I successfully defense my dissertation last week, just a few days shy of five years after starting the PhD program (ahem).
Many people told me to relax, and assured me it would go fine. I knew that, but as I said last time, it’s easier to think that once you’re on the other side of the defense. In all honesty, the day of the defense itself was probably the most stressful day of my life. Not the defense itself, but the lead up to it.
The process itself it is fairly structured. There are five examiners: your advisor and committee members, along with two externals, one of whom is from another university. There’s also a chair (in my case the university uses the same guy for most PhD defenses, and he’s done over 1100 of them). It’s open to other faculty from your department and, technically, the public. When the chair asked me if I was expecting any colleagues to come, I told him “I sure hope not.”
Everyone has read your dissertation at this point. The external examiner has written a report and sent it to the dean of graduate studies, who has to personally ok the defense going forward. This is a particularity of my university, I think, but at the beginning of the defense they sent me out for about 15 minutes while they read the external examiner’s report and talked about whether the defense should move forward. You wait uncomfortably in the hall (I had my Ipod), they call you back in, and then the fun starts.
There are two rounds of questions. In the first, each examiner gets a turn of about 15-20 minutes one-on-one with the candidate. The external gets to take a bit more time than the others if they want. The external’s position in the process is privileged, which is done to ensure that universities aren’t just running a hollow process internally.
The second round is a bit less structured: the external again gets first choice, but it can turn into a broader discussion, and other examiners can jump in when they want. This takes less time. Then, after about two hours, you get sent out and the examiners talk about whether you pass or not.
My advisor told me it would probably be a big blur and he wasn’t wrong. The external was definitely the pointiest. She wasn’t being unfair, but her purpose in the process is well-defined: she was there to put me through my paces. There were no questions I completely didn’t expect. A lot of the questions were speculative, asking whether my model could explain other related scenarios, why certain things weren’t included, whether x literature was relevant. There were a very few questions about methodology, but no “on page x you say…” type questions, and no questions about my case studies.
It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure, but I’m not sure I’d exactly describe it as hard. It was a defense, so I defended. You don’t have to pretend that your work is unassailable. I acknowledged certain weaknesses, and didn’t make claims I couldn’t support. But I also stood by my material and didn’t back down on things I didn’t consider to be weaknesses. I felt good about my performance, and on top of the fact that I passed (the most obvious validation), I was also told that I did well.
You have to pass both the written and oral component. So you could theoretically write a dissertation worthy of passing but fail to defend it properly (you’d have to re-defend in that case).
There are a few categories of pass. There’s pass without revisions (or with only very, very minor things like typos), which is pretty rare. Then there’s pass with minor revisions, which is the most common (and what I got). This is a situation where the committee wants to see a few changes (explain a bit more here, mention this author’s work here, etc.) but generally believes the work should pass. Minor revisions are to be done and supervised by the candidate’s advisor.
There’s also pass with major revisions, and this is where parts of the work are not defensible and have to be significantly changed. This work has to be reviewed by the candidate’s committee (three people). It’s not a great result, and it’s pretty rare. In principle you don’t get to enter the defense room unless you’re ready. And as my advisor told me, when someone finishes with major revisions, examiners can usually see it coming from a ways away.
There’s also, in theory, a fail. But that would be very rare. And it’s not so much an absolute fail as it is a non-pass with very major revisions.
And now it’s essentially done. And an incredible load off.