i'm dr. valerie balester, i am theexecutive director of the university writing center. i am an english professor with aspecialization in rhetoric and composition in other words in writing. i was thinking about it before today,i have been on at least 60 and probably 75 defenses, and not all in english: in english, ineducation, in linguistics, and then also in engineering, inarchitecture. we used to have to have somebody fromoutside your home department sitting on each dissertation defense, as what theycall them: a graduate committee reviewer to makesure that the process went smoothly,
so i did that for for many differentareas. i think a many in the sciences andengineering. so i'm very confident about about thestructure of a dissertation defense. i'm wondering what you know about thestructure a dissertation defense, anything that you know at all about itthat you could tell me? what do you think happens in that little room? you go with your committeeinto a little conference room usually, right? sometimes it's open to the public andsometimes --i mean technically it always open to thepublic--
but whether you announce it to thepublic or not is going to determine whether people come or don't come and in my department, in english,it's not customary for the public to ever attend. if it's open to the public there is apoint at which they will even you will be sitting alone withyour committee cell what you're doing here is you have tomuster up i love your confidence now this is aboutconfidence okay it's very important and you have topresent yourself as a scholar in the discipline andauthority on your subject
you have to show them what you have tooffer as a scholar and that's really what it's about.nervousness is probably the biggest problem, but i've seen all of them work throughit. i've never seen anyone fail and have only seen one person ever faila dissertation in all of those defenses. only one person didn't pass,so your odds one out of sixy. your odds are good, you'regoing to pass. so go in there with that impression. theperson who did not pass wasn't prepared and hadn't talked to his committeebeforehand.
so, you are most likely going to pass this. you're going to be expected to clearly and cogently explain your workand explain how your work fits in with your discipline. where's your place in this bigconversation that's going on in your discipline? what have you contributed to the field,because a dissertation is supposed to be an original contribution to knowledge. what have you contributed tothe field? what more needs to be done? that's thekind of thing they're interested in, so it's not really a grilling.
in your head i want you to turn it froma grilling, because i've never seen whenit is a grilling and the word grilling means where they put you on the grill and cook you untilyou're finished. it means where they ask you this, this, and this do you know this, do you know that, where they just ask you lots of questions. it's usually not that, it's usuallyconversation among equals. they're trying to seeif you can function as an equal with them now. it's theirfirst opportunity to say you are now an equal,
please come in and give me someinformation, but as an equal, i expect you to be able to explain yourideas, defend your ideas, tell me where yourideas fit in, because they expect it of each other.they're not asking you to do anything that they don't do with each other andthat's why you shouldn't worry if they suddenlystop talking to you and start talking to each other--that's agood sign actually-- that means that you have stimulatedtheir brain. this is what these people live for, they're academics
and they like that. sometimes they getinto arguments with each other it's okay and your chair should gently bring that back. if your chairdoesn't do it, just let it go, let it happen. if they disagreewith you, they expect you to come back with adefense and that's where the word "defense" comesfrom. you need to know what the rules are. have a talk with your advisor and find out. if you don't knownow, you can talk to other students, but youdefinitely need to talk to your advisor
a good while before the defense and say,"i would like to know what to expect. can you explain to me how defensehappens in our department? what is the usual thing that happens? what do you want from me as yourcandidate?" and then know your committee as well. sometimes when we work on adissertation, we get isolated from our committee. make sure that the committeegets the dissertation in plenty of time-- that's something your advisor can tell you.if you give it to them two weeks before, they'll probably read it the nightbefore and then any objections they have
they didn't have chance to tell youabout, so if you can give it to them like amonth before, even more, you can work that out with youradvisor, but the sooner they get it, the more time they have to respond to itand to let you know before the defense--where are their areas of concern. if you go in then and meet with them, butyou get your-- i think you should get your committeechairs' advice and permission before you go meet with all your members, but when you do that, they even sometimestell you
what question they're going to ask you ormaybe they'll give you a hint about what question, because they'll tell you: "whatconcerns me about your work is this," "what i like about your work is this," "isee this, but did you do that?" and then when they read it again, theirminds are going to go back, and "oh we had a conversation, we talked about this-- that's the question i'm going to ask," because wheni'm a committee member, and i'm sitting there on the hot spot and ihave to ask an intelligent question, i'm gonna go back to what i remembermost about your dissertation.
now the firstthing you should be able to do is answer the question: tell me aboutyour dissertation. this will come in handy on the jobmarket as well. so, in your head write a speech, just a brief speech and you can break itup so that you're basically repeatingthe information in your abstract. this is the question or problem that ledme to research, this is the method i used, the way that idecided to to deal with that--i should have addedmethod in here--
this is what i found and i put the thesisseparate from here. thesis is really, what is myhypothesis? this is the problem and this is what i think is gonna happen,then this is what i found happened. in the humanities we're gonna call it athesis, in sciences we might call it a a hypothesis, but i had a question, here's how i thought it would beanswered and here's how i actually was answered. then this is the significance of mywork: how it can be applied, what it meansfor the profession, how it changes our theories, how it changes our practices, whateverthe significance might be,
and don't forget to bring a copy of thedissertation with you to the meeting, because usually the committee brings their own copy. again, that's a thing you want to checkwithin your own department: will they bring their copies or do i haveto provide copies for everybody? but usually they bring their own copies and they'll say: "on page 55, you said blank, blank, blank.. explain it." then youneed to have page 55, so you need your own copy. try not to wait until the lastminute.
if it's not finished, say here's whati have so far, just put a deadline date and say i don'thave everything finished, but here's what i have so far. that give them the opportunity torespond and you'll know and they are gonna say, "but you don'thave this," and then you're working, so be ready toanswer about it. so you have to practice, just like thelittle girls doing ballet, you need to practice. write down, just so you have it in your head, how you would answer the question: tell meabout your dissertation.
then practice it practice in frontof a mirror, say it out loud. don't memorize it, because you want to be agile. if somebody interrupts you, you want to remember where you are. you don't want to be just rope. you want to be able to say it even in afew different ways, but you want to be able to say. you get so focused on what you're doing, you want to talk about the details and youforget that other people don't even know what what question you're trying toanswer. what brought you into the researchinterests people. what's the problem?
how did you approach the problem? whatdid you think you were going to find? what did you find and what does all thismean? of course you want to dress for successand you want to stay calm and you want to smile. it's important not to be too serious. to show that you can do this and you can do this, remember the successrate is high. in some fields, it's optional to present and in some fields it's always done. first is prepare for technical difficulties.
if i came in here today and this was not working, i have my handout,so i could use that. for yourself, if your slides are reminding you what to say, make notecards or make a copy of yourslideshow, so you see every slide to followalong. be ready for technical difficulties. it could be that you are in a room wherethere's never a failure and the electricity goes out that day,and you have worked a month to get all these people into the same room at thesame time--it's not easy to schedule a defense, because every professor has a differentschedule and
they are all very busy, so you're gonna have it even though the electricity is out. okay? so, be ready. consider handouts, you don't want to giveeverybody lots and lots of handouts just to give out handouts, because you don't want them lookingat the handout, you want them looking at you. you want them looking at your slides, so make sure your handouts are only used to present things that can't go ona slide, that can't fit on the slide, or things that you really want them toremember maybe it's a photograph or an illustration. maybe it's a chart or a graph, maybe it's aquote,
but whatever it is, it should be things youwant them to take away with them, to remember, to be very vivid or thingsthat are hard to put on a slide. find out howlong the presentation usually is.typically they're eight to ten minutes. in many cases you're going to need time for questions, in other cases not, because you're justpresenting to the committee and that's just what they're going to do. they're going tostart with questions as soon it's over. find that out from again from your advisor. ask how much time do i have to do thepresentation,
do i have a public audience, if i do havea public audience, how much time should i givethem for questions? it's usually five minutes for questionsapproximately. so if they say you have ten minutes total,it's five to talk, five for the questions. we have a handout in the writing centercalled "designing effective presentation slides" and it's under oral communications, so i suggest you look at that. you want to be sure you don't put toomany words on the slide. make sure your slides basically cover your main points, but that
people are looking at you as much asthey're looking at the slides. the slides help them if they lose theirplace. the slides emphasize your main points,but they should be listening to you not just reading the slides. i recommend the handout "designingeffective presentation slides." they will tell you how to divide yourpresentation, how to organize. it's the same thing i told you tomemorize, the problem or questions that led to yourresearch, your methods for answering the questionor solving the problem,
your major findings, the implications, significants, or application of yourfindings, and add to that, your next step in yourscholarly career. they'll be interested, if youdon't say, they'll probably ask at least. they might want to know if you've appliedfor any jobs, but when i'm talking about your scholarly career, i'm talking abou your researchpart, what will you research next? will this dissertation lead to articles? will it lead to a book? will it lead toanother grant?
another research program? so, where will this take you from here? the chair will probably say, "okay, we are going to ask you to leavethe room." they're just deciding what procedures will be followed, soeverybody agrees on the procedures. if they're gonna be allowed to interrupteach other with a follow-up question or they have to each wait their turn,that's all they're deciding now. the next they're going to do is have youcome back in and your chair will tell you, "okay this is what we're going to do:we're going to start with dr. balester--" and dr. balester has tosound very smart, give a really good question right
and sometimes in the process in her head,she is still forming the question. so she may ramble on a bit that's whyyou have to listen. listen, really focus, don't bethinking about what i'm going to say next, listen to what they're saying now,because then she's going, "well in chapter three, youdid blah blah blah blah... and in chapter seven you said la la la la etc.. and then there'sa contradiction here, but i kind of think that if we bring in so and so scholar, this might resolve the contradictionand etc.." and she keeps going on and on..
you're like and you wanna know what?what is your question? she might say, "what do you think of that?"so you have to be listening closely. now you don't know what shesaid, so what do you do? ask her to clarify or repeat the questionor you clarify, you say i think i heard you ask ".. ..is that correct?" okay, now what happenswhen you don't know the answer? so you have lots of optionswhen you don't know the answer, but i came up with a few options: "you asked me whether i think that this is
a regular phenomenon, i'm not sure, but i think.." so you don't have to go: "yesit's a regular phenomenon, no it's not a regular phenomenon." you cansay "i'm not sure," but take a stab at the answer, try toanswer and let them see your thought process.that's what they're doing for you, they're letting you see their thoughtprocess when they're going on and on, so you do the same thing. they want to seethat you can think. that's what they're looking for: can youthink? is this a regular phenomena? "i don't know, but that question hasinteresting implication.
for example, if i knew the climatic changes inaugust, then knowing that would help me do this." keepyourself focused on your data you are the expert on your data, onyour project, on your ideas, you are the expert andthey're actually trying to treat you like the expert, they want you to answer like the expert. they respect you, believe me. there'snever any perfect data, so the dats are saying of man if ionly could have done this,
so that's good talk about, be confidenthowever. say: "given the constraints i was working with,this was what i was able to do, but if i could do more, if you know, this is my dream, if i could really havedone this," or "in doing this, i learned a problem withthis kind of data collection. next time i'm gonna do it this way." is it okay to just say, i don't know? it's okay if you really don't know, this maybe a little better, it's better to say i don't know than tofake it.
the thing you don't wanna do is fake it.these are not people that will be fooled. so don't fake it at all. sometimes when they askthe questions and they're coming and you're trying to listen, you need a little time: you can slowthings down. you can slow things down by pausing, take a breath look at your notes, even state, "you think this is aregular phenomenon?" "i need a little time to answer that, can ijust have a minute to gather my thoughts?" they'll always say yes. don't take threeminutes, but
just a few seconds, maybe at that pointlook down so that you're not distracted by them. focus, focus.. okay i can answer thisquestion, boost your confidence and then go for it. another thing is toask them to repeat the question both when you don't understand thequestion and when you need a little time. maybe you did understand it, but youjust want to slow things down. so if you have said something wrong oryou realize that you started answering a newquestion and suddenly, "oh, i should have said that too." how do youhandle that?
well it's a good idea to just admit it: "oh, wait a minute i'm wrong about that aren't i? i realized that just now." just correctyourself. or you can finish answering the questionyou're on and then go: "may i also add somethingelse? i realized that when you asked me this, ianswer, but i could have said something more," and just go ahead and sayit. so you have the opportunity and you havethe right to say "i want to say something more iwant to correct it."
thank you for that question, iwish i had thought about earlier, that is a really good point. at the end, theyfinish asking you questions, they ask you to leave again. don't go toofar, go outside, now you really sweating. remember the odds, you're going to come back in and they're going to say, "congratulations!" "now, we want you torewrite the conclusion however you have passed, okay?" just remember it is very commonthat they wil ask for revisions.
they did for me, in fact one of mycommittee member said: "valerie you know that conclusion justwon't do." that's okay, because i managed to passthe defense part, they knew i knew what i was talking about, but they knew that my writing fell downin the hardest part. the conclusion is usually the hardest partwhere you have to think about the significance and fit it into the are the literature that you've done. so it's very common for that part, orcould be that you have some tables that
are not in the right format, or it could be something else they noticed. someproblem they thought that you just did not quite capture. sometimes yousaid something in the defense, but they want you to put into thedissertation. usually when you come back into the room and they say you passed, butwe want you to make the revisions they expect your chair to keep notes, and he or she will actually make sure youmake the revisions. however, you could also suggest at that point when they saywe're gonna any revisions, you can ask them,
"could you please summarize the majorrevisions you want for me to make so i can make somenotes now." now, whether each committee member is going to have to see those changes or not will also dependon what they decide with your chair. many times they decide that the chairwill be responsible for making sure those revisions are made and they don't have to see it again, butyou know they still have to sign your dissertation. so sometimes they'll sign it there ifyou take your title page in with you they will sign it right there,
and sometimes they won't sign it untilthey see those revisions. so that's another reason, you go see yourchair to find out how it's normally done. at other times, everything is fine, they don't even want anyrevisions and as i said, it's possible they will say you did notpass the defense knowing your material is extremelyimportant. don't go in there without having read yourown work. you think you've read it, because you wrote it, but you haven't read it. even ifyou finish writing it a week before,
give yourself a little time, read itagain. practice and knowledge of your topicwill make you feel really confident and remember positive self-talk,remember who you are. you probably know more about this topicthan anybody, i can guarantee you know more about this topic than anybody, evenmore than your advisor, because that's what a dissertationis: it's going farther than where your advisor can take you, you have to go rest of the way. so hopefully even though yourdavisor is going with you and following behind, you really do knowmore if you stop.
think a lot before you get there,that's why you need the time to prepare it. read your dissertation well. i reallyappreciate that you came today, you can always reach me at the writingcenter as well, it's valerie balester and if you go to "about"the writing center, you'll see the staff directory and myemail. so if i can give you someconfidence, let me know. thank you.