Your Thesis Defence: Prepare to Defend!

I like the expression ‘thesis defence’ as it captures exactly what a PhD viva is about: you are defending your work. You are not just presenting, you are defending. Like a sword fight. (A friendly one, mostly.)

I attended a thesis defence last week, and it reminded me of the first thesis defence I ever went to. My supervisor had advised me to go; my colleague’s work had been very well received, and he considered her thesis a must-read. Much to his chagrin, the defence didn’t go so well. Not because she didn’t know what she was talking about, quite to the contrary, but because she refused to defend her findings and choices. Whenever one of the jury members brought up a limitation of her thesis, she would reply by acquiescing: indeed, she saw it was a limitation, she had to draw a line somewhere etc. When she was asked about her case selection, or something along those lines, she answered they were arbitrary, in a way. She could have used other cases. The point of course, is that she could have used other cases, but she didn’t. Why did she choose the cases she chose? Even if the choice in reality was a pragmatic and arbitrary one, why was it a good choice to make? In other words: she refused to defend her work. The members of the committee were really annoyed, I remember that very well.

So this is today’s thesis defence tip: make sure you are ready to defend your choices and your argument. This is about convincing others of why your work is relevant (in a non-grandiose way), not why it is arbitrary. In the grand scheme of things, maybe nothing is truly relevant — we are all just specks of dust— but that isn’t the case you want to be making…

You probably spend a lot of time thinking about your work’s shortcomings. Shortcomings are not a problem. They are an integral part of academic work. But what about your contribution? It is something PhDs aren’t always trained to think about. Academics know how to tear (their) work down, but do they know how to build their case? I remember in my own training I once went to my supervisor and told her I thought I didn’t know how to answer questions. She laughed it off. (It was very funny apparently!) But it spoke directly to what I witnessed at these thesis defences. In my own experience, once you get the hang of defending your work, it is such a thrill. You are the one who made the choices you made, and you get to defend why you chose to do so in this way rather than another. After breaking it down you get to build it up and defend what you made. And you can do so precisely because you know exactly what the limitations of your work are. They define not only what isn’t there, but also what is.

You can practice this by simply answering with positive answers that defend your choices. Ask yourself: does my answer contribute to the debate? That’s what distinguishes a good answer from a not so good one.

Is the finish line in sight? Never too late to take the HappyPhD Course to help you over the last few hurdles… If you found this post helpful, could you share it? I appreciate it!

How Many Top Publications Do You Have? or The Curse of Performance Metrics

“I don’t really believe in citations myself. I don’t really count citations. I don’t value anybody’s work by the number of citations they have. I think it’s a mistake.” A quote by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, uttered at an unusual panel at the 2017 American Economic Association meeting. It was titled ‘Publishing and promotion in Economics: The curse of the top five’, a reference to the top five journals dominating the Economics field. One of the anecdotes told was about graduate students endlessly deferring their ‘entry to the job market’ until they were sure of a top five publication. […]

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Life (real life) is not like that

“Your basic worry is, of course, your PhD proposal. I wonder if you have made some progress in the meanwhile. Your trouble may be that you try too hard (‘do something really groundbreaking, brilliant and fascinating’). Life (real life) is not like that. However, no matter the topic you settle on, it will develop into something interesting once you get into it. You can’t expect life as a PhD to be a bed of roses…” Quoted from a letter my LSE mentor Gordon Smith sent me in 2005 (back when we still wrote letters!). During this time I was writing […]

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How Are You Unwilling to Support Yourself? (And a story about Trump)

How are you unwilling to support yourself? Answering this question (and changing my habits accordingly) was fundamental in getting my PhD process (and much else) to a better place. The question popped up in one of my feeds: it was a timely reminder. Sometimes I feel academics wear their unwillingness to support themselves as a badge of honour: how much we endure, the long hours we work, how stressed we are, seems to somehow reinforce the idea of how ‘tough’ academia is, and how ‘tough’ we are if we can ‘handle it’. It is a little like the starving artist […]

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Worst Nightmare Scenario: Failing Your PhD (and How Not To)

Failing your PhD. How does it happen? I have recently been a remote witness of a behind-the-scenes-drama: a PhD candidate who received a rejection from an external examiner. Her supervisors had approved the thesis, but a member of the committee rejected it, rightfully so as far as I can gather, judging from the report that spans over a thirty pages of why the thesis is lacking and needs at least a year’s more work. It is a tragic situation. I can’t think of many things worse, as far as PhDs go. When I was writing my PhD I never thought […]

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Happy New Year!

Let’s start the new year right. Together. If you sign up for the HappyPhD course before January 14th, I will give the self-study course to one of your friends or colleagues as a gift. If you’re feeling generous, if you like the idea of taking the course together (or if this will allow you to take the course moneywise) this is your chance. Make 2017 your best PhD year yet! Sign yourself up here, and I will contact you to arrange the gift. All my very best wishes for the New Year, Let’s open the champagne! Amber

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‘How to write a PhD’ with Hein De Haas

Hein de Haas is Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, and the former director of the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford. He is also a friend of mine. Almost two years ago, when I was staying in California for two months and he flew in for a conference, we sat down at Saul’s deli in Berkeley for lunch. Over chicken soup with matzo balls and latkes with apple sauce (so good!), we talked about academic writing. ‘We should do an interview!’ I said. ‘Would you?’ He would. Fast forward to present: last week we finally […]

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How to Plan Your Work

How do you plan your work? I’m always intrigued by people who schedule every project, cutting their projects into bite-size chunks, then organising them into their week. I’ve never been able to do that, and sometimes I wonder whether anybody can really tame academic work into cooperating like that?? With academic work everything always seems to take endlessly longer than you think it would. It seems frustrating to always come up short. What’s the alternative? In my experience simplifying and prioritising are what is called for, followed by implementation. It means you come up with a clear idea of what […]

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The Power of the Mind

How do we prevent our inner critic from taking over? How do we become more resilient in the face of criticism? How do we not succumb to feeling stuck when the pressure rises? How do we make it though a rough patch? How do we allow more joy and curiosity in? In the academic world the mind skills we develop and refine are our intellectual muscles, our critical capacity. The part that isn’t paid as much, or any attention to, is how to harness the power of the mind more broadly, on how work with our thoughts, and the feelings […]

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Building Your Academic Network

Disclaimer: This isn’t a post which will give you ‘Ten tips to network at academic conferences’. I don’t think it quite works like that. Building a ‘network’ isn’t the academic equivalent of cold calling. It is about building relationships with your academic peers and mentors… Imagine your academic field as a giant global network of scholars, some of whom work together (and some of whom will absolutely not!), and all of whom together shape the current academic debate on your topic. This will include the top scholars, as well as academics in your department (your supervisors perhaps), other departments nationally […]

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