Defending Your PhD: Learning to Shine

December 2, 2015

Achieving a PhD is a tremendous accomplishment. Getting to that point can be slow-going, though hopefully it’s been a rewarding process. But the build-up to defending your research to a committee of people who may know more than you do within your field of study can be painfully intimidating. It needn’t be. The most important thing you can do to succeed during your PhD thesis defense is to be prepared. Here are some tips:

Ask your own questions. Ok, you’ve done your best and are sick of going over your thesis time and again. However, you should challenge yourself to find the weaknesses in your own work. You may not have the time or inclination to fix them, but by anticipating what others may find lacking, you can at least practice admitting that you’ve already recognized the faults. It can actually be a confidence booster to have an articulate answer for what’s weak about your work. More importantly, know how your research fits into the bigger picture of your field. Know what the implications of the research will be in theory and in practice. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know, though saying something like, “I haven’t discovered the answer to that yet.” conveys a sense of your continued interest in the problem.

Ask your peers to challenge you. Weeks or months ahead of time, ask your colleagues, your lab partners and your savvy friends to ask you tough questions about your research. Tell them to ask you these questions at the most random moments. This can help you think on your feet and react to unanticipated inquiries. Learning to respond to the unexpected from someone else’s point of view can help you develop the ability to process a challenge to your work with agility.

Watch a video of yourself giving your talk. You’ll be surprised at your body language. This author was once filmed taking a mock patient interview, and came out of it feeling that it had gone well. As I watched the replay, I was astounded to see both my arms and legs were crossed, making me look as though I wanted to sink into a hole. Be sure you are aware of your body language. The more relaxed you appear, the more confidence you exude.

Watch other thesis defence talks. There are hundreds of them on Youtube alone. Youtube is also a gold mine for videos on giving oral presentations, no matter what the topic. Think about what you like and don’t like about other people’s presentations. Then be sure you don’t emulate the bad stuff.

Practice confidence. The viva is a hazing process; it’s meant to humble you so go in prepared to not fear being humbled. However, confidence is key to defending your research. Your work may not be 100% solid, as most things in life are not. But be certain of what you’re certain of and articulate that with conviction.

Consider this a job interview. Chances are that the people evaluating you may in fact be potential employers. They may know people who would benefit from collaborating with you. Sell yourself. Think of your viva as an interview for a job you know you are qualified for and that you really want to land.

Visualize a successful presentation: Go a step beyond practicing. This means imagine yourself nailing your presentation and the grilling you’ll get. Studies have shown that pre-performance visualization can indeed improve performance. Also, imagine getting a question you don’t know the answer to (you don’t have to come up with the question). Then imagine the most graceful way to deal with it. Best of all, imagine the utter relief and elation you will feel when it’s over. Remind yourself there is an end to all this anxiety. And it will be alright.

Exercise, rest and don’t succumb to stress eating. You can dig into that jar of Nutella after you’ve finished your talk. Before that, get plenty of sleep (at least 6-8 hours a night). If needs be, stay somewhere you can sleep without distractions, especially if you have kids who are up in the middle of the night or a cat that insists on lying on your face at 4 a.m. Don’t overdo it on the caffeine or sugar. And save the heavy drinking for the after party.

Even if you’re exceptionally calm and know your work inside and out, you can only improve things by spending some serious time on preparation. And don’t forget; this is work you’ve been passionate about and have put years of your life into. Let that show and let yourself shine.