Baptism by fire, and keeping a cool headDisputation, oral exam, defence: Although it might sound like a big showdown, in reality a doctoral defence is not very spectacular. You just have to be well prepared.
The oral exam is one of the last steps to getting your PhD. It can create anxiety for many doctoral students. Even today, few other academic rituals are associated with so many legends. People tell horror stories up and down the halls of academia: of doctoral students grilled by the exam committee with unanswerable questions; of blackouts in the middle of their presentation; even of candidates denied their PhD because they fail the oral exam, even with an exceptional final written grade.
The fact is: the doctoral defence is supposed to test your academic skills. However, people who need to parry one or two critical questions usually pass with no problems. Frequently, at the end of the day the defence is much more harmless than expected: just a relaxed, professional discussion among colleagues.
Nevertheless, you need to be well prepared. The goal is to go through your own dissertation and your subject area one more time and to think about how you can present the expertise you have gained over the last several years to an academic public in a convincing way. We have asked three experts for their best suggestions to make sure your defence is a success.
- Laura König successfully defended her dissertation on “Healthy Pleasures: Integrating Food Well-Being and Simple Eating Behaviour Interventions” in early 2018, and currently works as a postdoc at the University of Konstanz.
- Sylvia Löhken is an expert in personality-based communication. She is an author and works as a coach in science and scientific administration.
- Angela Ittel is the Vice President of the Technical University of Berlin, and has advised multiple dissertation defences as the Head of Educational Psychology.
Should I present my research at conferences before the oral defence?
“Lectures are a great way to practice your presentation style. I presented preliminary findings from my dissertation at three or four health psychology conferences. These provided me with academic feedback, as well as valuable tips on presentation practices. If you work to present your results in an easy to understand way right from the start, you will save time at the end of the day and will have a good database of graphics and presentation slides.”
“Doctoral candidates can use conferences to become familiar with the (unwritten) rules of their scientific community. When and how a candidate successfully presents their research depends greatly on their research tradition. In medicine or law, for instance, professional visibility after university starts somewhat later. In a field like biology, in contrast, at some conferences students can even lead sessions while they are still getting their PhDs. This, in turn, helps them gain new contacts. The networks they create may shape their careers.”
“Doctoral candidates should use every opportunity to present their findings—even if they are not yet complete. If you are at the start of your dissertation, I recommend small PhD student colloquia, which can help you prepare to give a talk at a big conference. This kind of more intimate setting is a great way to create a clear structure and practice talking about your findings.”
How can I prepare for my oral examination?
“The best way to prepare is to practice your presentation in front of people who have already defended. They can give you tips: Did I strike the right tone? Did I stay within time limits? Did I use enough professional jargon? That was how I adapted my presenting style, assuming my audience came to the talk with a broader knowledge base and using less definitions and examples. Another tip is to attend public defences as a guest. This allows you to see the different questioning styles used by different examiners.”
“Many doctoral candidates feel like they are completing another master’s exam: ‘Every time I have a pack of professors sitting in front of me, they are testing me on something’. But a doctoral defence is something completely different. It is an interface, the first time an academic presents their findings to others as a colleague rather than as a student. I recommend trying to foster this mindset as part of your preparation. Practising this approach will make it easier for you to strike the right pose during the defence. After so many years of intensive work in your field, the topic itself isn’t the problem.”
“Prepare your presentation so that it clearly shows what contribution your research makes. Ideally, it will also look forward to new trends or subsequent research questions. Being able to see beyond the limits of your own work is an important skill, and one you should communicate. To make sure you appear confident, I recommend practising your presentation standing up and deliberately training yourself to look at your audience. I always also like to have a one-page handout summarising key topics of the defence.”
How should I handle critical remarks during my presentation?
“Rude comments are rare at conferences. When I do get critiques, it helps me to ask myself: ‘What is this comment really about?’ You should never take a professional critique as a personal attack. Good preparation is worth a lot. If someone asks why you chose a particular method, for instance, you can give an objective answer. Sometimes, you will have to agree to disagree, and agree that further research will be required to answer the question.”
“Critical questions are just part of science. The people in the audience want to find out whether my talk has scientific value, or whether it was just a nice experiment. And they should find that out! Taking this perspective is a good way to have a more relaxed approach. If someone actually says to you: ‘Oh, we tested that theory years ago and it doesn’t work’, then I check my own attitude. The other person is only attacking me if I put him in that role. Maybe he just didn’t formulate his objection very well. There is no reason to feel disrespected or to get aggressive yourself. In this situation, for instance, I would recommend saying: ‘Yes, I was sceptical at first myself, and then we did the following…’. By saying this, I signal my understanding and place myself on equal intellectual footing with this person. This puts us on the same side as one another, not in confrontation with one another.”
“Normally, examiners are not interested in tearing down a candidate’s presentation. However, you should be able to handle critical questions about your defence with confidence. Being able to assess your weaknesses constructively, for instance by saying ‘I might not have had the best target audience...’ or ‘Next time I will handle it this way...’ shows that you can reflect on your work and will be viewed positively.”