The dissertation defense is the final hurdle you must clear to earn your doctorate, and it may be one of the most important. It requires you to not only present your research and findings, but also explain how they fit into the broader body of scholarship and research in your discipline for more. Your department and committee members will expect you to do so in a way that is clear, concise and cogent.
The precise nature of the dissertation defense varies by discipline and department, so you should talk to your committee chair about what to expect. But, in general, you will be expected to defend your thesis in front of a group of faculty and other students (if the defense is open to the public). Your committee will expect you to demonstrate your expertise on the subject matter, your ability to explain your research, and how it fits into other scholarship in your field.
Your committee will want you to be able to answer questions about the methodology of your study, the statistical analysis of your data, and the broader implications of your research for your field. They will also want to know if your research is original, and they might ask you to explain the key concepts of your study, such as generalizability, validity and reliability.
It’s a good idea to practice your dissertation defense presentation before the actual event, and to use it as a opportunity to perfect your speaking skills. Practice your timing and make sure you have a grasp on all of the elements of the presentation — including body language and tone. You might even consider taking a free public speaking course, such as Yoodli’s Fundamentals of Public Speaking, to help you feel more comfortable during the actual defense.
Talking with your committee about what to expect at the defense meeting will also help you feel more confident. Miller suggests that you discuss your defense with your committee early in the process, and ideally at least a few weeks before it. He notes that students are more likely to have a wrinkle-free defense when they communicate regularly with their committees — which can include up to five members, including the chair, who they hand-picked when they began their programs.
Having regular contact with your committee members and knowing their likes, dislikes and pet peeves can also help you to anticipate the types of questions they might ask. You might also do a little advance detective work, such as reading their articles and surfing the Web, to familiarize yourself with their areas of expertise. Remember, though, that the defense is a conversation, and don’t be surprised if they disagree with you or challenge your ideas. They are testing your ability to this. And, that’s a great thing! You’ve spent years gaining knowledge on your chosen topic, and this is your chance to prove it.