The dreaded doctoral defense

An oral defence, or Viva, is common in the UK, Europe, NZ. The viva is less common in Australia.  Most Australian students will do a final presentation before the PhD, but many universities are currently discussing how to introduce a defence as part of the examination process, so we can expect a defence of some sort to become more common.

In the USA, the viva is called a ‘doctoral defense and PhD students have the additional challenge of being examined by their supervision committee. The US system is so different I don’t tend to write specific posts to address the various challenges because I don’t have any first hand experience, so I’m always grateful when a US colleague offers to write one.

This post is by author, editor, writing coach, dissertation nurturer, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne, Ph.D. (Columbia University). She has published over 400 academic, writing craft, and spiritual articles and stories and essays in print and online venues. She delivers workshops and presentations to university faculty and writers and assists doctoral candidates in completing their dissertations (finally). Her handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but extremely important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). In Noelle’s first book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Website:

This post is adapted from: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles, chapter 7 – “The Dreaded Doctoral Defense”.

Most universities in the United States require a final doctoral defense of your precious work, although the procedures and formats may different from those in other countries. In the U.S., the advisory committee you’ve had a love-hate relationship with throughout your dissertation constitutes your defense committee as well. In other countries, the defense may be conducted with a blind peer review process (Australia) or as a viva (U.K.). For most students, though, it’s still a one-to-three-hour torture.

Almost everyone who has a doctorate has a final defense story. They may be different but they all have two things in common: few are pretty and theyíre emblazoned on the new doctor’s mind forever.

A friend of mine was obviously pregnant at her defense. After she successfully passed, her chair (supervisor), staring at her bulk, informed her with a tone of incontrovertibility that her entire graduate education had been a ‘waste’. Outrageous and maddening, I know.

Happily, she proved the chair monumentally wrong. Later, with two kids, she became an award-winning professor at Brandeis.

My defense was a little less dramatic but no less discomfiting. During the two hours of grilling and false camaraderie, my right foot fell asleep. As I rose for the verdict, my leg collapsed and I almost fell over the table into a bald committee member’s lap. They all laughed, almost as embarrassed as I. I still blush reliving it.

A fellow student in my doctoral cohort, by far the most brilliant of us all, felt he did so poorly at his defense that he cancelled a long-planned prepaid vacation to Scandinavia with his fiance. I never heard whether he ever went on the trip got married. This was mea culpa at its worst.

What do these cautionary tales tell you? To see your defense rightly. A rite of passage, certainly, it is nevertheless an important event in your progress and professional development. You don’t want to fail or flub it. You also want to maintain dignity and engender the respect of your chair and committee members’ your future colleagues.

As a consultant and coach to dissertation writers, I have often noticed that most candidates are petrified of the defense and either overdo it or try to underplay it. They imagine the committee asking impossible questions, like a detailed explanation of their statistical involutions, or asking ridiculous questions, like their opinion of the university cafeteria food.

Many candidates either spend every possible moment cramming, and risk predefense burnout, or avoid preparation entirely. James started preparing before he had even completed his data collection. He kept asking me questions about the required procedures and sent me loads of articles on defense advice, confessing he kept losing sleep panicking about his defense. I gently told him, several times, that his preparation, although admirable, was premature.

At the other extreme, Viola, a very bright candidate, told me years later that, despite my admonitions, she had minimized her defense and barely squeaked by. She knew the material but her nervousness and lack of preparation got the best of her. She regrets to this day not following my advice.

Recognizing that both extremes are, well, extreme, I developed the following suggestions for a good final defense before, during, and after the event. First, though, for your greater perspective, especially in U.S. defenses, some words about your committee.

Your Committee

Doubtless all members have their own defense horror stories, and your defense may trigger echoes of theirs. Their egos are at stake in your meeting, and they probably want to show off to each other. They also may want to show off by asking you tough questions. And yes, they may be unpredictable, quirky, mercurial. But remember that they are also upholding the high research standards of the university and their part in it. Keep in mind too that they have worked hard to get where they are. Theyíre not your enemies and want you to succeed, for you and for them.

So now, for you to make the experience a pleasant one for everyone, some advice on preparation.

Way Before the Defense

It’s better to be overprepared than underprepared. You will thank yourself for it later.
Remind yourself that you are the expert on your dissertation, especially every time your stomach sinks.
Read the university manual on defense protocols. It should tell you the time allotted for your introductory presentation, if you need a PowerPoint presentation and the number of slides, and whether the defense will be open to the ‘public’ (usually friends, family, and a few stray predefense doctoral students).
Attend several defenses before your own to familiarize yourself with the process. Observe how the candidates respond, and make notes on the positive behavior (poise and direct eye contact with the committee) and negative behavior (a lot of ìuhs,î ìahs,î and slouching). Youíll be combating your fear of the unknown.
Ask your chair for advice. About a month before the defense, schedule a meeting and discuss the defense format and range of possible questions. Ask the chair to look at your PowerPoint beforehand (they often want to and will critique it) and ask too for (diplomatic) insights on the committee members. If trouble erupts, such as another member calling for your running your statistics completely again or insisting that you ‘need’ to survey 132 more dock workers, the chair is supposed to fight for you (diplomatically).

Especially if other candidates have had your chair, study their final PowerPoints. When youíre ready for your own, use these and any outlines in the doctoral manual. Creating the new slides from your dissertation will help you remember, review, and summarize everything.

Think of the worst questions you donít want to be asked. Write them all down.

Type out your answers. You can refine them later. Make sure your dissertation backs up your answers (for example, correct number of participants, statistical results, themes revealed).

Know your material! Some candidates mark a hard copy of their dissertation at the pages reflecting anticipated questions. If you do, you can turn to the pages quickly. Alternatively, use the PowerPoint’s space at the bottom of each slide for your notes and scripts.

Rehearse with a relative or friend (something you can involve them in, and theyíll be tickled to help).

A Little Before

If your university has a media specialist, schedule an appointment for your electronic needs for the PowerPoint and have a list ready.

Visit the room in which the defense is scheduled, preferably with the media specialist, and plan together where you’ll place your computer and other equipment.

Alone in the room, do a mock rehearsal. Stand at the podium and look out into the vast sea of faces eager for your wisdom. See the chair and committee members sitting there beaming at you.

A few days before, decide what you’ll wear (even if the defense is by teleconference). Choose clothes that look and feel professional and get them in shape.

The day before, pack your materials: computer, flashdrive backup, hard copy, handouts, pens, pencils, recorder/phone app if you choose, and anything else that anticipates any technical malfunctions and may seem like overkill but will make you breathe easier.

Don’t forget the deodorant.

The night before, go to the movies, binge watch your favorite TV show, or do something physical. No alcohol. Get a good night’s sleep.


Arrive early and meditate beforehand either in your car, on a bench outside, or even in the empty room.

Reflect on your previous successful presentation experiences’ from your job, a speech at a wedding, an impassioned piece of advice to a friend who took it.

Set up your materials.

Tell yourself you are confident and passionate about your topic and findings.

When they enter, SMILE.

Stand up, stand straight.

Greet each committee member, even if your knees are shaking.

Look ’em in the eye.

Remember that you are the expert. Take a few deep breaths.

When the committee starts asking questions, have a notepad and pen ready to take notes, and take your time responding.

If you don’t know an answer, don’t fudge. Instead say, “That’s a very good question. I’ll have to think more about it” or “I’ll do more research on that.” Remember you are still the humble student. The committee will admire your response.


At the end of the defense, smile, shake hands (admittedly clammy), and thank everyone profusely. Tell them you enjoyed the meeting (it is possible).

Expect some revisions. Just because it’s the ‘final’ defense doesnít mean the committee can’t change its collective mind and swoop down on niggling and not-so points.

Collect the committeeís hard copies with their notes, if this is the procedure. Or offer to pick them up or ask them to email you their marked-up copies or lists of revisions.

Study up on all the red-tape requirements and regulations for revised documents, all committee signatures, and final deposit of the dissertation. You don’t want to miss any deadlines.

Throughout: A Few Helpful Affirmations

  • Every time panic hits, practice defensive affirmations:
  • I am perfectly competent, confident, express, poised.
  • I am in command of myself.
  • I look forward to sharing what I know and have learned.
  • My defense goes perfectly.
  • The committee is for me.
  • I trust my knowledge, good work, and good mind to come up with the right answers.
  • I know everything I need to know, instantly.
  • I now visualize the movie of my perfect defense. I see myself poised and self-assured, talking easily about any aspect of the work, adlibbing from the PowerPoint. I graciously accept all compliments about the brilliance of my presentation. I hear the chair’s magic words, “Congratulations! You have passed!”

* * * * * *
When you practice the steps here, you will be one of the few new Doctors without a defense horror story. Your story will be a much happier one, and as you continue in your successful professional career, your defense will shine forever bejeweled in your memory. © 2017 Noelle Sterne

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10 thoughts on “The dreaded doctoral defense

  1. Lindsey Mao says:

    Reblogged this on everythingLINDSEYblog and commented:
    I love this list of “A Few Helpful Affirmations

    Every time panic hits, practice defensive affirmations:
    I am perfectly competent, confident, express, poised.
    I am in command of myself.
    I look forward to sharing what I know and have learned.
    My defense goes perfectly.
    The committee is for me.
    I trust my knowledge, good work, and good mind to come up with the right answers.
    I know everything I need to know, instantly.
    I now visualize the movie of my perfect defense. I see myself poised and self-assured, talking easily about any aspect of the work, adlibbing from the PowerPoint. I graciously accept all compliments about the brilliance of my presentation. I hear the chair’s magic words, “Congratulations! You have passed!””

  2. WhyIsItAlwaysYou says:

    certainly in the U.K., the examination of the PhD is a 2 stage process, so the viva serves an essential function. Students therefore need to take the viva very seriously.

    Particularly with a problematic thesis, I’ve seen examiners reach a final decision based on the student’s performance – ie it’s either convinced them that the work is worthy of a PhD or it’s convinced them that the work is not of the requisite standard.

    Granted, it’s hard to undo an exceptional thesis with a dreadful viva performance but I’ve seen few exceptional theses (and I’ve seen a lot). Bottom line is, take the viva very seriously as in all probability it will directly influence the outcome

    • louloureads says:

      I found this comment encouraging – I’m waiting for my viva knowing that there are problems with my thesis (I couldn’t get an extension so it was submitted before it was really ready). I’m preparing hard for my viva and it is helpful to know that it isn’t all completely hopeless!

  3. joannelehrer says:

    Having just gone through this in Canada, the best advice I received, from multiple sources, was “enjoy it.” I did, but I am not sure I would have had the director of the PhD program not reminded me right before the event. Also, practice in front of an audience, especially if the défense is not in your native language! Finally, there is a tradition here of either a buffet (provided by the student or the supervisor, depending on departmental norms) or going out for lunch or drinks afterwards. Talk to your supervisor and see who is responible for organizing the celebration afterwards. My university provided prosecco, definitely the best glass (or 2, or 3) I have had!

    • joannelehrer says:

      I forgot to mention, if you receive the evaluation reports ahead of time, prepare “hidden” slides at the end of the presentation to answer questions you know, or suspect, will be asked. My supervisor also told me not to make too many changes to the presentation based on the feedback, because the reviewers have already prepared their questions, and if they are no longer relevant, who knows what they many ask…

      • Janey says:

        Oh good points! I am right now preparing my presentation while I wait for my examiners evaluation reports to come in. Thanks for this.

  4. Colin Cohen says:

    Thank you Noelle. This is extremely helpful, and I wish I’d read this before my own viva (at a UK university). I agree that it’s possible to go over the top in terms of being prepared, but once the viva starts you’ll probably be pleased to have prepared yourself.

  5. Irade Nox says:

    The VIVA was the most enjoyable moment of my PhD experience, which was otherwise littered with loneliness, poor supervision and, what I realized now, as a deterioration of mental health and my relationships.

    I prepared very simply….by totally removing myself from my PhD! I handed in my thesis in January, I had to wait 5 months before my VIVA, and in that time I worked my normal 9-5 job (totally unrelated to my PhD). I re-read one chapter a week when I felt like it, and put myself under no pressure. In the month of my VIVA, I went on a 3 week trip to the west coast USA and enjoyed myself. I got off a plane at 9pm UK, and had my VIVA the next day at 11.

    I didn’t panic, I was looking forward to it. I chose two esteemed academics who I wanted to read my work, and who I knew would grill it and give it serious consideration. I had confidence in my work, and myself (which came through publishing in peer-reviewed journals in Years 2 & 3). I saw it as the culmination of what I already knew, and letting go so I could move on in my life. I was good enough, my work was good enough and my peers would be engaging with me in a conversation I had expertise in. Those 2 hours I cherish.

    My advice is, relax, have confidence, and enjoy it!

  6. Christopher West (Cieslinski) says:

    I am now seventy years old and look upon my academic achievements and contributions in life. My parents were displaced persons of WWII, relocated to the United States and here I was born. English my second language and Polish my first, I was enrolled in a school where it was mandatory to study Latin during elementary school. Spanish studied for a couple of years in high school followed by studies of Vietnamese at the US Defense Language Institute. I interrupted my graduate studies to volunteer with the US Peace Corps in Poland and when I returned I was asked to teach international studies at the undergraduate level to students giving me the opportunity to compose coursework. Once i left it gave me more time to compose more coursework at the graduate level which was accepted for me to teach at yet another university. I was invited to lecture both in the US and abroad. I returned to Poland to speak to students. To that I was also invited to work as the executive director for the United Nations Assoc. St. Louis. But most unexpectedly I was contacted and asked to assist the Polish American Joint Task Forces in Afghanistan. My doctoral dissertation was published last year, but I have no one that will now help me to get a doctoral defense committee so I never thought any one would help me while I was helping them.

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