Thesis: The Defense

Not all colleges that require an undergraduate thesis also require a presentation or oral defense as part of the process. However, many do and this aspect of your thesis can be the most difficult to prepare for. It often comes after you’ve turned in a full and final (or nearly final) version of your written thesis. You are then required to get up in front of a small panel of professors or possibly a room full of your friends, faculty, and fellow students while presenting your thesis topic, findings, and argument.

Even seasoned public speakers probably find the defense portion of a thesis intimidating.

 Sharing some remarkable insight during my Master's thesis defense

Sharing some remarkable insight during my Master's thesis defense

I have written three theses, and defended two of those three. Even though the defense process is stressful, it is also a really valuable opportunity to interact with an audience and discuss your work. Without a defense, you never know what people might find most interesting from your research, or learn where you could have done better in terms of stating your argument or backing it up with additional support. This description might not sound fun to someone who’s preparing for a defense, but it’s honestly helpful. When I completed my most recent thesis it felt like such an anti-climax: I simply printed the thing I’d spent months writing and then handed it in at the front desk. I never got to talk about it in depth in front of people prepared to ask educated questions. I assume that no one other than my adviser will ever read it. I didn’t get feedback, only a final grade.

What I’m trying to say is that you should, as much as possible, consider your thesis defense an opportunity.

The exact process and requirements for theses vary from school to school. But here’s some basic advice that will mostly likely help anyone prepare:

1. Start early

You want to begin thinking about the defense months (perhaps years) before you actually defend your thesis. This is not something that should be thrown together at the last moment.

2. Attend defenses by other members of your discipline

This is such an important step in the process. Start your freshman year—keep an eye out for defense announcements and (if they’re open to the public) go to any that interest you.

(You can ask your department staff if it’s OK to pop in unannounced if you’re worried about “crashing” someone’s thesis, and even email the person before hand letting them know that you’re interested and ask if you can come sit in)

When you go, pay attention. Watch how the student sets up their research and argument. How much context is provided? How much time is spent on discussion of the literature and background of their topic in proportion to their own research? Observe the etiquette in the room and the kinds of questions that are asked. Pay attention to how long they take to respond, and how in-depth they go. You can learn just as well from bad defenses as from good ones.

Observing other students’ thesis defenses in your department is the best possible way to be prepared for your own.

3. Attend PhD dissertations

These are “thesis defense: 2.0” experiences. By the time a PhD candidate defends their research, they are probably old pros at doing so. They also have hundreds of pages of research to draw upon, and years of experience working within their department. They are experts. Watch how they build an argument and how they interact with their advising panel and with the audience in general. Pay attention to how they handle questions.

Try to model your thesis to achieve this level.

4. Prepare for your presentation

The presentation portion, unlike the questions, is under your control. Do everything you can to be prepared and even over-prepared for this part of your thesis process. Prepare as you would for a major speaking event. Do whatever works for you to deliver a calm, well-paced presentation with a clear and well-supported argument. Address the limitations of the scope of your work, and contextualize your argument within the broader discipline and current literature.

Personally, I favor having a detailed outline with a few quotes per section written in front of me, and otherwise speaking somewhat off the cuff. I don’t think reading a word-for-word speech is the way to go, unless that is the style of your discipline or you are a particularly nervous speaker. Regardless, you want to develop an outline, practice your presentation, and time yourself speaking through the whole thing. If you are using a slide show, put it together well in advance and get some feedback on it. DO NOT pack the slideshow with too much information. Show graphs and pictures, or a few quotes.

Model these decisions on the conventions in your department. What's standard in other undergraduate thesis defenses? What have you observed the PhD candidates do?

5. Prepare for the questions

Are there obvious questions that arise from your work? Can you defend a controversial opinion? Do you know the names and major ideas of thought-leaders in this area? List out the questions you might expect to come from your presentation, and take notes on how you might answer. Don’t write things out word-for-word, and don’t get too defensive as you’re preparing. Know that the question segment is part of the process, and is a great opportunity for you to take in critique or to clarify a point.

Ask your advisers what questions you might expect in the defense. This sounds almost like cheating, but it’s not. They will probably let you know what section or topic you can expect to be questioned on, and then you can prepare adequately to address that section. You can also ask a friend to sit through a practice run of your presentation and ask for a whole list of questions they might ask.

6. Stress points

Do what you can to get ahead of last-minute issues that might stress you out. Print your notes early. Test the presentation system. Bring a bottle of water. Triple check that the room is reserved and your advisers know where and when to be there.

Also take into account your unique stress points when it comes to presentations. Before my undergraduate defense, I was feeling completely calm and capable until my well-meaning friend asked me what I planned to wear. I had something close to a complete breakdown over what should have been a simple question. Take care of questions like that well in advance. There’s something particularly silly about worrying about wardrobe decisions while facing the pinnacle moment of an academic career.

7. Relax

This is the hard part, but as much as much as possible you should spend the last day or so before your defense just kind of “sitting with” your thesis. If you’ve prepared ahead and done all you can, then the last minute is the time to kind of… let go. Several times, I’ve found that letting go of an important presentation for 24 hours means that I actually catch a mistake or think up some other great connection or way to rephrase the conclusion. Take some deep breaths, try to get outside for a bit, and try to get beyond the stress and into a mental space when you can feel calm and prepared.

Or, at least, as close to calm and prepared as you can possibly feel.

Check out related posts "Thesis Writing: The Basics," guest post "Making the Most of Your Thesis: From the Classroom to the 'Real World,'" and the more lighthearted "The Nun and the Rockstar: Lessons in Captivating an Audience."

Any seniors preparing to defend a thesis this spring? Anyone with past experiences to share? Any stories, suggestions, and general comments would be most appreciated.