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What to Expect When Defending Your Dissertation

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    For many graduate students, defending their dissertations seems like a worse fate than facing off against a horde of angry gladiators. The word “defense” implies an attack, which isn’t really the case. Your job while defending your dissertation is to demonstrate your mastery over the subject matter. That’s all your committee cares about.

    How much time will it take?

    In most cases, students defend their dissertations for 1.5-2 hours. There are always exceptions to the rule, but this is what you should expect. In reality, most graduate students discover that it seems to take less time than it actually does. This is because they have spent months or years with their research, and they are passionate enough that discussing it makes time fly.

    Who will be there?

    The most important attendees are your dissertation committee members. Other attendees vary depending on the university and graduate program.

    In some programs, candidates are allowed to invite personal guests, such as faculty support, significant others, and even family members. In others, the defense is open to the public, and anyone interested in the research can attend. Make sure to ask about this ahead of time and to clear any guests with your committee chair or adviser.

    What happens?

    The schedule for a dissertation defense usually includes several stages:

    Committee Discussion: Without the candidate, the committee might discuss the dissertation and voice any concerns that the candidate isn’t ready for a defense.

    Presentation: The candidate gives a presentation lasting 20-30 minutes. It is essen-tially an overview of the thesis, methodology, and results of the paper.

    Questions: Members of the committee ask the candidate questions about the re-search. This segment is sometimes divided into rounds based on types of questions (e.g. pre-existing research, future inquiries).

    Deliberations: After the candidate leaves, the committee debates over the results of the defense.

    Results: The committee informs the candidate of the results.

    When are you ready?

    An adviser will tell you if you are not ready to defend your dissertation. This is why it is important to think of the defense as an opportunity to share your findings rather than an attack by committee members to discount your research.

    Take a deep breath and focus on finishing your dissertation. If you know your material, the defense will come naturally.

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