You’ve spent years on your studies to acquire your advanced degree, and whether a master’s thesis or doctorate, you need to know how to prepare for a thesis defense. Treat this as more of a siege than a defense, and be prepared to outlast any foe, any siege engine, any army at your gates.
You have already built up a great thesis, with instruction from professors, and maybe even the help of a great , and you are finally ready for your defense. What does that phase of your academic career look like?
In this article, we will give you the tools and tips to make it through. We will start with a preparation section, focusing on various aspects of how to study and what to study, then talk about the lead-up to the big day: preparing materials and handling anxiety. We’ll also touch on what to do on the day and how a thesis defense will, or could, go. At the end of it all, you will have a clear idea of how to approach the preparation for, and the defense of, your thesis.
We put this first knowing that it is the most important element of your entire presentation. The crux of your defense hinges on this. You must know your thesis, backwards and forwards. There must be nothing about it that you have forgotten. However miniscule the detail, and however insubstantial to your thesis that detail ultimately is, you must nevertheless know it.
When it comes time to question you, after presentation of your work, questions you cannot answer will strike you down. Knowledge is your shield.
Know the Big Picture: What Are You Trying to Prove?
While you will already be intimately familiar with your research, readings, and revisions of your opus, you should still allot yourself time prior to your defense in which to know crucial elements of your thesis front to back. This is your primary concern.
What are you trying to prove? This is your number one concern, and being able to state this clearly, and back up your efforts with sources and arguments, is the main point of your thesis defense.
So, start with the big picture. Know your main points and the crux of your arguments. You have one, main thrust with this thesis, and you have one, primary tentpole holding it up. No doubt you have more evidence than one primary source, but inevitably one will have more weight and potency than the others. Start there and work your way out.
Don’t memorize words to say, but memorize the web of arguments you have woven together to support your work. Your research was about X, and you have Y as a result, and now you share that and defend your assertions.
Know Your Arguments
You can’t memorize the whole thesis – it will be large – but you can memorize a few, important points that support your main argument, and give credibility to your assertions. Again, you aren’t memorizing a speech to give, but you should know some of your more crucial statistics and datapoints so you can reference them easily.
It’s not just enough to know what your own thesis says, but you must be knowledgeable about its foundations. Your thesis is built on sources and materials that you have cited and referenced throughout. These deserve your attention as well.
If you are being questioned and, without a beat, you can cite chapter and verse on the proofs for your claims, this gives your own arguments depth and clarity. A successful thesis will add to the knowledge base of your field, but it must be built on the knowledge that came before. Knowing your secondary sources demonstrates your knowledge, shows how your thesis connects to that knowledge, and solidifies your arguments through the foundational assertions of prior experts.
Are you looking for grad school tips that will help you succeed in your application and once you get in? Watch this:
“Know your enemy,” wrote the philosopher and military commander Sun Tzu, “as you know yourself, and you will have victory in many battles.”
Your thesis makes a claim, adds to the body of knowledge in your field, and does so with evidence, research – not to mention panache – and is given its gravitas by the myriad of sources and proofs that you have to offer. Great, but don’t forget about those who disagree.
In most fields – certainly all the ones worth studying – anybody who makes a claim will have that claim challenged.
This is, perhaps, the most important step to preparing your defense: know why your detractors will say your thesis is wrong. If you can “steel man” – the opposite of “straw man” – their arguments, and phrase counter-arguments to your own statements – as well as anybody who holds those ideas would – then you have already, essentially, anticipated many, if not all, of the questions the examining board will put to you.
With that knowledge, you will also know to prepare defenses, explanations, and counter-arguments to each of these perceived complaints. Make sure that your counter-arguments would satisfy the majority of reasonable, educated persons in your field – if not any potential naysayers themselves.
Of course, having the main points, secondary points, data, references, detractions, and answers to those detractions all at your mind’s immediate beck and call would be wonderful; but, if you can manage to memorize all of that reliably within your head, don’t count on nothing but pure, rote learning to bring up all of this information. We recommend you keep quick reference notes to help you.
When you’re asked a question, having quick access to well-kept notes will serve you well. Notes themselves are nice, but you also need to be able to access them quickly. Any paradigm that works for you will do, but here is a sample schema for you to consider:
Again, use any rubric you want, but pick a system and make sure it works for you. How do you know it works? By testing it.
That term - “baptism of fire” – refers to being trained via a quick shove onto a battlefield. You might also think of mother and father bird shoving their younglings out of the nest, peeping encouragement at them to fly.
Don’t let this happen to you. Check your wings first.
Mock interviews are extremely useful for interview preparation. Arrange a mock thesis defense. Get professionals who know what they are doing to grill you on your thesis. A professional mock panel will simulate the time, let you run through your presentation, and put you through your paces by asking insightful, challenging questions; they might even ask questions you didn’t anticipate – in which case, lucky for you it was caught beforehand.
Or, not so lucky. Lucky is what happens to a soldier in a baptism of fire, but you’re not doing that. You’re preparing, training, and refining your methods to be bulletproof before anybody fires upon you at all.
A mock defense will simulate the real thing as close as possible, likely even giving you a taste of the nerves and letting you learn how to cope with anxiety. Plus, you can test your filing system for quick recall.
The most crucial elements to get ready are anything that you will directly need. That is to say that you should have access to your presentation itself, as well as your notes, and anything else that you’ll require for the defense. Everything else is secondary, and while it’s not a great idea to show up without combing your hair, at least you can still mount a defense with bedhead; you can’t defend your thesis without your critical notes.
With that said, definitely comb your hair. Presenting your thesis is about presenting yourself, as well, so put on some professional-casual clothes so you are comfortable and presentable.
Bring along anything else you need to be comfortable in the room, such as a water bottle or pencils and a notepad – anything you might want to help you succeed.
The exception: don’t overload so much that you are carrying multiple bags around with you.
Want to learn how to prepare for thesis defense questions? Check this infographic:
The very nature of the activity of thesis defense means that you will be spending your presentation and your day on the defensive. This is, inherently, a stressful position to take, but a strong aggravating factor is the stakes of the event. This is a momentous occasion. You are at the proverbial moment of truth where you will either advance to the next, major phase of your career, or you will be forced to reconcile yourself to returning and revising – another revision and exploration and another defense.
Naturally, it follows that stress management is going to be one of the most important aspects of your day.
Prevention is the Best Cure
Give yourself an on-the-day boost by planning your studying and preparation well in advance. This will enable you to take a break before the actual day. If the day before your thesis defense can be one spent in contemplation, meditation, or relaxation, you’ll have a much better mental state for the defense itself.
Also of utmost importance: sleep. Maintaining a decent sleep schedule can be nigh-impossible, let alone sporadically getting in the actual recommended hours of sleep that your doctor really wants you to get. Nevertheless, make an extra effort to get a lot of rest, ideally within a sleep schedule, so that you are bright-eyed come defense time.
Long-term Stress Management
The rise of app culture is seen by some as the fall of civilization – particularly those spiritual or personal aspects of life. Tech is really just a tool, however, and finding a good meditation app can give you the right tech-based buddy system to keep you in good mental health. Meditation can be a great stress-management technique, and trying out some basic techniques will help you to stay alert, focused, and calm on your big day.
Physical Health IS Mental Health
How are you eating? Do you get out to exercise?
These are things that can easily fall by the wayside while pursuing higher academics. There is a reason that there is a cliched stereotype of undernourished, sleepless academics: it’s hard to absorb, retain, and study knowledge at this demanding level while maintaining a good balance with the more physical aspects of your life. Nonetheless, good physical health is strongly linked with good mental health, and you should pursue both.
Remember Step One...
Preventing panic is often a case of focus being unable to override insecurity. You’ve already taken care of your knowledge base: know your thesis. With that, you can keep insecurity at bay. Now for focus. What is the first thing you have to do when you get in the room? You’ll have some opening remarks, but even before that, you’ll likely want to quickly introduce yourself and welcome and thank your thesis screening panel. Forget everything else. Stop worrying about it, because you just have to do that first thing.
Concentrate on the Next Thing
After that, keeping yourself from getting distracted by insecurity is a question of focusing on whatever you must do next. You’ve made it through your introduction: great. What’s next? Since you’ve composed a careful set of notes, and carefully arranged those notes on your desk, table, or podium – or computing device – you can glance down and look to “point two” to carry you forward. Focus on doing your best job on that point. Once it’s over, focus on point three. Keep on in this way, and you have exorcised the twin demons of distraction and insecurity.
Fix Mistakes with No Fanfare
What if you misspeak? Just go back over it and fix the error quickly. “I’m sorry, I meant to say that 33% of the population favors blue above other colors, not 30%.”
Once you’ve fixed the error, move on. Dwelling on it does nothing at best, and exacerbates your problems at worst.
Technological Problems Are Not You
What if your PowerPoint presentation gums up? What if your computer freezes? What if the projector won’t project?
Remember that everybody in the room deals with glitches and tech errors, just like you, and do your best.
Don’t hide it – it's not hidden – but just briefly acknowledge the problem, “It seems the computer has frozen. Pardon me,” and see if you can fix it. If you can’t, rely on your notes to keep going. If you have infographics or charts and data that you wanted to highlight, offer to show those elements to the thesis screening panel, or to describe the data they need.
You’re being judged based on your logic, reasoning, rationales, recommendations, findings, data, and the effectiveness of your thesis. Nobody’s going to dock points from your presentation if there was a power failure.
Plus, if you’ve followed our advice thus far, you have redundant note systems with you, and you’ll be fine.
How to Stay Calm, Generally
Keep your breath under control. This ties in with meditation, to some extent, but controlled breath will keep your heart-rate down and your anxiety levels far more controlled than they would otherwise be. That is not to say that you won’t feel any anxiety, per se, just that – statistically speaking – you are far more likely to have far less anxiety.
Many people like to imagine a humorous image, particularly of their audience, to calm themselves down. This might work for you, but what this technique is getting at is a way to take your mind off of your anxieties and force it to focus on something else.
To do this, you needn’t go to the cliché of imagining anybody in underwear. Rather, just have a calming image or idea in your head that you can focus on. Pick something that makes you calm, or brings out a smile, and something that you can concentrate on to stop any panic moments and take away the snowball effect that happens whenever you dwell on something negative or that makes you anxious.
A Final Tip on Courtesy
Remember to be courteous, gracious, and polite. It really helps if you remember the names of the people on your thesis panel, so write those down if you have to.
A thesis defense consists of a short presentation – about twenty or thirty minutes – on your thesis, followed by a discussion. That discussion is the actual defense of your thesis, as the thesis panel will be asking you questions and challenging you on your research, your conclusions, and your ideas.
The questioning period might take another twenty minutes or an hour, or even longer. There is no guaranteed time duration, so be prepared for a lengthy discussion and debate after your presentation.
Standard format would probably include the use of a PowerPoint-type accompaniment to your summation of your thesis. It is recommended that you provide more than just a lecture. If you want your panel to have anything like infographics, charts, or statistics, you need to provide it, either as part of a visual slideshow presentation, handout sheets, or both.
These feel your argument out a bit, just to test and see if you know your stuff, or if you’ve just memorized a very specific subset of data. These will seem almost unbearably easy if you have studied extensively while researching your thesis. If you haven’t, they will be painfully difficult. If you cannot answer these basic questions, you will seem as though you have crafted a thesis with blinders on, and it is unlikely you will survive further, deeper rounds of questioning.
Maybe a chart didn’t go deep enough. Maybe somebody is curious if that statistic you gave was per capita or not. These clarification questions will just seek to clear up any misconceptions or blind spots in your presentation. This is why it’s important to know both your material and the secondary sources and citations you have made. If you understand all of this information thoroughly, you’ll be able to go deeper than any one chart and explain everything. This is also why it’s necessary to keep quick reference cards and tables of contents. If you blank on that per capita question, your index card won’t.
Opposing Viewpoint and Supporting Data
These questions will seek to challenge your ideas and stress your thesis by digging deep. They will present opposing views and find out whether or not you have considered alternate points of view. These are the most crucial questions to have excellent answers to, because these are the questions that directly challenge your work and are what you are “defending” your thesis from. We have already warned you to know your “enemy” as you know yourself. We stress this again here: have top-grade answers to cutting questions, or fail in your attempt.
Arm yourself with knowledge of your own thesis and an anticipation of what your detractors might, or do, say, and then practice, practice, practice.
At the end of a long period of vigorous study, get some rest, keep calm, and fire up a meditation app – or go for a walk.
In short: follow our advice, your common sense, and trust to your knowledge base and the research and readings you’ve done over the past years, and you’ll have a solid thesis defense.
1. How long beforehand should I start preparing my thesis defense?
Ideally you will dedicate several weeks to thesis preparation. Start about three to five weeks ahead of the defense and put aside some time every day to work on some aspect of your defense.
2. How much prep is too much prep?
There isn’t really such a thing as too much prep. You could take too many notes and wind up with a very large, unwieldy reference binder, but even that is mitigated by your “table of contents.”
Err on the side of “too much” rather than “not enough.”
3. What if a panel member asks something I covered in my presentation?
They’re probably just testing your knowledge of the material versus whether or not you just memorized a speech. Treat this as a probing question and answer in reference to your work. If this is an accident, don’t draw attention to it, and don’t get exasperated.
4. What if the panel asks about something not covered by my thesis?
Say it’s outside of your field or area of study, but explain why you didn’t go there. So, if they ask about something peripheral, acknowledge that this isn’t part of what you’ve learned, why you are aware of it, and why you didn’t pursue further research into that area. Above all else, don’t fake knowledge you don’t have.
5. How many people are on a thesis panel?
Numbers may vary, but three to five is fairly typical.
6. If the defense is going on for some time, are there breaks?
If you need a short break, to use the restroom, for instance, you can ask for one.
7. Should I memorize my defense speech?
Have talking points and a firm knowledge of your facts and ideas, but don’t memorize set speeches. You can come off sounding robotic and impersonal. Worse, if you are asked a question and you find yourself getting lost, you might not remember details of your speech without the “ramp up” into any given part. Better to know the data, rather than the exact words.
8. What happens if I fail my defense?
In the event that you are not awarded your master or doctorate, you will most likely be given the chance to revise your thesis and try again. The committee will give you feedback, and you will revise accordingly.