Hello all! It has been a month since I successfully defended my dissertation and became Dr. Berthiaume! I have had several people ask me to post how I prepared for my defense. In this post I will share how I prepared and executed my presentation. Please note that this is the process that worked for me and it may not work for everyone. Also, know that the expectations for my defense may be different that others, but hopefully these tips can help you prepare for your dissertation or thesis defense, prelims/qualifying exams defense, or any big presentation!
If you’re needing tips for a presentation, I assume that at this point you have done all of the research and preparation for the presentation. Whether if the presentation is for a dissertation that you have worked on for months and months, masters thesis, preliminary/qualifying exams, or if it is a project that landed on your desk a week ago, before you start putting together the presentation it is imperative you have a good grasp and understanding of WHAT you are presenting. I’m not going to spend too much time on this point because I think it is pretty straightforward—if you know it, you can teach it!
Know What’s Expected
It’s VERY important to know what your committee and/or audience is expecting out of your defense. Be sure to ask your committee members and your chair plenty of questions regarding the defense. It also helps to ask other colleagues who have gone through the process how they prepared, what was expected of them, and how their defense went. Asking questions about what to expect will help ease stress. Here are a few questions you can ask to clarify the expectations:
- How much time do I have? —Ask specifically how much time you have for the presentation itself and how much time is allotted for discussion and questions
- What is the format?
- Are you allowed notes?
- Which committee members are most likely to ask questions?
- What kinds of questions will be asked?
Address Anticipated Questions in Advance
If you are anything like me, I am so nervous presenting and I am even more nervous when it comes to questions. When I defended my prelims, prospectus, and my dissertation, my strategy was to anticipate questions that I felt my committee would definitely ask and address those in my presentation. You may wonder, why not just wait for the questions to be asked? From my experience, doing this leaves less questions for your committee to have and more time for discussion. The purpose of addressing anticipated questions in advance was to demonstrate thinking and that I could be self-critical. Essentially, after you have finished all of the research and writing and as you are preparing the presentation, you may come across some points that aren’t very clear or are limitations to your project. Instead of waiting until someone asks a question (or hope that they don’t ask a question!), it demonstrates professionalism to acknowledge and address these potential questions in advance. Also, (not trying to brag) after each defense my committee commended me on my approach towards my presentation. When it came time for questions, they would say, “I was going to ask about this, but you already addressed it very well in your presentation.” Given that, that allowed more time for a discussion about the question or problem or more time for theoretical or hypothetical questions.
Speaking of anticipating questions…
Ask Yourself Questions About Your Work
In addition to anticipating questions from your committee that specifically concern your work, it is important to ask yourself broad-level questions about your work. When dissertating, you are SO consumed with your work and all of the fine details that sometimes it makes it difficult to take a few steps back to see the whole picture. How did I get here? Why am I doing this work? I assure you that some of the questions below will, in some sense, be asked during your defense. Being able to ask yourself and answer some of the questions beforehand will help you prepare to answer them in person. This list isn’t exhaustive, but hopefully these will help you to think of other broad questions about your work.
- If you were on an elevator and had less than a minute to explain your work, how would you do it?
- From this body of work, what is the most important piece that you feel the world needs to know and consider?
- What is the most original part of your work?
- What are the main issues?
- How does your work improve understanding of the topic and what doors does it open?
- Why did you become interested in this topic? What’s the origin story?
- What were some challenges you encountered in your work and research and how did you overcome those?
- What advice would you offer to someone who is interested in this area?
- How is your work different from others?
- What are the strongest/weakest parts of your work?
- What are your next steps?
- What parts of this project did you enjoy most? Why? What parts didn’t you enjoy?
- How has this work contributed to your development? How has it changed you as a researcher and how you approach this body of work?
Give Yourself Time to Prepare (But Don’t OVER-Prepare!)
After I submitted my final draft of my dissertation, I had 2 weeks to prepare for my defense. Not going to lie, I definitely took the first several days off! I allowed myself to celebrate such a big accomplishment for a few days! It is important to not underestimate how much time you will need to prepare though. Make sure that you give yourself adequate time to gather the most important information, compile the slides (if that is the format you choose), and practice what you are going to say. Once I have all of my materials ready, I practice several times with my given time frame to make sure that I am getting everything important in the presentation and that I am stating it clearly. One thing I always keep in mind (I did this a lot when I had to study for tests) is to be able to recognize the point at which you are ready. Know the point in your preparation in which you are satisfied with your execution and knowledge. When I used to study for exams, I would get to a point where I would tell myself, “Well, if I don’t know it by now, then I just don’t know it.” I know that seems like I am selling myself short, but the point of it is that I didn’t want to keep cramming. I gave myself plenty of time to prepare ahead that I didn’t want to cram the night before. The day of I would suggest running through it 1-2 times, but no more than that! You should have it down pat by now!
Plan/Schedule the Day of the Presentation
If you know me and have read my previous posts, you should know that I am a planner. Being a planner helps me to feel in control. On the Big Day, even if you don’t consider yourself a planner, just try doing it for one of the biggest days/moments that you have spent countless hours/days/months/years preparing for. For example, set the time for:
- Wake up
- Breakfast (plan what you’re going to eat)
- Getting ready/dressed
- Driving time/parking
- Defense starting time
- Celebration time!
Trust Yourself & Be Confident! You Are the Expert!
One thing I always have to remind myself is that I am the expert on the topic I am defending! You have spent hours, days, and months preparing for this day and by now you could recite your all of your research in your sleep! Remember to trust yourself. Know that your committee is there to support you and cheer you along your accomplishment. Exude confidence that you know what you are talking about and even in the event of a question that may throw you off, show them you are confident in pointing them to where they can find the answer or that your confidence isn’t thrown off by their question.
Take Care of Yourself
Make sure that the night before you get plenty of sleep. This may be hard because you are nervous and excited for the big day, but try to schedule when you will stop working, start winding down, and when you will go to bed. Also, eat well the night before and the morning of your defense. Think of it like preparing for a marathon. Don’t eat things that will make you feel terrible or sugary foods that will ramp you up only to leave you crashing during the big moment. I did read to not eat bagels the day of a big presentation somewhere…Other than that, just eat a wholesome breakfast with fruits, veggies, yogurt, granola, etc. Most importantly, know yourself! Know your limits, what conditions you work best under, and what works best for YOU.
Enjoy Your Day and Celebrate
When you wake up you may be flooded with emotions and nerves. Like I said before, remind yourself you are the expert! Allow yourself to really enjoy the day that you have been working so hard towards. Enjoy getting ready! Dance around and sing or whatever it is you do to get yourself going! Celebrate that the big day is here and that once you are done you can truly celebrate with family and friends!
I hope this was helpful! I would love to hear your defense experiences! Please let me know if you have questions or comments!