Mounting a Persuasive Defense
"I've heard some very scary stories about professors demolishing candidates' dissertations during the final defense. How do I avoid that happening to me?"
The usual ultimate step in the pursuit of a doctorate involves the candidate meeting with a panel of professors to defend the dissertation. Whether a master's degree thesis must also be defended orally depends on the policies of the institution the student attends.
It is not uncommon for the oral defense to be only the penultimate event--the next-to-last step--if the examining committee decides that improvements are needed in the student's product. In that case, the session with the candidate includes committee members specifying desired changes. Then the candidate's chief advisor or another member of the committee accepts responsibility for ensuring that the revisions are completed satisfactorily before the committee members affirm their approval by placing their signatures on the work.
Difficulties that may arise during the oral defense can often be foreseen, so that candidates who are aware of potential problems can be prepared ahead of time to wend their way safely through the minefield of professors' questions and suggestions. The purpose of this chapter is to identify some of the more common problems and to propose ways of solving them. The style of presentation is the same as that of Chapter 9: Things That Go Wrong. In each of the following cases, a student describes worrisome incidents that may occur during the oral defense, and a faculty advisor suggests ways to cope with such incidents.
The seven cases concern (a) the validity of research findings, (b) a study's significance, (c) the candidate's proper role, (d) the advisor's proper role, (e) professors objecting to the student's research method, (f) committee member debates, and (g) inadequate proofreading.