whether or not my project had any value or worth and even more terrifyingly, whether or not I could get the revisions done by the deadline to submit for committee review prior to the defense–in my case, a month in advance of the date. When I submitted for final review and they allowed me to schedule the defense, this was the sign that I had done what I needed to do; so that at the actual defense, after forty-five minutes of discussion and about five minutes of sitting in the graduate TA lounge begging everyone there to tell me jokes and take my mind off of it, my chair came in and said the magic words: “Congratulations, Doctor Ridley Elmes.” I won’t lie–there may have been a few tears of joy and relief shed.

But then, of course, we celebrated, as everyone ought to do after defending the dissertation. This also can take a variety of forms dependent upon your institution’s culture and your personal preferences–you might bring in a cake or other assorted goodies for a post-defense party with your committee and maybe other members of the department, or your committee chair might have a card and cake for you, or you might all go out to a local eatery or watering hole for a celebratory pint. I think it is a nice thing as well to present your committee members with some token of your gratitude for their time and effort on your behalf–remember, they have not only shepherded you through the process of producing, revising, and defending the dissertation, but they are also writing your letters of evaluation for the job search and if you are fortunate to be working with people you get along very well with and who are very supportive, they may continue to work with you, reading and commenting on future projects towards publication, for instance. I peronalized my gifts, presenting each of my committee members at the conclusion of the defense with a bottle of their preferred wine, brandy, whiskey, and two boxes of Girl Scout cookies I know they are fond of, alongside some K-Beauty products for my chair, who shares my obsession with sheet masks. These were well-received, and with that, we adjourned to the pub next door to our building and had a celebratory toast.

And then I went home, was feted by my family, and slept, but not nearly enough, as I had to wake up the next morning to teach.

So, after all of this, based on my own experiences and on the experiences of others who have shared their stories with me, I have a few suggestions for those who are yet to defend their dissertations; to wit:

  1. Stay in contact with the members of your committee throughout the writing process and solicit their feedback regularly, so you know where you stand in terms of completing a viable project that you can defend. If there are major problems, catching them early is the best offense for a good defense.
  2. When you think you might be, or aren’t quite sure, check in with your dissertation advisor and ask frankly whether s/he thinks you are ready to defend; if not, what s/he thinks you still need to do and when s/he thinks you might reasonable expect to be reday to defend, and listen well to his or her words whether you agree with them or not–yes, this is your project, but your committee has to sign off on it. This may mean compromising in the short term in order to defend, then doing whatever you like to the project once you have passed the defense.
  3. Make sure you know what the defense will require from you, so you can be well-prepared for what to expect.
  4. If you have to give a formal presentation, run it by your chair and also, practice it at least once with some friends or family members, so you are comfortable with the presentation when it really counts. If there will be a Q&A session, ask them to come up with hard questions, so you can be flustered with them instead of during the event itself.
  5. The dissertation defense is a formal academic event; even if yours is privately conducted between you and your committee, you should dress for it. You don’t have to wear a three-piece suit (unless that’s the standard for your program, department, or institution) but you shouldn’t show up in jeans and a t-shirt, either. This is the moment in which you are crossing the threshold and entering into the ranks of the credentialed professionals in your field. Dress the part. Having said that, you should also wear something that you love, which always makes you feel more comfortable and confident (in my case, killer shoes are a must.) If you are a woman with long hair, consider wearing it back in a half-up, braid, ponytail, or bun, so you’re not tempted to play with it or hide behind it.
  6. If there’s any way to do so, schedule your defense for a day and time that will give you at least 24 full hours afterward to recover. It’s no secret to anyone who has been in my presence for all of five minutes that I love research, writing, presenting that research, and teaching, but I really regretted not having the day after my defense off from teaching, because trust me, your brain will be mushy and you will be exhausted. It’s a good idea to try to give yourself a little down time to just be quiet and recover.
  7. And finally, when it’s over, CELEBRATE! Go out for pints or lunch or dinner with your committee, have a get-together with family and friends or other people from your program, take a weekend trip, buy something special for yourself, have a fancy dinner or a truly decadent dessert. This is the moment you worked for, and when you’re still in the middle of a term of teaching and conferences and lectures and the other myriad activities that consume our waking hours as academics, it can be easy to let it get buried under the avalanche of things you put off until after the defense. But those things truly can wait one more day, a few more days, a week, while you stop to smell the roses.


What about you? If you have recently defended your dissertation, how did it go? If you have yet to defend, what questions or concerns do you have?





About Melissa Ridley Elmes

I am a medievalist, wife and mother of two who spends her days researching, writing, teaching, painting, singing, dancing, acting and trying to find more hours in a day.
This entry was posted in Dissertating, General Graduate Student Advice, Research and Scholarship, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Dissertation Defense

  1. Many congratulations, doctor! Proof that it can be done. 🙂

  2. Congratulations, doctor! Proof that it can be done. 🙂

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