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Preparing for a PhD Defense


Below you will find suggestions to help you get ready for the defense and information to give you a sense of what to expect.

Know the Rituals

What happens at a thesis defense? The best way to know what happens and the best way for you to prepare for your defense is to regularly attend the defenses of your colleagues—those internal and external to your field of expertise. You should be doing this throughout your graduate program, not just several weeks prior to your own defense.

Talk to people from your group and in your department who already defended to find out what their defense was like. They know well what occurs in the closed exam and will likely want to share their experiences with you. You should also speak with your advisor to get a sense of his/her specific expectations of a defense. Don’t be afraid to ask!

Guidelines for Presentations

Use PowerPoint or Other Software to Create Slides

You should prepare a presentation of the research that comprises the thesis. Your slides should encapsulate the work and focus on its most salient contributions. In preparing, ask yourself these questions: “What do I want people to know about my thesis? What is the most important information that I can present and talk about?” Here are some basic tips:

  • Use text large enough to be readable by the audience (especially text from figures)
  • Ensure graphics and tables are clear
  • Don’t clutter your slides – if necessary have things come up on mouse clicks
  • Use spell check and proof-read
  • Practice your presentation with your peers
  • Work on pronunciation, if required
  • Time your presentation to ensure it will fit within the allotted time while allowing time for some questions

Public Lecture

If your defense will include a public lecture, it is recommended that you do a trial run of your presentation a day or two before your defense in the room that has been booked for your public lecture. This will allow you to familiarize yourself with the space and the equipment and to address any problems that arise during the trial run.
Plan your public lecture to allow enough time for questions. Present enough information so that the audience understands what you did, why you did it, what the implications are and what your suggestions are for future research.


If there is a public lecture, the date/time/location of your defense and thesis topic are advertised to your program and beyond. Departmental/program announcements are sent by your Graduate Administrator to invite faculty and students. Friends and family are welcome to attend the public lecture. Faculty and students in the audience are given the opportunity to ask questions.

Dress Professionally

Plan to dress professionally for the defense in the same way you would if presenting a paper at a conference or for a job interview. You will be standing for a long time on the day of your defense. You might want to keep this in mind when selecting the shoes you’ll wear for your defense.

Items to Bring to the Defense

Your presentation, a laser pointer, a copy of your dissertation, a pen or pencil, a note pad and a bottle of water are essentials that you should bring to the public lecture. 

The Closed Examination

You will be asked to leave the room while your Committee reviews your program of study, grades and decides whether the thesis is acceptable/not acceptable. The Committee decides whether members will ask sequential questions or whether each member will be allotted a specific time period for questioning.

The person to start the questioning is designated. You will be called back into the examining room and questioning will begin. After all questions have been addressed, you will be asked to leave the room while your Committee decides the outcome of the exam. You will be asked to return to the room to be informed of the outcome by the Chair of your exam committee.

Address Questions with Confidence

  • Listen to the entire question no matter how long it takes the faculty member or student to ask it (take notes if necessary.)
  • Pause and think about the question before answering.
  • Rephrase the question succinctly.
  • Answer the question to the best of your ability. If you do not know the answer, remain calm and say so in a professional way.
  • Remember no one will know the ins and outs of the thesis and your research materials as well as you. You are the foremost expert in the thesis topic and YOU really do know the research involved. Be positive!


  • Acceptable with minor or no revisions (no further approval required)
  • Acceptable with major revisions in content or format (in this case, one or more committee members must be responsible for overseeing and approving the major revisions before the final copies are submitted)
  • Not acceptable