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!