Outline for presentations at final exams ("defenses") of doctoral dissertations
Neil C. Rowe, 6/09
(a) Defenses usually consist of a presentation no longer than 45 minutes, followed by questioning from one to two hours. Expect to be interrupted for short clarification questions during the presentation. Questions after the presentation typically explore the assumptions, limitations, extensions, and applications of the dissertation work.
(b) The defense is intended to be a "public" presentation. That means you should design it not for your doctoral committee but for intelligent listeners in the field in which you are getting the Ph.D. Avoid acronyms and other jargon as much as possible. Your committee's vote on your performance will put significant weight on how you handled questions from nonmembers of the committee.
(c) As with presentations at science and engineering conferences, you should rehearse your talk in advance. It is best to give a practice run for your entire dissertation committee, but at least you should present it orally to your dissertation supervisor. The practice run should help both with judging the length of the talk and finding things that can be improved.
(e) The core of your presentation should be a set of novel claims from your work and the validation of your claims. This is supplemented with how these claims relate to prior work and what is different about them, plus speculations about future implications of what you have done.
NOTE: Slide counts recommended below are for 28 point font. Do not use font smaller than this for exams with videoconferencing, and less than 20 point otherwise, with the possible exception of important figures and tables that cannot be compressed.
1. What problem are you addressing (1-2 slides). Focus on the primary problem if there is more than one.
2. Why this problem is important (1 slide).
3. What contributions you have made that no one previously has done (1-2 slides). The contributions must be to the field of the degree. State them as claims. Most of the remainder of your presentation will be the validation of your claims.
4. Previous work addressing the same problem with different methods than yours (1-3 slides, depending on the topic). Give names of researchers and summarize succinctly what they did. Explain why previous work didn't solve your problem completely.
5. Previous work addressing different problems with similar techniques to those you used in the dissertation work (2-5 slides, depending on the topic). This can be short if you used well-known techniques.
6. Design of the validation for each of your claims (5-15 slides). The validation can include experiments, tests, and proofs. If you built something, this is where you describe it. Note that validation can be of design as well as of implementation, although validation of an implementation is more convincing. Thorough validation is the key feature distinguishing Ph.D. dissertations from Master's theses.
7. Results of the validation of each of your claims (2-10 slides). Usually this is presented in the form of statistics and some analysis of data that has been collected.
8. Conclusions: How your validated claims have contributed to the solution of the original problem (1-2 slides).
9. Broader implications: Why your work is useful to society (1-2 slides).
Total: 15-42 slides
© Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C.Psych., Former Research Director, Graduate Program in Counselling Psychology, Trinity Western University, Langley, BC, Canada
Use the following steps when preparing for the oral defense of your thesis/dissertation.
1. Evaluation of oral examination is based on your presentation and your answers to questions from the examining committee.
2. Be well prepared for your presentation—academically, mentally and physically. Try to be well rested and focused before your oral defense.
3. In your preparation, don’t try to memorize all the studies cited in your thesis, but you do need to know the details of the few key studies that form the basis of your investigation.
4. You need to be familiar with larger issues, such as the basic assumptions, theoretical framework, paradigm, cross-cultural perspectives, Christian integration, etc.
5. More importantly, you need to have a deep understanding of the nature of your research problem and the major issues involved.
6. You may bring with you important materials for easy reference in the course of your defense; these may include key articles, computer print-outs of results, etc.
7. Your presentation is evaluated in terms of content and clarity as well as style.
8. Don’t speak too fast and don’t read from your notes.
9. Treat your presentation as a public address because there may be non-psychologists present at your defense. Therefore, don’t use too many jargons and don’t pack it with details. You need to tell people in simple, concise language:
- What you did,
- Why you did it,
- How you did it,
- What you found, and
- What the results mean.
10. Prepare handouts or power-points. Typically, they should include
- An overview or outline of your presentation,
- Introduction (including research question, rationale and hypothesis, if any, and definition of key constructs),
- Method (including design, methodology, sample, instruments or questionnaires, and procedure,
- Results (including tables or figures summarizing your findings), and
- Discussion (including reasons for new or unexpected findings, contributions and limitations, and practical implications).
11. Make sure that you space yourself well. Don’t spend too much time on one section. For example, you should not spend more than 5 minutes on introduction, since you are allowed only 20 minutes for your presentation.
12. Most of the questions are rather general and broad, dealing with substantial methodological, theoretical and application issues. However, some questions focus on specific points regarding sampling, statistical analysis, or some questionable conclusions.
13. Be prepared to clarify or elaborate on your assumptions, theoretical positions, methods, and conclusions. Often, an examiner plays the devil’s advocate to see how well you can think on your feet and defend yourself.
14. Occasionally, an examiner may ask a question which is unfair or cannot be adequately answered. After a few futile attempts, feel free to say that you don’t know the answer. You may even be bold enough to say, “Since none of my answers are acceptable, I would really appreciate it if you could give me some pointers or tell me what would be a correct answer.”
15. Here are some common questions:
- If you were to do it all over again, what changes would you make?
- What specific aspects of your findings can be utilized by counselors or psychologists in their practice?
- What is the most important contribution of your thesis? Can you say it in one or two sentences?
- What are some of the competing hypotheses? Could you think of an alternative interpretation of your findings?
16. Don’t rush to any answers. It is perfectly acceptable to think for a couple of seconds, or ask if you are on the right track. If you are not clear about the question, you are entitled to ask for clarification.
17. Try to be concise and to the point, but at the same time demonstrate that you have a good grasp of the complex issues involved. In other words, do not give superficial answers, but at the same time, do not go all over the map.
18. Put up a good defense without being defensive. Be confident without being cocky. A good defense means that you can provide strong logical arguments as well as empirical support o defend your position or conclusion. However, don’t be defensive when people criticize your study. If they are able to point out some real flaws or weaknesses in your study, accept their criticisms with humility, grace and gratitude.
19. Before the oral defense, talk to your advisor about areas of concerns based on external examiner’s comments. Then, discuss with your advisor how to best address these concerns. (Your advisor cannot tell you the specific questions the examiners will ask, but s/he can direct your attention to issues or areas that require some thinking or additional research.)
20. After the oral defense, meet with your advisor for debriefing and seek advice on how to revise your thesis.