Advice from an English professor young enough to remember his defense:
- Look over the introductory chapters of the Booth/Colomb/Williams book The Craft of Research and practice talking about your research question, your claims, and your overall argument in the dissertation.
- Memorize a few things–lines from your dissertation or the texts you’re working with. It helps to have something specific to refer to.
- Make a short opening statement so that you can control how the conversation begins.
- Become aware of the committee’s relationships to one another. (I know a few professors in my department who are more than happy to gossip about things like this, but the details aren’t as important as remembering that these people relate to each other outside of your project. If you sense some tension in the room, it might not have much to do with you.)
- Send your committee an e-mail the day before reminding them about your defense.
- Go to a movie the night before and try to relax.
While in the room:
- Talk to the committee, not other people in the room.
- Don’t give bullshit answers, but don’t dodge questions, either. “I don’t know as much as I’d like to about that, but here’s my partial answer . . . “
- Repeat and clarify questions, especially if someone rambles for awhile. This will buy you time to formulate a response and also help the rest of the committee understand each other.
- You can also help the committee understand each other by connecting their comments. “That’s an interesting question, Prof. S. It reminds me of what Prof. M was saying earlier . . .”
- Try to connect your responses to questions to something that you want to talk about (at least some of the time).
After the defense:
- Don’t expect to feel closure. It’s probably not going to happen. (See the previous post, “Not the Apocolypse.”)
- Create your own ritual to get some closure down the line. (My mother would no doubt recommend burning something.)