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The Dissertation Oral Defense

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Most doctoral programs require a final, oral defense of the dissertation, and a successful defense is one of the last steps to completion of the doctorate. The defense or oral (terminology varies across universities) is an opportunity for the doctoral candidate to present their research, explain their choices in developing and conducting the research, present the results of the research, and explain what it all means and how it adds to knowledge about the chosen subject or problem. The oral defense also provides an opportunity for the candidate to discuss their work with mentors, committee members, and other interested individuals, and engage them in a discussion of the research. The oral can be a very positive event for the doctoral candidate as they move from the role of a student to that of a degree holding scholar.

The context for this event can vary across universities, but usually involves a slide presentation, Q&A session, and discussion with the committee. Candidates will want to prepare carefully for the oral, so as to present their research in a positive manner. Be prepared to answer questions, discuss limitations of the research, and defend yourchoices on method, design, interpretation, etc. Sometimes the defense is a bit adversarial, as committee members or other attendees may challenge the choices and interpretations of the scholar. It is best to be very well prepared for likely questions. Usually, however, the oral is a celebratory as well as substantive event for the scholar and committee.

We see a few common problems in dissertation orals. First, avoid excessively detailed presentation slides, and choose a limited set of slides to review important study results and prompt the discussion. Don’t feel the need to read every slide word for word. I advise candidates to use no more than about 20-25 slides, but this number may vary depending on university norms and complexity of the research. Second, take charge of the presentation and discussion–this is your show, and committees will usually like you to organize and manage it. Third, emphasize the results and what they mean. In the final oral, there is usually no need to provide a detailed review of the methods and design. Instead, hit the high points, and cut quickly to results, interpretations, and implications. Committee members are usually far more interested in the larger importance of the results and how they are positioned in the larger literature, than they are in the minutia of methods, design, and data collection.

Additional resources on the oral defense and related issues, including a detailed discussion of the oral defense, can be found in the Guides, Tools, and Worksheets section of this website. Good luck with your oral!

– Jim Goes