Defense Advice

Advice from an English professor young enough to remember his defense:

When preparing:

  • 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.”)
  • Drink.
  • Create your own ritual to get some closure down the line. (My mother would no doubt recommend burning something.)

7 responses to “Defense Advice

  1. I like the idea of memorizing a few things. I wish I had done that, especially when I knew that there were a myriad of statistics I could have used to support a general point I was trying to make, if I could just remember what the numbers were…

    A few other ideas:

    *Don’t entertain the “what if I fail” thoughts. They’re irrational and will only distract you. In the very unlikely event that you do, you can deal with it afterwards.

    *If you’re a spatial person, have no fear of using a whiteboard or chalkboard to illustrate your answers to questions.

    *Don’t be afraid to stray a little from the diss iteslf. If something you know is a good answer to a question but not in there, don’t ignore that avenue of discussion just because you didn’t write about it. You do know more than what’s in there, anyway.

  2. becomingdoctorjones

    Thanks, Christine! It’s nice to have backup on the memorization point, which was one of the most surprising suggestions.

    I am entertained by the idea of what I could draw on a whiteboard relating to poetry statistics in my defense . . . that might just stun my committee into silence. :)

  3. Nice!!! Um, BTW, I am SUPER PSYCHED that I am going to BE THERE to witness this event!!!

    To comment on Christine’s comment — Carol Dweck would say, instead of entertaining “what if I fail” thoughts, focus on what you are going to do and how! Which is exactly what you are doing by writing this post!

    I think the memorization suggestion is awesome. In my experience in other high-stress performance situations, I found memorization to be completely transformational.

    Also, while I was doing my oral exam for my master’s, which is a much smaller deal but has some parallels, I found it really reassuring to have an outline. Just a list of the topics I wanted to talk about, and a few words to remind myself what I wanted to say. As few words as possible, but just to make me feel safe that I’d be able to get going in case my mind went blank.

    And as someone who has had a lifelong shamanic journey with performance anxiety — bananas. The potassium in bananas = natural beta blockers! I even carry a package from Trader Joe’s (“nothing but bannanas, flattened”) for a quick potassium fix.

    So psyched for you!

    And the part about your Mom suggesting that you burn something made me laugh out loud.

  4. Thought this was potentially relevant:

    don’t forget to be awesome

  5. Well, you know, I don’t know. I just remember being SO pissed off that the whiteboard markers in the room we were using were all dry.

    I was thinking more like timelines? Who said what when and who influenced who? Yeah, it’s a stretch, I know. :)

  6. becomingdoctorjones

    Thanks, Rebecca! Yes, I am *very* busy being awesome right now . . .

    And Christine, I am positive whiteboard use would be very helpful to many defenses! I don’t have the option, so I don’t have to think about whether I could use it or not. But I still like the idea.

  7. Break a leg, soon-to-be doctor! You are going to be the awesomeness.

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