When I sat down with my advisor, who has sat through countless defenses, I was expecting him to launch into a long list of dos and don’ts. But he had relatively little advice to give, which in retrospect, was comforting.
He advised creating a 5-7 minute opening statement that “summarizes your original contributions to scholarship.” I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was imagining something both more complex and more tangential that that. I mean, didn’t everyone just read the dissertation? Surely they know what it was about . . . ? But as I thought about it, it started to make sense–it’s a simple, direct approach to beginning the conversation. Also, summarizing your contribution isn’t exactly like summarizing the dissertation. I realized that I could discuss my methodology, or the significance of the authors I chose. (And not just say, “well, chapter one . . . “)
His only other advice about the opening statement was to say it rather than read it. I agree that reading something could be awkward. But on the other hand, different people have different difficulties at times like this. If your greatest fear is rambling, maybe reading something isn’t the end of the world. But I would suggest more or less detailed outlines, depending on what you are most comfortable with. It seems like memorizing something might be setting yourself up for disaster unless you’re already comfortable with giving memorized talks.
He also said that I should have a plan for what happens to the project next–how I might develop it into a book, or chop it up into articles. He even suggested I think of presses or journals that might be a good fit. At first, I felt really frustrated with this advice–because more than anything, I want to hear what the committee has to say about publication possibilities. I want to take the shortest path to publication. However, my advisor got me thinking that for any question I might want to ask the committee, I should have a partial answer to the question myself. In the defense, you have to perform expertise, so you can’t just bring the committee some problem and say, “I hope you would solve this for me.”