Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Demystifying the Defense

Tis the season to defend dissertations! Since a number of us are defending this semester, as Tara warmly pointed out, the group's been exchanging ideas and information on defense preparation and strategies, and were lucky enough to have Marc Redfield, Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities and Professor of English, come speak to us. (For previous posts on defense prep, check out the defense tag.)

Planning for your dissertation defense can be an anxious time, but it doesn't have to be the harrowing experience many of us build it up to be. The key, according to Prof. Redfield, is to approach the defense as the last chance to get some quality feedback on your work so you can file the strongest final dissertation draft possible--exploit the opportunity to your advantage.

Remember you're now the expert on your dissertation, so you're in a position to speak confidently about your work and its larger ramifications. At CGU, each school organizes its defenses a little differently, so make sure you speak with your dissertation chair about what's expected of you at each part of the defense. Typically, this is your opportunity to hold a meaningful conversation with your committee about the value of your work--relish it! It's not every day you can sit in a room and talk about your work with people who know about it and are interested in it! Prof. Redfield reminded us that if your dissertation chair allows you to schedule the defense, that's a clear sign that s/he believes it's defensible. At American universities, the defense may seem like a ritual, but you should prepare to speak about your work. This begins as simply as making sure you've read through your entire dissertation at least once. Another great tip is to attend someone else's defense, even if it's not in your field; the experience will help give you a better sense of how the process works. If your department is known for rigorous defenses, practice your presentation and try to set up a mock defense to help you prepare.

So what can you expect to happen the day of your defense?

Typically (and remember, each chair and department is different so make sure to talk to your chair!), the chair will introduce you and talk a little about your work, then you will be asked to talk about your work. At CGU, this ranges from a few minutes to a 20-25 minute presentation that gives an overview of your project. After this, comes the Q&A--possibly the most anxiety producing part of the defense. Your committee will ask you questions that will help you elaborate on points in your dissertation, and expand on what you chose to include or not, and why. As Prof. Redfield reminded us, at this point, it's appropriate to defend your work, and it's also appropriate to acknowledge any weaknesses. If you don't know, say so, don't pretend you do. It's ok to admit you don't know something but that you'll find out--that's how we learn and grow. This is also why it's appropriate to acknowledge a glitch you hadn't addressed--this is all part of the conversational exchange. At this point in the dissertation process, you should know what you set out to prove, what surprises you found along the way, and how your research differs from that of other scholars, so draw on these ideas as you weave together your responses.

Throughout the conversation, help yourself out by taking time with your responses. A good strategy is to write down the questions you're asked, and to ask for clarification on a question if you need it. Jotting down questions gives you the double advantage of helping you remember what was asked, and allows you to direct your responses as you move between questions. Your chair or committee members may also ask you what you'd change about your project if you had to do it over again, or what you're most pleased with, or consider your most original contribution to the subject.

Towards the end of the defense, your chair will ask you to address what future projects you envision developing out of your study. This is your chance to talk about the journal articles, conference papers, and books you have lined up or are planning. More importantly, this is the time to talk about how you plan to turn your dissertation into a publishable book, and get practical advice from the published scholars on your committee about how to best go about this.

That's the basic process! Once the committee confers in private, they'll then tell you whether or not you've passed. It's very rare that a dissertation is passed as it's submitted for the defense, so don't be surprised if your committee passes you with minor or major revisions. Once again, if you've gotten this far, it's because your chair thinks you're ready to defend. At CGU, we have a window of approximately two weeks after the last-most day to defend to file your final dissertation draft with the Registrar. Often, candidates have about 30 days after their actual defense date to file, so don't put off scheduling it!

Congratulations for finishing this milestone! We'll be calling you Dr. --- very soon!


Useful defense preparation tools:

  • "Defending Your Dissertation: Advice from a Doctoral Program Director and Journal Editor" by Mary Renck Jalongo, Ph.D.

  • "Perform Your Best at Your Orals" by Judith Schweiger Levy, Ph.D.
    (aside: the ABD Survival Guide has lots of good tips for getting through the entire dissertation project)

  • Surviving Your Dissertation by Kjell Erik Rudestam and Rae R. Newton

  • The Portable Dissertation Advisor by Miles T. Bryant
  • Sunday, March 21, 2010

    Congratulations to Everyone Defending!

    Just a quick note to send warm wishes and astonishingly astute thoughts to the members of our group defending their dissertations in the near, near future!

    Marie - March 23
    Tanya - March 25
    Fay - March 25
    Tara - March 26
    Sandra - March 26
    Aya - April 9

    Just a note - even though defenses are open to the public, it's always considered polite form to ask the dissertator first if he or she would like the support. Some people would prefer a private or small defense, and others may have small rooms and large families. So if you're interested in attending a defense, just ask.

    And if there is anyone else scheduled in the group, just send an e-mail.

    Congratulations everyone!

    You're Not Alone - Here are some of the members of our group!