Career advice

Preparing for Your PhD Defence

3 min read · By Academic Positions

Completing your dissertation isn’t the final hurdle to earning your PhD, the oral defence (called a viva voce or viva in the UK) is. But once the date has been set and the examiners are confirmed, how do you start to prepare? Here are some tips to help you beat the nerves and rock your defence.

Know What You’re in For

If defences are public in your department, try to attend a couple before your own. Attending someone else’s defence is a great learning experience and will help you see what works and what doesn't. Notice things like how the candidate dresses, how they address the examiners, and the sort of questions the committee asks. What makes their talk compelling? Watching a live defence is the best way to understand the format and what will be expected of you when it’s your turn.  

Reread Your Dissertation

This is a very important step. A PhD is a multi-year endeavour and it may have been a few years since you did some of the research in your dissertation. Go through each chapter and summarize your main arguments. Then zoom out about your dissertation as a whole. While the committee will question you about the details, they will also ask you to consider your work in a broader context. What are the implications of your findings? What does your thesis contribute to the field? It’s also a good idea to take note of any weaknesses or mistakes so you’re prepared if they’re discussed during the defence.

Prepare Your Talk

After rereading your thesis, you will be in a good position to put your talk together. Your talk should address what you did, why you did it, how you did it, what you found, and what it means. Remember you will only have about 20 minutes. Preparation is more than just building a slide deck, you must also practice giving your talk. Practice giving your talk multiple times both on your own and in front of groups—and remember to rehearse the question part too. Fielding questions from your test audience will help you get better at thinking on your feet when facing unexpected questions.

Basic Question Types

It’s impossible to predict every question you will be asked during your defence so instead prepare for questions in these five common categories: General questions, the context of your work, your methods and research design, analysis of your results, and discussion. You can also familiarize yourself with the work of your committee members as they are more likely to ask questions about their own area of expertise.

Final Tips

Defence preparation shouldn’t be purely academic. Don’t forget to prepare yourself mentally and physically as well by eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep.

Good luck!

By Academic Positions  ·  Published 2018-07-03

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