9 Strategies to Help You Prepare for a Successful PhD defense

9 Strategies to Help You Prepare for a Successful PhD defense

A PhD defense (also known as the PhD Viva) is seen as the final exam where you demonstrate that you have done the research work yourself, you understand it and are ready to become an independent researcher who will contribute to the academic world. The format of the thesis defense differs between countries and universities — it can be a public examination with an audience, or an internal affair that resembles an interview with the examiners. Get familiar with what is expected at your university and prepare and plan accordingly.

Here are some strategies that can help you with the preparation process:

  1. Be completely at ease with the philosophy and background of your thesis. You need to be very clear why you were doing your work and understand the theoretical underpinnings of your research. There should not be any holes in your ideas or the examiners are likely to find them and focus on these.
  2. Know your thesis thoroughly. You need to know all your chapters inside-and-out. The examiners could ask about any statement in your thesis, so make sure you identify the provocative parts and be able to discuss and defend them. Your supervisor should assist you with this by pointing out any potentially contentious statements. You’re supposed to be an expert in your topic, so don’t be afraid if you get questioned about certain statements. As long as you can defend your work well and show a deep understanding of your chosen topic, your defense will go smoothly. It might also be helpful to prepare a thesis summary to present to your commitee, so you don’t miss any important points.
  3. Be aware of other literature in your area and read recent publications. You need to know how your research relates to other published work and how it differs from what’s already out there. You also need to know the research you have cited in your thesis as examiners can ask you about the that have cited. Aim to appear widely-read and familiar with other important contributions. Never… stop… reading!
  4. If possible, publish a paper or two before your defense. This can be a very useful strategy; it demonstrates that your work is original and publishable.
  5. Get familiar with the examiners’ work. It can be useful to know what the examiners are working on, as this might help you anticipate their questions and what they might find relevant. Have a look at their recent publications to enable you to prepare for the way they think.
  6. Prepare and practice your presentation. As mentioned earlier, know the format of your presentation and time restrictions. Don’t prepare an hour talk, if you only get 15 minutes to present. Be succinct and capture the essence of your work. Practice on your own and/or with an audience in advance (encourage them to interrupt and ask questions). This will increase your confidence and prepare you for your big day.
  7. Make a list of anticipated questions (including some uncomfortable or awkward questions you might struggle with). As you go through your thesis, imagine all the possible questions that may come up and try to answer them. Remember, it is okay to sometimes say: “I don’t know, but I would think…” Again, it is not expected that you will know the answer to every question the examiners ask. However, you do need to be able to show you can think critically and connect the relevant information in your field.
  8. Attend other defenses in your department. It can help to go to other academic defenses and learn from them. In this way you will offer your moral support to other PhD students, and also familiarize yourself with the process before it is your turn.
  9. Try and control your nerves. This might be easier said than done. Everyone is nervous and the examiners expect that. If you have a solid thesis and you know you have done good work, you cannot get ruined just by your nerves. By preparing thoroughly, you are likely to feel calmer and more ready to face the ‘firing squad’. If it suits you, you might also experiment with some breathing and relaxation techniques to get you in the right frame of mind.

Some parting words: you do not need to concern yourself with perfectionism. Examiners almost always find something to correct; there is nothing wrong with that and it won’t jeopardize you earning your PhD. It is very unusual to fail a defense. As long as you feel you have prepared, relax and enjoy your walk across the finish line!