If you’re researching a master’s degree, you’ll likely come across the phrase “thesis defense” among the list of requirements for earning an advanced degree. This formal-sounding requirement usually comes at the end of a graduate program. As a student seeking a master’s degree, your thesis defines your educational experience at the university. Once you’ve completed all the necessary coursework and finished any internship or practicum experiences, you will be required to meet with a committee to defend your work. Details of a defense vary by college, but there are some general things to keep in mind as you embark on the graduate process.
What is a Thesis?
In most schools, the thesis represents a student’s collective understanding of his or her program and major. Students who major in English, for example, typically explore language, literary themes, a specific author’s work or a similar topic when writing a thesis paper. Universities often require theses to consist of a prospectus, which outlines the intent of the paper, and a full-length paper treatment of a particular topic. In the natural sciences, theses might cover experiments or hypothetical situations in which a student researches certain elements of his or her field.
Theses projects demand full attention, and many schools require that students devote an entire semester to completing the research and resulting paper. Students work with a faculty committee or adviser on a close basis to make sure that the research stays on schedule. Depending on the level of degree, a thesis paper can be extremely complex.
Defending the Work
Once students submit their theses papers to the thesis committee, they will be assigned a date to defend their work. In this case, “defend” does not imply that a student will have to argue aggressively about his or her work. Rather, the thesis defense is designed so that faculty members can ask questions and make sure that students actually understand their field and focus area. Defending a thesis largely serves as a formality because the paper will already have been evaluated. During a defense, a student will be asked questions by members of the thesis committee. Questions are usually open-ended and require that the student think critically about his or her work. A defense might take only 20 minutes, or it might take an hour or more depending on the goal of the committee and the requirements of the program.
Preparation for Defense
Students have months to prepare for a defense. Schools want graduate candidates to be as prepared as possible when attending a defense, which means that neither the date nor faculty committee will be a surprise to the student. It’s important to keep in mind that if you go into a defense with the right attitude and preparation, failing is nearly impossible. The committee wants to see how well you know your subject and your research. Nerves may get the better of you as you face unknown questions, but as with a job interview, practicing ahead of time will lead to a successful defense.
Facing a defense can be stressful, but think of it as an opportunity to share what you’ve learned. Remember that you aren’t arguing points when you defend your work. Instead, a proper thesis defense gives you and your faculty advisers the chance to discuss your topic and research in greater detail.
This expert advice comes from Sonja Foss and William Waters - authors of Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation
Sonja Foss would say that the defense begins as soon as you start working on your dissertation (Foss & Waters, 2007). Defense in the context of the dissertating process refers to the presenting, explaining and defending of your ideas. It also includes laying out the rationale behind your choices and decisions, for example, regarding theory selection and research methods. Efforts to recruit your chair and other committee members will entail some of this communication behavior. Seeking approval for your dissertation proposal, the foundation of all your research activities, will also entail a bit of defense.
Throughout the course of the project many exchanges with your chair and other committees will involve explaining and defending your ideas and decision. However, the most important defense is the dissertation defense which comes at the end of a long and arduous process and which may have unfolded over a number of years. The dissertation defense is a significant milestone signaling closure on your graduate student career.
The dissertation defense can be divided into three distinct components (Foss and Waters): the preparation, the defense, and follow-up. A few brief comments about all three follow and a very helpful resource provided a thorough discussion of all three components.
- Attend the defenses of some of your departmental colleagues or attend defenses in other departments.
- It is very important to adhere to graduate school rules and deadlines covering the scheduling of a defense.
- Begin very early to schedule and coordinate the date, time and place for the defense. Committee members and chairs have very busy schedules.
- Have your manuscript reviewed before the defense to be sure it is consistent with formatting requirements. You want to present a polished document for the faculty to work with in preparation for the defense.
- Maximize your opportunity in the pre-defense meeting to raise any issues or concerns. Or ask your chairs what questions and issues might be raised during the defense. Prepare to address them.
- Organize you material for presentation. Create flawless presentation of the material you will be covering on the defense. Finally, practice presenting the material and answering questions.
- Meetings may begin with brief comments by the chair followed by your comments thanking advisors and committee members for their time and efforts on your behalf.
- Your presentation material should briefly cover the research question, literature review as it relates to your theory, methods and analysis, major findings and recommendations for future research.
- During the defense, the faculty may take turns asking you questions and discussing among themselves points of interest or disagreement.
- Two questions to anticipate include identifying the weaknesses of your study and post-dissertation research plans.
- When all questions have been asked and answered, you will be asked to leave the room while the committee deliberates. At this time faculty will be deciding by vote whether to pass you on your defense and dissertation.
- The desired outcome of this meeting is the chair's greeting you with the statement "Congratulations, Dr. _." (Foss and Waters, 2007). The defense was successful and the committed has passed your dissertation.
- You may plan a small reception for the committee, friends and family. Check to see what the norms are in your department on post-defense celebrations.
- Next day attend to the revisions the committee asked you make to the work.
- You may want to provide bound copies of your work to your chair, committee members, family and friends. You may also be required to provide copies to your department and library. Create a budget for handling the incidental related to publishing and ordering additional copies of your manuscript.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------About the Authors: Co-authors of Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation, Dr. Foss is a professor of Communications at University of Colorado, Denver, and Dr. Waters is an assistant professor of English at University of Houston-Downtown, They are co-directors of Scholar’s Retreat, a program to support progress towards completion of your dissertation, thesis or writing project.