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Do any of you who have been through the process have advice about dissertation defenses?

Or even any defense-related anecdotes to tell?


( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
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Dec. 7th, 2005 11:44 am (UTC)
These differ so much from institution to institution that I'm not sure my experience would be very useful.
Dec. 7th, 2005 01:48 pm (UTC)
True, but I still wouldn't mind hearing about yours if you were willing to share. They also differ a great deal from defense to defense within a given department. So much depends on a committee.
(no subject) - oursin - Dec. 7th, 2005 03:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - owlfish - Dec. 7th, 2005 03:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2005 02:53 pm (UTC)
Sleep well, eat breakfast and go in smiling. You are the only person in the world who knows as much about your topic as you.
Dec. 7th, 2005 03:57 pm (UTC)
If I have appetite for breakfast, then I will not have succumbed to panic, and it should all go just fine. Thank you for the reminders.
Dec. 7th, 2005 03:16 pm (UTC)
I have heard it said among survivors from various institutions that it can sometimes be pretty funny - you go in, thinking it is all about you and your work (which it should be) yet, those on your committee often already share a history on your topic or related topics or they got up on the wrong side of the bed and they spend their time debating each other, and only occasionally referring to you. Or there is at least one committee member on every defense that didn't quite read it as well as maybe they should and so they start questions on off topics, or they get on to their own research and babble on.

Malicious rumors, I am sure.
Dec. 7th, 2005 04:06 pm (UTC)
Heh. During my doctoral exams two of my committee members got into an argument with each other about The Revenger's Tragedy. Which amused me greatly, nervous as I was. ;)
Dec. 7th, 2005 03:28 pm (UTC)
They would not have let you schedule it if they did not think you were ready. Look forward to an interesting conversation about your work and its possible future directions. The defense is when your committee transforms you from a student to a colleague.

When one of my committee members stuck out his hand and said "Congratulations, Doctor," I almost started to cry.

Later, my advisor took me out to lunch. This was in Ann Arbor; we had already moved back to Boston. I had flown in for the defense. The waiter approached the table to fill our water glasses. I wasn't really looking at him, but something grabbed my attention. It was my husband! He'd created a fictional business trip in order to come to Ann Arbor and surprise me. Then I really did start to cry.
Dec. 7th, 2005 03:58 pm (UTC)
How wonderful of him! Thank you for sharing.

I'm so glad that my partner is coming with me on this trip. If I start to fret unduly, he'll be there for perspective.
Dec. 7th, 2005 03:28 pm (UTC)
When do you leave? I'll have that chapter back to you tonight.
Dec. 7th, 2005 03:55 pm (UTC)
I leave Friday night. Thank you for reading it! If you don't get around to finishing it, it's okay if I have it back within the next few weeks. But tonight will work well too.
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Dec. 7th, 2005 10:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2005 03:32 pm (UTC)
I've got stories, but I need to tell them in person, since they involve accents. :)

A lot of defenses go the way that wakarusa described above, where the defendee hardly gets a word in edgewise while the committee sits around chest-thumping and digging up old academic rivalries. At the university I'm teaching at now, that problem is kept under control by the presence of the chair of the defense, who is not on the committee, and whose role is specifically to keep everyone to protocol. It's an interesting system and seems to work pretty well to keep defenses civil and focused, but I don't think you get it in many other universities. So yeah, the defense might not end up being all about you!

Knock 'em dead!
Dec. 7th, 2005 03:54 pm (UTC)
The U of T also uses an external chair for the defense. Is it a Canadian thing? I have no idea.

I thought my chair might be someone who really had no connection at all to what I do (bio-chem, computer science...) but random numbers have given me someone from Religion, so there's a reasonable chance that they might ask informed questions.

Thank you.
Dec. 7th, 2005 04:21 pm (UTC)
I only defended my prospectus (my uni believed that one should be raked over the coals early), but I think I mentioned that it was open to all faculty and grad student comers, campus-wide. I think a certain number of the history faculty had to attend. I was asked questions by at least ten different people, mostly faculty. I was really lucky because there was a visiting professor from Germany there, and the one question I couldn't answer -- do you have access to the sources you'll need -- he answered by saying that he would be writing letters of introduction for me and that I would certainly be able to get resident status at his uni if I got the funding. Thank goodness for Dr Dr Professors with important Lehrstuhls!

I think if it had been a dissertation defense, though, it would have been less antagonistic. But what others have said still holds true, I think -- No one who had a good advisor was ever allowed to defend unless the advisor was sure that defense would be successful. You have to remember that, if you do badly, it reflects on your committee. And you do know more than anyone else in the world on your subject ;-)
Dec. 8th, 2005 01:23 pm (UTC)
How lucky that German professor was there!

Thank you for sending ancarett over. It was very thoughtful of you, and I appreciated having her experience to read.
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Dec. 8th, 2005 06:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 7th, 2005 05:23 pm (UTC)
Having never met the chair of my committee, I think I am probably safe from such phone calls.

A friend of mine, whose defense was in the morning, brought copious amounts of coffee along for her committee, specifically so that their bladders would demand that the event not last overly long.
Dec. 7th, 2005 05:32 pm (UTC)

Sounds silly. Sounds obvious. Makes a lot of difference in how calm one is feeling.

I agree with all the people above's comments about you knowing more than your committee and they wouldn't let you do it if it (& you) weren't ready, but if you start feeling really anxious then focusing on a few deeps breaths works wonders.
Dec. 7th, 2005 05:42 pm (UTC)
Here via a_d_medievalist who suggested you could use some moral support from another survivor. I went through my own dissertation defense in history at UofT about fourteen years back and it was so anticlimactic it wasn't funny. Also, the atmosphere sucked being in a small room up in the rafters of the old and rickety Grad Studies building.

Yes, it's normal for the chair of the defense to be from another department. I chaired a defense in Human Development at my own institution just last Friday. Chairs normally only ask "Oooo, that's shiny! Can I ask about it?" questions. So relax, there.

If you're scheduled for the defense, you're in pretty good shape. If you're not sure, ask your advisor for the following (these are standard questions they should be able to inform you regarding): how long do they want you to speak (varies from 15-40 minutes in various departments and disciplines)? Will the external examiner be present (that's standard at doctoral defenses BUT bad weather/December schedules can wreak havoc with that so doublecheck)?

You'll also need to sign several papers at the defense regarding the filing of your thesis at the NLC and making it available in the library collection. Don't get flustered -- you need to just figure out beforehand (again, in consultation with advisor) whether you're going to release your thesis to the public (standard practice) or if you're reserving that while you arrange publishing. You should be given a timeline/due date of final revisions by as well as to whom they are submitted for oversight review (maybe go straight to secretary if not to your advisor).

See if you can wrangle a drink at the Faculty Club gratis of your advisor at the end. It was a nice way to end my own defense with a glass of sherry and all that in the supremely civilized setting (then I met up with my friends and got plastered on cheap wine and beer at the GSU, but that's another story).
Dec. 8th, 2005 01:19 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the support and advice. They are very much appeciated.

I won't have to speak for too long - university requires no more than 20, advisor recommended 10. My external assessor has chosen not to be an examiner, so won't be there at all. Both of these reduces my stress, I have to say. Your advanced warning on the paperwork is helpful - I hadn't thought about post-defense bureaucracy at all yet.
Dec. 8th, 2005 03:46 am (UTC)
Dissertation comment
Didn't want to put this in my notes and confuse things, but it's interesting that Temperance in the pallazzo pubblico in Siena is dressed "royally" and "richly", when the only previous descriptions of her indicate a particular modesty -- are you going to follow up on that at some point in terms of reflections of Siena's economic focus, or some such thing?
Dec. 8th, 2005 01:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Dissertation comment
That's a bigger picture point I'd entirely overlooked. Thank you for pointing it out. There's a bigger tradition of virtues-as-royalty, but off the top of my head, I can't think if it extends further back or forward in time from then. I'll have a look.
Dec. 8th, 2005 05:20 am (UTC)
My defense, like all McGill defenses, was theoretically open, although I think the only non-committee member there was Julia. I was (very briefly) concerned insofar as the department chair (who normally chaired Ph.D. oral defense committees in our department's custom) was one of my committee members already, and the alternate was someone who decidedly did not like me. The internal examiner was a biologist who asked a couple of questions that showed a complete lack of knowledge of my field, and the external examiner sent his questions by e-mail (not uncommon in my department, as there's no money to bring examiners in). The committee pointed out a couple of tiny wording errors, but otherwise basically no one asked any difficult questions, and the outcome was never in doubt in my mind.

As many others have said, the oral defense is almost always pro forma - they wouldn't let you get this far unless you were ready. It looks *terrible* on a department's and supervisor's reputation to fail a dissertation, or even to suggest major revisions.
Dec. 8th, 2005 09:20 am (UTC)
chapter 6
sent the chapter to you at the address on your userpage and to the sworthen address ... let me know if you haven't got it.

Also -- just for future ref -- you may want to look at Hildegard of Bingen's Ordo Virtutem and see if there is anything in the text or rubrics (if they have them) on the attributes of the virtues.
Dec. 8th, 2005 01:25 pm (UTC)
Re: chapter 6
Yes, it arrived safely. Thank you for editing! I really, really appreciate it. It'll be good for the text and for my defense preparedness.
Dec. 8th, 2005 01:49 pm (UTC)
The best defense...
...is one where you find out your wife's pregnant the day before. The defense is kind of trivial after that, and you don't end up getting stressed. But perhaps this may not be the approach for you. :-)
I had three examiners in my (UK) defense: the external, who was a new professor from York who'd just come into academe after a distinguished career in industry, the internal, who was in my field (CS) but not my area, and an internal chair (also a professor) due to OU regulations on the examining panel needing a certain number of defenses under their belts.
They started off by asking me to give a summary presentation of the thesis, which was a good way of getting me settled into the defense, then graduated from relatively gentle questioning to several quite probing questions. I had a couple of times where I had to think for several minutes before answering. Only one gee-my-thesis-has-a-gaping-hole-in-it moment, and it quickly became apparent that the hole wasn't that big.

Dec. 8th, 2005 11:22 pm (UTC)
Dissertation defence
My suggestion is that, while you speak, you should try to make occasional eye contact with each committee member.
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