I recently defended my dissertation and, having heard horror stories about hostile committees playing “stump the candidate,” surprised myself by exclaiming how exciting the defense was and how much I enjoyed the conversation and the celebration of the defense.
Being heralded as a celebratory event does not diminish the level of anxiety that a dissertation defense can induce upon even the most prepared doctoral candidate. During the week prior to my defense, I regularly had dreams of walking into the room and being asked to produce some final chapter that I was unaware I was supposed to write, or that my committee of once-supportive faculty members suddenly turned against my project, or that my voice could not be heard (I did end up defending while recovering from laryngitis, so there was perhaps some truth in that nightmare).
But when the day of my defense dawned, all anxieties had vanished: I was ready to do this thing! I was confident in my knowledge (after all, despite my junior-scholar status, I was the reigning expert in the room on the topic of eighteenth-century footnotes) and I was confident in my ability to convey my knowledge.
I have identified three concrete steps that I took in preparing for my defense that led to my readiness and the empowerment that the defense occasioned. These steps range from preparations one year (or more) in advance, to one week, or even one day, before the defense.
- Talk early and talk often about your dissertation—even when it is not yet fully written.
For the past year before my defense, I embraced every opportunity to talk about my writing and to do so with people of varying familiarity with my project: I thought aloud with my adviser, I discussed theoretical problems with members of my writing group, I learned ways of describing the research to those not in academia, and I practiced my “elevator pitch” with interested colleagues at ASECS and other conferences.
This process of vocalizing my thoughts and theorizations allowed me to rehearse what would eventually become the discourse of the dissertation defense: my topic, my methodology, and my intervention in or contribution to the field. Granted, in the early stages of drafting the dissertation, most conversations consisted largely of mushfaking. But the very act of vocalizing my ideas led to more productive writing sessions; using these conversations to pitch my ideas actually allowed me to formalize my ideas in the midst of the writing process. And then using this familiarity with talking about my dissertation, the writing, and the process of it all made the defense feel almost like second nature.
I had known that talking with a variety of people in a variety of ways about the contributions of my dissertation as it takes shape would aid in the composition process as well as in various stages of the job market. However, I had not anticipated the benefit it would lend in the defense until the defense itself when I realized how natural it was to talk for minutes on end about my work—to humbly brag about the ground I was breaking in the scholarship.
- Think about how to tell your dissertation’s “life story.”
About one week before the defense, I started freewriting daily about my dissertation, beginning with a personal—even sentimental—reflection on the “life story” of the manuscript: how the ideas were born; how each chapter came into existence with a different writing process; what specific moments in the process stand out most vividly in my memory. From there, my freewriting moved into more formal discussion of the dissertation, writing about it as though I were compiling an annotated bibliography or a literature review: the dissertation’s contribution, methods, strengths, and limitations (similar to the elevator pitch I had been rehearsing). I then concluded the freewriting by talking about what would come next with the project: revisions into a book, other related (and unrelated) projects that I might pursue, and how I have grown as a scholar throughout the dissertation process.
I distilled my freewriting down into a single page of bullet points that, with the permission of my committee, I carried with me to the defense:
- What’s next
At the defense itself, this sheet served more as a security blanket than a prompt; the act of writing out the concepts and then distilling the main ideas and rewriting them was beneficial in placing these ideas at the forefront of my mind. Moreover, placing myself within the writing process—indulging in the sentiment of recalling the various “aha!” moments or the satisfaction of writing those few brilliant, pithy sentences—allowed me to accept the authority of my scholarship. It also served as a reminder that no scholarship exists in a vacuum and that the celebratory occasion of the dissertation defense is also a celebration of the intellectual community that my dissertation had helped to construct.
- Imagine the defense within a familiar context.
Having only a vague recollection of the defense for my MA, I was unsure what to expect from the even higher stakes of the dissertation defense—the department’s language about my institution’s defense process was vague, labeling it a celebratory event but encouraging advisers to undercut their student’s arguments. Much like mastering the unique genre of writing the dissertation, I needed to master a setting or context for the defense.
So, at the prompting of my adviser, I imagined two different intellectual settings with which I was familiar—even comfortable: conference panels and book clubs.
At my defense, I mentally cast myself in a hybrid of these settings: I was here to engage in rigorous, intellectual discourse and to redirect challenging or unclear questions (á la the Q/A of a conference panel). And, I was sitting in a room with people who devoted their time to talk in depth about their favorite and least favorite moments in a book, my dissertation manuscript.
The morning of my defense, I allowed my mind to transport me into these imagined settings. Doing so allowed me to focus on engaging others with my work rather than fixating on the high stakes of the defense, to relax and speak with confidence and ease—much as I would at a conference or at a book club—and to be empowered by the critical and supportive attention given to my scholarship.
I can stake no claim to universal and guaranteed success when following these pieces of advice. One aspect of the success of my defense which was not part of my active preparation process was the composition of my committee: each member had been supportive, communicative, and adaptable, actively demonstrating their belief in and commitment to my project from its initial conception.
What else might you do or what might you do differently to prepare for your dissertation defense? Share your comments below.
Ruth Knezevich is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Missouri. She recently defended her dissertation on footnotes in 18th-century novels and poetry. The post is expressly her opinion, and does not represent the views of ASECS, nor the University of Missouri.