Saturday, March 17, 2012

PhD Thesis Defense Difficulties

PhD Thesis Defense Difficulties

Devoted to providing practical strategies for completing your Doctoral Dissertation.™
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INSIDE THIS ISSUE - August 30, 2007

1. A Note from the Editor

2. Inspirational Quotes

3. Defending Your Dissertation
by Mary Renck Jalongo, Ph.D.

August 30, 2007
A Note from the Editor

Tracy Steen, Ph.D.

This issue of the ABDSG is going to put you on the defensive! However, it won't be in the usual way, and getting on the defensive is actually a great strategic move for the ABD. With that in mind, let the following article by Dr. Mary Renck Jalongo provide a preview for the biggest defensive day of your life--your dissertation defense!

Having worked with doctoral students for nearly 20 years as an academic advisor, dissertation chair or committee member, Dr. Jalongo knows what she's talking about when it comes to a dissertation defense, and she knows what you need to know. So go ahead; get on the defensive!

And for sources in agreement on one irrefutable piece of dissertation advice, check out this issue's Inspirational Quotes. We usually give only one or two quotes, but in this case we thought it noteworthy that there was a similar thought among a very diverse group, successful in various fields, on the subject of preparation, so we included them all. (Is there such a thing as too much good advice-- long as it's succinct?

Inspirational Quotes

Miguel De Cervantes
To be prepared is half the victory.

H. Jackson Brown Jr.
The best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today.

Henry Ford
Before everything else, getting ready is the secret to success.

Louis Pasteur
Luck favors the prepared mind.

Bear Bryant
It's not the will to win, but the will to prepare to win that makes the difference.

Defending Your Dissertation:
Advice from a Doctoral Program Director and Journal Editor

Mary Renck Jalongo, Ph.D.

You've seen this nightmare portrayed in the media: A doctoral student works on a dissertation for many years, only to have it rejected by the committee. All is lost and any hope of program completion is dashed.

If fear of the dissertation defense is undermining your confidence and sabotaging your plans for degree completion, it's time to see the defense in a completely different way.

Recognize that "Defense" is a Misnomer
Presumably if a defense is required, then something (or someone) is under attack. Not so with the dissertation. If visions of scowling committee members with their arms folded resolutely across their chests are dancing in your head, replace that mental image.

A tough committee comprised of members who believe in you and the quality of your work is your best safety net. Although they may have tested your patience with numerous recommendations for revision, your committee will stand by you if you did your homework. Disasters occur when doctoral students go in search of committee members with a reputation for saying yes to everything. Usually these individuals are inexperienced in working with dissertations, not highly regarded by colleagues, and easily defeated in a battle of wits.

Think of your defense as a high-level professional conversation about a topic of interest. No doctoral dissertation committee worthy of the name assembles for the sole purpose of publicly humiliating a candidate; faculty members are in the business of supporting successful program completion whenever possible.

To avoid last-minute, unpleasant surprises, check with each committee member individually about recommendations for improvement before the defense. Your chair should guide you through this process and make sure that everyone has had the chance to voice any serious reservations in advance.

Most doctoral programs provide opportunities to participate in the dissertation defense meetings of other doctoral candidates. Make it a point to attend a few of these meetings. Chances are that you'll be pleasantly surprised by a tone that is much more supportive and respectful than what you had imagined.

Don't Panic, Pace Yourself
When it comes to dissertations, the German philosopher Goethe's advice of "Do not hurry; do not wait" is doubly applicable. Avoid putting yourself or your committee in a huge time crunch. Pushing and prodding makes even the kindliest faculty members grouchy. It also casts you in a negative light--desperate rather than competent.

Trust in Your Preparation
Within any solid study is an interesting story of research in action. You have struggled to decide what goes into which chapter. Use it now as a structure for presenting your research. How did you:

    • identify a compelling issue (the traditional Chapter 1)?
    • situate your study in the context of the other research literature (Chapter 2)?
    • determine a plan for conducting the research (Chapter 3)?
    • analyze and report the data (Chapter 4)?
    • arrive at recommendations, conclusions, and directions for future research (Chapter 5)?

Be certain to find out how much time you'll have to present and adhere to that time limit. Walk the committee through your study. Do not assume that they remember your dissertation in every detail. Chances are that it has been days, weeks, or even months since they read the document and it probably is not the only dissertation committee on which they serve; jog their memories a bit. Prepare visual materials and duplicate selected pages from the work to distribute as handouts.

Committee members are eager to talk with you about the study, not merely to sit and listen. Talking too much is not a good coping strategy because it not only irritates the committee but it also keeps you there longer as faculty members are determined to ask the questions that they have prepared.

Project a Professional Image
Before you go to the defense, think about how you will look the part and maintain outward calm. Take your cue from the professionals in your field. What do they typically do? How do they dress? At some point in a successful dissertation defense, your committee members will sit back, relax, and imagine that they are hearing and seeing you for the first time, as if they were participants in your session at a major conference. Emulate the best in your field, for this is how you are being evaluated.

What if you are a bundle of nerves? Analyze what would help you to appear calmer. If you voice tends to fade in high pressure situations, it probably is because you are breathing rapidly and shallowly, so take a deep breath before you begin to speak. If you are fair skinned and get splotchy when nervous, try wearing something with a high collar so that you are the only one who knows. If your throat goes dry and your hands sweat or tremble, try sipping discreetly from a small bottle of water (cups are too prone to being knocked over).

Above all, don't announce to everyone that you are nervous or they will spend the next hour watching for signs of anxiety. Be yourself at your professional best-that is what got you this far and it is what will carry you through to completion.

Field Questions with Aplomb
One persistent source of anxiety associated with a dissertation defense is that someone will ask you a question that you cannot answer. Remember that you are the resident expert on your own study. Questions seldom are challenges to that authority; rather, they are points that were not clear or just items of interest. Think of the dissertation as your textbook and study it beforehand. Know your way around it so that you can direct attention to key points and specific pages in the document. Have faith in your preparation.

Actually, you can anticipate what some of the questions will be. For example, a very common mistake of dissertation writers is to run out of steam in Chapter 5 and say that "more research" needs to be done. Don't be surprised if someone asks you to get more specific with a question such as, "If you had this study to do over again, what would you do differently?" or "Is this a line of research you care to pursue beyond the dissertation and, if so, how?" Dissertation committees are fond of asking why you chose a particular methodology as well. But if you did your homework in Chapter 3, you provided that rationale and can expound upon it now.

Realize That the Defense is a Good Sign
If there are serious problems with a study, a defense should not be scheduled. The most common decision about a dissertation is "pass, pending some relatively minor revisions." A lengthy document without a single typo, grammatical gaffe, or referencing style error is exceedingly rare, so this is to be expected. Treat corrections and revisions as an indication of thoughtfulness rather than as a criticism.

When your committee has had a chance to reflect on the study a bit further and read it in its entirety, don't be surprised if they suggest that you add a short explanation, move a paragraph, add a statistical table, or the like. Take good notes as these recommendations are made, thank them for reading it thoughtfully (and saving you from lifelong embarrassment after the dissertation is online or bound), and attend to the corrections and revisions soon afterwards, while the discussion is still fresh in your mind. Do not put it off until the day it's due to the graduate school or you are just asking for a natural disaster or computer crash.

Doctoral students frequently are daunted when they first hear that their dissertation research is to be a contribution to the field. "What could I do, as a mere doctoral candidate, that would revolutionize the field?" seems to be the question. But here's the secret: Contributions can be large or small but significant nevertheless.

After all is said and done, a dissertation is an elaborate exercise. It is a demonstration that you are capable of conceptualizing, conducting, and reporting research in a (reasonably) independent way. Only a tiny fraction of the dissertations written are published, and even then, they require extensive editing (Hartman, Montagnes, & McMenemy, 2003). Why? First of all, dissertations are written by novices. As a result, they initiate your career as a scholar rather than define it.

Faculty members who suggest that you can carve up your dissertation and publish several articles from it probably did not do this themselves nor have they successfully guided students in doing so. If my experience as an editor of a journal for over a decade is any indication, it is a mere pleasantry, the dissertation-speak equivalent of "Have a nice day." Transforming a dissertation into a publishable piece is a major overhaul because the manuscripts written by students and the articles published in scholarly journals have a different purpose, audience, and style. The real contribution of most dissertations is that they lead to conferral of the degree, open up new career options, help you to mature as a scholar, and socialize you into the scholarly norms of your field.

See a dissertation for what it is: an unwieldy task, completed under less than ideal conditions by an inexperienced researcher working to a deadline. It simulates what you will be expected to do as a scholar when your work is subjected to the anonymous peer review process of scholarly publications. For whether it is a journal article, a book, or a dissertation, you have learned to defend without being defensive.

Hartman, E., Montagnes, I., & McMenemy, S. (Eds.). (2003). The thesis and the book: A guide for first-time academic authors. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Mary Renck Jalongo, Ph.D., is director of the Doctoral Program in Curriculum and Instruction at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the author of over 20 books, and a journal editor for Springer. You can e-mail Dr. Jalongo at

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Tracy Steen, Ph.D. , is a clinical psychologist and dissertation coach in Philadelphia, PA. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Steen draws on her research background in positive psychology in her coaching work with writers, helping them to remove internal obstacles so they can find more engagement and flow in their work. You can contact Dr. Steen with questions about this newsletter or about coaching in general at You can also visit her website at

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BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished helping professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You might wish to subscribe to the free eMentorCoach News. Finally you may also wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Norman, their Norwegian dwarf bunny. They all love coaching from the beach!