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Preparing to defend your PhD online

It's March 2021 and we are still in the middle of a global pandemic. In February this year I was told I was to defend my PhD online - on ZOOM. This was not exactly the way that I had conjured up my defence. I thought I would be standing at a pulpit before an audience of professors and fellow peers presenting the results of my project to a live audience.

To be fair, the online defence was still as professional and vigorous as a live one would have been. This is because I paid particular attention to a few things that prepared me for what I would like to call the colloquium of my life. I will share five things that I think are helpful for doctoral students preparing for their online PhD defence.

1. Attend PhD defences in your department

It is somewhat a tradition at my department that peers are allowed to attend defences of PhD students. The examination regulations for PhD studies at my university allow for this. I highly encourage all PhD students to attend at least two defences in your department/faculty during your PhD journey. This not only gives you a rough idea about the general atmosphere of academic exchange that goes on, it also mentally prepares you for that moment when it is finally your turn to take the hot seat.

2. Read the doctoral degree regulations thoroughly!

I am sure every university and department has a set of doctoral degree regulations. Ideally, these regulations should contain a clear framework about how a defence is to be conducted, who is allowed to attend, how long it should last and about the type of doctoral defence in question. For instance, it can be helpful to know whether you need to prepare a powerpoint presentation (which is always the case), how long this presentation should last and whether you also need to prepare a handout for the examination committee (and how many pages this should be).

3. Have your presentation proof read

Proof reading does not end with the PhD submission. You need to have your power point slides, handout or any other written form of presentation proofread by trusted peers, colleagues and, whenever possible, your supervisor(s). At the end of 4, 5 or six years of toiling, you surely want to have a presentation that says exactly what you want to say and to contain no typos.

4. Practice makes perfect!

Practicing online with peers is a chance for you to familiarise yourself with the online software to be used in the defence.

 

Start practicing early enough for your oral presentation. Early enough can mean 2 weeks before the defence or one month before, depending on the date of defence stipulated by your doctoral degree regulations. In any case, make use of the time that you have before the defence to practice in front of the mirror, your cat/dog, your peers and by yourself. Ask your peers to give you a mock defence. This can prepare you for critical questions during the discussion that you might not have thought about before.

 

If you are using a script, practicing reading this out loud beforehand can be an opportunity for your peers to help you gauge if your script is understandable, if you are still engaging with your audience or if you need to fine-tune a few paragraphs to make your script more understandable. And ... practicing your presentation multiple times beforehand is a good way to make sure that you are keeping within the stipulated time that your presentation is supposed to last.

5. Think positive

At the end of the day, the PhD defence is your opportunity to shine. It is your chance to show the expertise that you have acquired the past couple of years. It is your time to discuss your upcoming book with fellow experts who have (hopefully) taken time to read your work and have accompanied you on your long journey.

There will be critical questions from the committee that will come up during the discussion, but that is part of the research process. When applicable acknowledge the limitations of your work, admit that your scope cannot cover x, y and z BUT focus their attention to the innovation that your work contributes to your field.

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