Navigating the PhD Defense: Strategies for a Successful Presentation

25 August 2023

Embarking on the journey of a PhD is a remarkable feat, and the pinnacle of this journey is the dreaded yet exhilarating PhD defense. As you stand on the cusp of this pivotal moment, the culmination of years of research and dedication, it's normal to feel nervous and apprehensive. I dreaded that moment from day 1 of my PhD trajectory.

Preparing for an event that makes me nervous helps me best to calm my nerves. However, whenever I asked others on how to prepare I often heard “don’t worry, you got this! You are the expert!”. They are probably right and mean well – but such a statement is not too helpful to an over-preparer like myself. Preparing calms down my nerves so I needed to know HOW.

That is why in this blog post we'll delve into some practical advice and strategies to help you prepare for your defense and face the challenges with confidence.

Prepare for the known

Layman talk: One of the most essential components of your defense is the layman talk, where you explain your research to a non-specialist audience. This is your chance to showcase your ability to communicate complex ideas in a clear and engaging manner. Thorough preparation of the layman talk is crucial. Rehearse your talk multiple times in front of friends, family, or colleagues who are not familiar with your field. Their feedback can help you refine your delivery. When printing your layman talk, ensure it's single-sided to avoid awkward moments during your presentation. You wouldn't want to unintentionally (not) flip pages during your talk (yes, learn from my mistakes….). And remember, – at least in the Netherlands – you can read out your layman talk. You are safe. Practice it well and you start off you defense in a great way that leaves you time to get settled on stage and calm the nerves.

Think of allllll the questions you’ve heard over the past years: Throughout your PhD research journey, you've encountered a plethora of questions – from curious friends and family to critical colleagues at conferences. Take a moment to reflect on these questions and the recurring inquiries that have shaped your understanding of your own work. Compile these questions in a ‘question sheet’ as a valuable resource to tap into during your defense preparation. These questions often mirror the queries that your committee might pose. By addressing these inquiries proactively, you're arming yourself with a robust defense strategy.

Mock defense, invite your best critiques: Before the curtain rises on the main event, host a mock defense. This practice run allows you to simulate the real defense experience and receive feedback from your trusted peers and mentors. Invite those who aren't afraid to ask tough questions and provide constructive criticism. This rehearsal not only helps you refine your responses but also offers a chance to iron out any presentation glitches or nerves that might arise. Mock defenses provide a safe space to identify areas of improvement and build your confidence for the actual defense. Add the questions you encounter to a ‘question sheet’.

Navigating the PhD Defense: Strategies for a Successful Presentation

Know Your Committee: Facing questions from your committee is an integral part of your defense. I’d suggest to investigate the research interests of your committee members. This will give insight into the types of questions they might ask. It's also a good idea to ask their PhD candidates, your peers or mentors for their input on potential questions they expect from certain committee members. Again, add those questions to your ‘question sheet’.

Eventually you should be left with a little booklet of possible questions and good answers to those. Whereas you surely tackle many of those already in your dissertation, some of them are new and now you have a prepared answer for them. Maybe it’s even possible to bring that ‘question sheet’ + answers to your defense.

Prepare for the unknown

Of course, sometimes you can prepare as much as you want but there might come a question that throws you off. Here are some strategies you could refer back to in case of emergency.

Three Key Messages: Have three main takeaways from your research that you can seamlessly revert to in case you feel overwhelmed or need to refocus your response.

Special Case Scenarios: If you encounter a question you're unsure about, consider sharing a specific example or case study from your field work. While it might seem cliché, it's a practical approach to demonstrate your understanding and practical application of your research. Redirecting a question to a specific, intriguing aspect of your field work can be an effective way to respond thoughtfully.

Embracing the "Recite Your Dissertation" Approach: While the idea of reciting your entire dissertation might sound monotonous, it's a method with a purpose. By revisiting the core elements of your research, you ensure that your committee is well-acquainted with your key findings and contributions. The defense is not there to produce new knowledge, but it should be an investigation and test of your current work.

Lastly, take your time: The Power of Poise and Thoughtfulness

During your defense, it's essential to maintain a composed demeanor. Remember, it's perfectly acceptable to take a moment to collect your thoughts before responding to a question. Avoid rushing through your answers; instead, take your time to formulate thoughtful responses that showcase your expertise and understanding.

As you approach your PhD defense, it's important to remember that it's not just a test of your knowledge and research but also an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to communicate and engage with your audience. By preparing a compelling layman talk, anticipating and strategizing for potential questions, and embracing the core messages of your research, you can navigate this challenge with confidence and grace. And, yes, finally I’m going to repeat what you have heard so many times before: your defense is a celebration of your academic journey and a stepping stone to your future endeavors. So, stand tall, take your time, and shine brightly as you showcase the fruits of your labour to your committee and peers. Best of success! You got this.

Navigating the PhD Defense: Strategies for a Successful Presentation

Lisa-Marie Kraus

As part of the Becoming a Minority (BaM) project, funded by ERC and led by prof. dr. Maurice Crul as PI., Lisa-Marie Kraus conducted her PhD research at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and defended her dissertation in October 2022. Her research interests concern the experiences of people without a migration background in European majority-minority cities.

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