The PhD defense: “disaster” avoidance strategies

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The date for your PhD thesis defense is approaching. In many ways you have already started your preparation: the thesis writing and submission, going through the administrative procedures, verifying conclusions, refreshing your knowledge and rehearsing for the big day.

It is likely that you have already been there through the eyes of another student. First: A stuffy room, the presentation that is seemingly a mere formality, those yawns from the audience, the nervous smiles from your supervisor.

And then, here comes the part you really have been waiting for. The moment when the thesis committee is no longer a list of names: it is question time.

Questions: The ceremonial ones, the easy ones, the “good” ones, the difficult ones. What about those harsh questions? The dry mouth, the perspiration, someone playing drums with a pen and desk, the laser pointer moving like crazy all over the screen. Also you have wondered: What’s with the little tapping on the microphone? Is she about to have a stroke? Give that man a glass of water please!

Until now you have hoped for the best.

But are you adequately prepared for the worst?

Trying to anticipate all possible types of situations during your PhD defense is a wishful, almost hopeless, task. But envisioning “worst” possible scenarios and considering the actions typically leading to such undesirable situations are both feasible and necessary. These are relatively common and preventable mistakes that students can make, time and again, in different doses and combinations. A selection of them and accompanying advice follows.

1. Huh? I don’t know. Here is the question, and you may not know the best possible answer, or you think that it is outside the scope of your research. Nothing wrong with it. Unfortunately, your gestures, words or even tone can tell the committee a more troubling story: you are not sufficiently concerned with the point made by the examiner.  A simple “maybe, I don’t know” or “this is outside the topic of my research” are more than unsatisfactory replies. Although honesty should be at the center of your responses, such simplistic answers are also different ways to say: I do not care enough.  A rephrasing of the question may make things clearer to you, and at least it will buy you some time to think about what to say next.

2. The dog ate my data. Gone are the days when you could blame the dog for eating your homework or announce the death of your grandmother for the third time.  During your PhD, blunders or omissions may rightly be explained by different factors: Lack of funding, “unforeseen” mishaps, supervision problems and family issues. But regardless of whether or not they represented major obstacles to your work, never use them as an easy way out of your individual responsibility or to shift it on to others. It is alright to explain the conditions that influenced a particular outcome, an obstacle that you had to overcome or a difficult turn that you had to make. However, even if you are still recovering from these complications or you feel that you were treated unfairly: focus on the problem and your approach to dealing with it. Even better, tell the audience how you adapted to new circumstances, and outline the lessons you learned.

3. Nah, it is not so bad. An effective way to piss off committee members is to downplay the significance or seriousness of their concerns. If something in your work looks to them “surprising” or “weaker”, then for a moment consider that there must be some truth to their criticism. If you disagree with the reviewer’s position, then respond to it as you are expected to do: through argument based on the most solid evidence available. All of this without forgetting that in research there is always some room for improvement.

4. Duh, obviously.  Even if you think that a reviewer asked you a trivial or obvious question, never express this view (either in words or mannerisms) to the committee. It’s the reviewer’s job to assess your knowledge irrespective of whether you or anyone else believe that you know the answer. If you have the impression that the committee is testing you, well that’s right, get over it.  This is also related to another not less common situation: the candidate displaying hints of exasperation or amusement when asked questions that, at least in the candidate’s opinion, have already been addressed during the defense. These reactions not only may be seen as impolite to the reviewers, but also they offer a negative glimpse at your intellectual maturity.

5. I showed it in the thesis. It is not unusual for students to answer a question by simply indicating that a particular point was already explained in the thesis. Never assume that the reviewers will remember everything from your thesis. Even if they have amazing memory powers, the reviewers are there to ask anything considered relevant for evaluating the quality of your research. In some cases, they just want you to refer to a specific thesis section to obtain further clarification. So, focus on the question and answer it, even if the answer is impeccably clear in the thesis.

During and after your PhD defense you may feel that you did not offer the best answer to one or several questions. That could be especially frustrating if you are confident that you had the necessary knowledge to make it better. This is perhaps unavoidable and will represent a recurrent theme in your research career. Moreover, error and failure are inescapable realities in science. However, what you should not contemplate is ignoring basic recommendations that are known to be conducive to a professional, and hopefully less painful, discussion.

Keep up the hard work on route to your PhD defense. Celebration will be coming next.

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