Thesis and Exam Defenses

As if being a grad student wasn’t hard enough, grad students also have to formally defend themselves in front of their supervisory committee members at least once and sometimes as many as four times in pursuit of their degrees. This post is all about how you can navigate these defense meetings.

Wearing these to your defense meeting probably won’t help, but you can certainly try.

What is a Defense?

A defense is a formal meeting between a grad student and his/her supervisory committee. This committee consists of a primary advisor (aka committee chair) and 2-4 other folks, usually professors on campus. Some programs require at least one of these other committee members to be from outside your department and sometimes outside of the school entirely. Sometimes these other committee members include working professionals instead of academics. This is sometimes the case in Ph.D. programs in computer science in places like Seattle or California, where there are many qualified professionals working in local tech companies. Professionals on supervisory committees (and all committee members, really) are usually required to hold the degree the student in pursuing, though, so if the student is pursuing a master’s degree, all of the committee members should at least have a master’s. These other committee members are sometimes called “readers” or “outside readers.”

In the meeting, the student is required to defend something he or she has done in pursuit of the degree. If the defense is for comprehensive exams, then you defend your exam responses. If it’s a thesis defense, then you defend your thesis.

When to Defend

Every academic grad program has a formal path spelled out for students to get from the beginning of the program to the very end. Master’s students will likely have to defend their final work, whether it’s a thesis or a professional project or a set of comprehensive exam responses, at least once toward the very end of their degree. Some master’s programs even have two defenses, a “path exam” defense at the end of the first year and a final thesis/project defense at the end of the degree (usually at the end of year two). Ph.D. students follow a process that is more consistent from university to university. At the end of course work, Ph.D. students take comprehensive exams, which they then have to defend (usually at the end of year three). Then they write a dissertation proposal, which they have to defend (usually at the beginning of year four). And then they write their whole dissertation, which they defend at the very end of the degree (usually at the end of year four or five). Some doctoral programs sandwich the exam defense and the dissertation proposal defense into a single meeting, which means the student usually takes exams, then gets to work on a proposal, then has the joint-purpose meeting a few months after the exams. Either way, just about every academic grad program has at least one defense meeting.

Professional grad programs – MBA, JD, MD, MPH, MHA, etc. – are very different. They may or may not include defenses, but they have their own set of serious hurdles to cross toward degree completion. Professionally oriented master’s programs in otherwise academic disciplines, though, such as MAs and MSs in the humanities or social sciences or hard sciences, are more likely to involve traditional academic milestones like defenses.

What Happens in a Defense?

There are generally two levels of inquiry going on in a defense. On the first level, the committee is trying to clarify any errors or gaps or deficiencies in your written product. In this case, the committee asks you specific questions, requiring you to explain away the deficiency. If the committee thinks you misinterpreted a theory or needs better explanation of a certain concept you wrote about, they will ask you these questions directly. Ideally, you are trying to keep this first level of inquiry that involves clarification to a minimum. These are basically the places in your exam/thesis where you kind of got it wrong or you weren’t clear or precise enough, and the committee is testing your basic level of competence – did you get this part of your exam/thesis right or wrong, in other words.

The second level of inquiry happening in a defense involves the committee advancing you into deeper levels of synthesis. You really should aim for the bulk of your defense meeting to be about this second, deeper level of inquiry. Moving into this second level of inquiry means that you more or less got the answer “right” and now the committee wants to challenge you and push you forward. In this level of inquiry, the committee may ask you questions that may be tangential to your work or your exam response. They may ask you to imagine debates  between two theorists who did not live in the same era. They may ask you how your work relates to current events. They may ask you to explain the trajectory of your work in the next 10 years. These questions can be about anything, really, but generally they’re asking you to engage deeper concepts, to play in the space of academia, to tackle delicate concepts in ways a mature scholar might.

This is a scene from a European Ph.D. defense. Notice the formal attire, the candidate presenting to a panel of professors, and the members of the public in the audience in the back. Defenses vary from country to country. (Photo from Jude’s Food and Life blog).

These second-level questions are usually the scariest because they may be totally unrelated to what you’ve written about in your exams/thesis. But they are important questions because it’s the committee’s chance to test you as an academic colleague rather than just a student. They want to see how you respond when pushed. They want to see how you think, not just how you are able to master the thoughts of other published scholars. They want to see your stances and your scholarly identity.

The worst defenses are the ones where students regurgitate the work of others and don’t seriously engage the discourse of the discipline. You can know the work of Foucault or Weber or any other important theorist by heart and still not pass a defense. You pass a defense by having a voice of your own, by taking a stand, by locating your own voice in the scholarly discourse. This doesn’t mean you arrogantly state whether you agree or disagree with certain scholars. It means that, having mastered the literature on a given topic, you have an opinion on which directions are better than others and which lines of thought you will pursue in your own work going forward.

Carving out your own identity as a scholar is extremely important for Ph.D. students, especially at the final dissertation defense. If your committee pushes you with second-level inquiry and you are hesitant about staking your own claim in the discourse and continually fall back on the work of others, then it demonstrates that you’re NOT ready to conduct your own independent research and contribute to the body of knowledge as a scholar.

People fail defenses when they completely bomb the first-level type of questions–when they’ve completely gotten stuff wrong. But failed defenses happen most often when students can’t play in the second-level space, when they have no voice of their own.

Preparing for a Defense

So how do you prepare for a defense? You prepare by 1) knowing your own work, 2) knowing related work, 3) situating your work in larger scholarly/professional context, 4) finding a voice, and 5) looking forward and developing a vision for how you will contribute to the discipline or profession as a more enlightened scholar.

Don’t just think about what other theorists and researchers have said on a given topic. Rather, think about how these different voices in the scholarly discourse are in tension or conversation with one another. Think about the intellectual history behind a topic, don’t just collect facts about a topic. Remember that research is done by people, who each have their own approaches and perspectives. They may actively disagree with each other. They may collaborate. They may have studied under one another when they were grad students. You have to know this human dimension to knowledge or else you miss the entire point that scholarship is an industry of knowledge making – an industry you’re about to join in earnest. Don’t memorize theorists’ names and throw them around like fashion labels to look smart when you talk. Know their names because your work has meaning that is explained through theirs.


The dynamics in a defense may be really complicated. In some schools, the informal understanding is that your chair is your biggest advocate and your other committee members play the role of attacker. In other schools, all of your committee members – chair included – are on the offensive. In some cases, each committee member will stick to his/her area of expertise, but in other cases committee members may question you on all kinds of things you may not have known they knew about. The business school professor on my committee, for instance, asked me more questions pertaining to critical/cultural theory than some of my more cultural studies-minded committee members did. This surprised me a bit, but I handled it.

Some schools have other faculty members and grad students in the room when you defend, who certainly add a bit of performance pressure and who may also be invited to engage you in questioning. And many publicly funded schools technically have fully public defenses, especially at the thesis defense stage, where members of the public are invited to attend and sometimes question you. Sadly, even with these public defenses, there is a terrible job done to advertise the defense, and so outsiders rarely attend. Ask around to get a feel for what the dynamic will be in your defense.

(For another good take on dissertation prospectus defenses, check out Guy McHendry’s post.)

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