Dissertation Proposal Defense Preparation

This post is about how I prepared for my dissertation proposal defense. My dissertation is in the social sciences, so this may not be applicable to other disciplines. I discuss a preparation checklist that I uploaded. While I have heard horror stories about people behaving badly at defenses (both doctoral students and academics) but I am not going to address them here.

The most useful part of the entire preparation effort was trying to imagine the hardest questions that I could be asked so that I could be ready for them and reviewing the answers with my Chair. A few did come up during the defense. Coming up with the questions was a lot of work and I had to think about it over several days and detailed reading and re-reading of my proposal. Most of the questions that came up were much easier than my questions.

According to my Chair, the purpose of the proposal defense is to ensure the research is
  • Feasible
  • Rigorous
  • Significant

These are good things to keep in mind as you prepare.

My Chair provides all doctoral candidates with proposal defense preparation guidance. I found it very helpful. The meeting with my Chair to review my proposed questions and answers was also very helpful, because it indicated that I needed guidance to keep my answers high-level and only descend into great detail if a committee member specifically wanted it. After this conversation, I felt that I had a much better, holistic understanding of my own study. It is hard to keep this view because you are always working on the details and can thus lose the forest for the trees (U.S. expression).

Two of the most important things about the proposal defense are: 
  • Follow your chair’s lead and 
  • When addressing questions, explain why you did what you did, but don’t argue excessively. This has been known to cause months of extra effort if you annoy a committee member or think that you are going to show them you are smarter than they are. Consider the power of saying, “what kind of change would you like me to make to address your concern?”

I talked to the last person to go through proposal defense with my chair to get their lessons learned. My Chair helped me with some psychology of the dissertation process from the perspective on committee members. They don’t get much “credit” for the many hours required for being on the committee, it is just one of their contributions to the scholarly community like reviewing journal articles for conferences or publication. As such, committee members are likely to be looking for ways that they can contribute to your research to improve it. Be a good, respectful learner and let them help you.

Other things to consider:
  • Don’t ramble in your answers. Rambling is more likely than you think because you will probably be nervous. Be clear and concise. Practice giving your answers to a colleague for friend.
  • Convey a sense of calm. Some silence is okay. Don’t keep blabbing because it raises the odds considerably that you will say something dumb or something a committee member does not agree with.
  • In most cases, your committee members want you to succeed. They are there to help you. Let them.
  • Make sure you can clearly, succinctly state the key premises of your study. It should only be 3-4 for most studies. It was just 3 for me. Many of the questions you get asked can be connected to these premises.
  • You need to be very articulate about your research methodology to answer the research questions you propose. This will likely come up several times during the defense. My Chair suggested I keep the major steps of my study on a small piece of paper that I could glance at during the defense so that I did not leave anything out, if asked.

At the defense, make sure someone (could be you or Chair, just make sure it is clear) is keeping good notes and re-reads the actions at the end of the defense so you don't miss anything. I did not keep notes of actions during the proposal defense, but I did write them down when the Chair was reviewing them at the end.