Advice for the Defense


For doctoral candidates and many Master's degree students, one of the final steps after the dissertation or thesis is written includes an oral defense. If you're preparing for a defense, you may be worried. But while the word evokes war and keeping the attackers at bay, a defense can actually be enjoyable. You've spent months or years researching, writing, and revising, and now you have the chance to show what you've learned.

Here are a few tips to help prepare you for the defense:

  • Learn about the structure
    Ask your advisor about how the defense will be organized. Most defenses begin with a public presentation by the student, followed by a question and answer period alone with your committee. Know what to expect!
  • Outline the parts you'll present
    Know your research forwards and backwards. Rather than writing out your opening statement verbatim, use an outline to plan yout main and supporting points. In the opening statement you'll want to introduce your project, the questions that drove your research, your methods, and your results (and how your results are significant).
  • Attend another defense
    Chances are good that you've attended colleagues' defenses for the last few years. If you haven't, attend a few so you can see what they're like—from the format to the types of questions that are asked.
  • Talk to colleagues who've successfully defended
    Learn more about the dynamics in the defense and how defenses have gone in the past. Their experiences (and living proof that students survive this experience!) can help you feel more comfortable with your own.
  •  Anticipate possible questions
    Spend time thinking about what your committee might ask (keep their own areas of interest in mind!), and outline how you can address concerns they might raise. As with outlining the introduction, think about the main points you want to address when you answer the question.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice
    As you prepare, don't just write down what you plan to say during your presentation, or answers to potential questions. Speak aloud to get comfortable with the flow of ideas. This practice may make it easier for you to anticipate how others will respond to your thoughts, and that in turn will help you be better prepared.
  • Dress the part
    How you present yourself affects how your committee members see you and also how you see yourself. Whether you invest in a whole new outfit or simply a pair of shoes that are your "defense shoes," make an effort to present "the best you."
  • Have an answer ready (for questions you don't know the answer to)
    Your committee will be trying to identify the edge of what you know, and gauging your response when you're confronted with it. It's best to recognize and admit  it when your research didn't address this topic, or if you just don't know the answer. If you're not sure you understood the question, rephrase it. If appropriate, you might explain why your dissertation research didn't address the specific point, that the posed question could lead to further research, and you might improvise what a project designed to answer the question might look like. By showing that you could synthesize an answer, even while acknowledging that you do not know the answer, shows that you can effectively think on your feet and know the ways your field can be expanded.
  • Don't interrupt
    If the members of your committee are hashing things out over a smaller detail of your work or they're discussing tangential topics, use the time to sit back, take a sip of water, and regroup.

After all of your preparation, try not to be nervous. Remember, you know the work best. Each of your readers was chosen for his/her area of specialty, but when it comes to your work, you are the expert.


Zellner, Andrea. "What I've Learned About Defenses." GradHacker. November 29, 2012. -defenses