You’ve done the research, analyzed the data, written the dissertation, and submitted it – now all that’s left is to complete your oral defense (also known as the viva voce, or just the viva).
How on earth can you prepare to orally explain to a panel of experts what took you years to research and write?
Here are a few top tips to help you keep the panic at bay and prepare for an awesome oral defense.
Re-Read Your Dissertation
To make sure the complex ideas in your dissertation are sharp and fresh in your mind, aim to re-read the entire dissertation document at least once before your oral defense.
It may seem pretty obvious, but by the time you have finished your writing and revising, the starting point and fine details of your research many have become pretty hazy in your memory.
Not sure how to go about re-reading effectively? The APA (American Psychological Association – yes, that APA) offers some awesome tips on academic reading more generally that work a treat when re-reading a dissertation draft.
Make Notes as You Re-Read Your Dissertation
You know how I said to re-read your dissertation at least once? Well, make that twice. Once you have re-read the first time, do it again with a pen and highlighter in your hand for taking notes.
This second read-through is important because it will allow you to start thinking about the dissertation from an outsider’s point of view. It will also allow you to pick out key points you want to bring to your defense committee’s attention. Are there areas you feel are particularly exciting or puzzling? Areas where you think your audience might have questions? Unusual approaches or findings you need to explain?
Forte Labs has a fantastic article on note-taking with some really helpful tips for moving from manuscript to notes to new ideas – you may not need anything as complex as Luhmann’s slip-box, but any creative note-taking system will provide you with plenty of material for an exciting, invigorating, challenging defense presentation.
Anticipate the Defense Panel’s FAQs
A key reason for going through your dissertation manuscript so many times is that questions from the panel are a key part of any dissertation oral defense.
Your examiners will ask you many questions, about your methods, your findings, and even your motivations. They want to see that you understand your research inside and out, and that you have conducted your research rigorously.
You can make this process less nerve-wracking by anticipating some of the questions that are likely to come up beforehand. Your notes from re-read number two will be invaluable for this process.
The Soph Talks Science blog makes some excellent suggestions for key questions that are likely to be asked, but you should definitely add to this list, based on your knowledge of your topic and your examiners.
Practice Public Speaking
A dissertation oral defense is – naturally – oral, and that means a lot depends on your ability to speak fluently, confidently, and clearly in front of your audience.
Nerves are normal, but you must not let them affect the quality of your presentation. Keep them under control by practicing ahead of time, in front of a mirror, a pet, or a sympathetic group of friends. Ask for feedback (maybe not from your pets, though – they can be critical) and work on controlling your speed, your fluency, your body language, and how you “work the room.”
You can find excellent, tried-and-tested public presentation tips in this open-access article in PLOS Computational Biology.
As a final note, when preparing for your dissertation defense, remember to CHILL OUT!
You’ve already done the hard work – this is your area of expertise, and no one knows it better than you do (that, after all, is the point of a PhD). That gives you an enormous advantage. Remember why you love your research, share that passion with your examiners, and rock your defense like it’s your own personal stage. You got this!