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 debatesĀ  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.)

Avoiding Vague Panels

I frequently see people posting on academic listservs that they’re looking for additional panel participants to round out their panel submission. In my opinion, panels should be proposed sparingly. They’re kind of a back door way to get into a conference, really, because they 1) are not blind reviewed, 2) confront less scrutiny, and 3) are usually composed of abstracts rather than full papers. If you want to propose a panel, it should have some focus.

If you’re trying to put together a panel for a conference and you’re looking for people to join you, then you should at least be wanting to pitch a panel on a relatively narrow topic. Simply wanting to make a panel on “video games” or “family communication” or “rhetoric in politics” is not enough.

What a broad topic panel says is “Hi, I’ve written a paper on [a relatively narrow topic] but I am doubtful it is good enough to get into the conference through the individual paper competition route, which is why I’m trying to submit as part of a panel with other people. But, my paper is so specific that I have to abstract the topic to a generic level to have any hope of rounding up 3 other people to submit papers with me for this panel.”

And/or it says “Hi, I have a vague idea of what I think might be a cool paper for this conference, but I don’t have the time or talent to actually write a full paper in time to submit to the conference…so I’m looking for some other people to join forces with me so we can make a convincing frankenstein of a panel on a coherent topic and have a better chance of getting into the conference and getting my university to pay for me to visit [exotic location] for this conference.”

Come on people. No conference panel should be about “video games,” or “family communication,” or “rhetoric in politics.” Panels should be specific and interesting and cohesive: “gender representations in video games marketed at pre-teens,” or “family communication strategies for dealing with a relative’s substance abuse,” or “the rhetoric of the ‘tea baggers’ in response to Obama’s policies.” These would be much more interesting and panel-worthy ideas.

And if you would just focus on writing a good, solid scholarly paper, then it will get into the conference through the paper competition. Let the program planners figure out the best way to organize papers into panels. That’s what their job is for.

The Purpose of Conferences

While I was a senior at Trinity, Harry Haines took me to the Western States Communication Association (WSCA) conference in Albuquerque. I had already applied to master’s programs (and was already starting to get quick rejections), so checking out WSCA was a way for me to get my feet wet in the world of academia and, frankly, to put my face in front of some admissions committees at the schools I applied to.

I loved WSCA, and I went to WSCA every year for the five years after Albuquerque – San Francisco 2005, Palm Springs 2006, Seattle 2007, Denver 2008, and Mesa 2009. I presented my first two papers and my first roundtable panel in Palm Springs, and I still remember vividly the feedback I received from the likes of Dave Natharius and Arne G’Schwind. The feedback was especially good. It was thorough, critical, but also constructive. Natharius and G’Schwind had taken careful notes, and in their role as respondent on these two paper panels, they presented their prepared commentary in the way a teacher would respond orally to the strengths and weaknesses of a student’s paper. I watched a lot of professors in the Media Studies Interest Group and Communication & Instruction Interest Group at WSCA provide serious, thorough critique in their roles as respondents. When you presented a paper at WSCA, you were guaranteed to walk away with constructive feedback to make your paper truly ready for submission to a journal.

As a regional conference of NCA, WSCA is largely a speech communication conference, and as my research veered away from rhetoric, it was difficult to justify going to the conference anymore. I also now live on the east coast, so WSCA makes little sense for me now.

WSCA is a shining example of what an academic conference should be. Papers are strong, people actually attend panels (even the ones at weird hours), and respondents take their job seriously. It’s also a hell of a social event, and the folks at WSCA are a close-knit group. I’ve heard similar positive appraisals of other regional conferences and small, boutique conferences like COCE.

But large conferences, in my experience, fail to provide what WSCA does. I’ve attended NCA and AEJMC and have not quite seen the level of quality in the respondents’ work. NCA is especially bad. At NCA, many of the panels have fewer than 10 people in the audience (and some don’t have an audience at all), and respondents roll into the panels with scant scribbles on cocktail napkins. The feedback is very light – a lot of “I like how you did this in your paper” and other empty reflections. Presenting a paper at a conference without a respondent publicly critiquing it is a pointless exercise – why not just post the paper online and call it a day? Why spend all the money (and for a grad student it’s a lot of money) to travel to some usually very expensive city with expensive convention hotels and present a paper without feedback to an empty room? (I should note that AEJMC is better than NCA in this regard. There are frequently sizable audiences, and a lot of the time respondents do their job).

I’ve heard my colleagues say bluntly that conferences aren’t really about presenting research, but rather they are about schmoozing. Yuck, I say. But they’re kind of right. An hour at a cocktail party, especially if you’re outgoing or have your advisor present to introduce you to people, is as valuable as an hour presenting cutting edge research on a panel. It’s a shame that this is the case, as a conference could definitely be about BOTH socializing and presenting research (like WSCA).

Grad students at conferences

The purpose of conferences for grad students is to get exposure, whether that is through presenting research or schmoozing, and to observe how the industry works. Showing up to an interest group’s business meeting is important for grad students, too. Sometimes just being present can land you an officer role in an interest group (AEJMC divisions, for instance, have graduate student liaisons, and WSCA sometimes lets advanced Ph.D. students sign up to review papers for next year’s conference or, in desperate situations, to be elected as a secretary in the group).

As a grad student, it can be intimidating to approach a small group of professors having a conversation at a social hour, especially if you’re still kind of star-struck by some of the “big names” in the game. A good way to do this is to email someone ahead of time. I’m a big fan of cold-calling and cold-emailing. Shoot someone an email ahead of time and ask if you can buy them some coffee at the conference. Tell them you want to pick their brain about some things and to connect over some common research/teaching interests. Professors are generally kind people who enjoy mentoring, so the worst that will happen is you’ll get an “I’m already booked at the conference, but let’s keep in touch through email” response. This is good enough, as you’ve at least succeeded in introducing yourself.

I’ve wandered a bit in this post, but I’ll part with some quick tips for grad students thinking about breaking into the conference scene:

  • Find a conference that suits you. Write a good paper and figure out where it belongs. Regional and boutique conferences tend to be a bit easier to get into than national conferences, but it also depends on the interest group. Ask around to see where your paper might fit in terms of conference and interest group. Also, if you’re more interested in good feedback but feel like you have to go to XYZ conference for the networking opportunities, you can always circulate your paper around to your peers for additional feedback.
  • Figure out funding. Will your department pay for your travel and your registration at a given conference? Do you know if there are matching funds available through different offices on campus to fill any gaps in funding? Can you truly afford to fill the gaps? Conferences can be enormously expensive, so be prepared. A conference in San Francisco costs a lot more than a conference in Albuquerque, and if the conference hotel is overpriced, are you able to walk or take a cab from a cheaper hotel? There’s also the cost of materials. If you submit a paper to AEJMC, for instance, you could be slotted into a poster session instead of a paper panel. Poster sessions are just as legitimate as a paper panel (and in many ways a lot more fun, relaxing, and networking-friendly), but the cost of producing a respectable poster can run anywhere from $20 to $200, not to mention the burden of lugging a poster tube on a plane and to the conference the day you present. There are a lot of things to think about in terms of cost.
  • Submit your work. This can’t be emphasized enough. If you don’t submit a paper, you can’t get a paper accepted to present at the conference, and this will likely mean that your department will not fund your travel. Write a paper you’re proud of. This will make it much easier to present without being nervous and insecure about your work. Or, team up with some colleagues and submit a panel proposal, a roundtable talk, or a workshop.
  • Dress the part. Don’t be afraid to ask colleagues what the attire at a given conference looks like. WSCA is pretty casual, AEJMC is a bit more formal, and I hear ECA is quite formal. That being said, you can never really go wrong with a good pair of slacks and a jacket (for men), and if you’re presenting a paper you may want to dress up just a bit more the day you present. It depends on the conference whether a tie will be necessary, and you’ll be fine in jeans at some conferences. Be sure to iron your clothes when you unpack. Ask around about attire.
  • Prepare your materials. Many conferences say to bring 25 copies of your full paper with you to give to people in the audience who ask for it. Don’t do this – it is ridiculous and wasteful and it adds about 20 pounds to your luggage. You’ll end up handing out one or two copies. Instead, have a few copies (2-3) on hand and connect with those interested in your paper in other ways. If someone asks for a copy of your paper, exchange business cards (or email addresses) and send your paper after the conference. This is better anyway, as you can provide your paper AND make a connection. That being said, you also need some business cards. Even if your title is just “master’s student,” you still need business cards. Ideally, these cards will have your university’s branding on them (check with your campus’ printing office to order these), and ideally you’ll also include a link to your website. Prepare a website to act as your virtual resume ahead of time and keep it up to date (more on building an online presence in a future post). Also have a pen on you at the conference.
  • Set up appointments. When the conference program becomes available online, build your personal schedule for the panels you want to see, and, of course, build in some meal time. Don’t just attend the panels you have a topical interest in. Also attend panels where people you admire are presenting. Observe these folks and learn the practice of good research from their performance. And, of course, walk up and say hi at the end of their panel. In your free time slots, try to set up some coffee meetings with people. Email them ahead of time and try to schedule a time to hang out at the conference. Bring your business cards.
  • Wining and dining. Have some cash on you at the conference. Always be prepared to split a check or pick up someone’s meal, and having cash on hand makes that process easier. Odds are, if you’re a grad student, some professor you’re eating with will try to buy your meal (because you’re poor and professors pity you), but you should at least attempt to pay your way. If you drink, then have a drink at the conference, but conferences are not the place to get drunk. That is, of course, unless you’re at WSCA, which prides itself on its parties. Even then, use good judgment. Cash bars are expensive, too, so have cash on hand. If you didn’t pay for the special lunch/awards dinner/banquet, don’t worry. If you linger around the entrance to the ballroom around the time the meal starts, you might just get handed some free tickets. A lot of folks opt out of these meals last minute, and you could find yourself waltzing in to a free meal and another opportunity to network and meet new people. Sometimes there are even fishbowls by the doors to these ballrooms full of tickets people are donating to starving grad students. Don’t be shy. Grab a ticket.
  • Know yourself, be yourself, ask questions, and relax. Figure out what exactly you’re into, as people may ask you many times over what you’re interested in researching. Then, be honest and true to yourself. People don’t like it when you’re nervous, so just try to relax and enjoy yourself. Professors aren’t stiff, generally, so don’t feel like you have to be quiet, stand at attention, and act like you’re in a job interview all the time. Don’t try to perform some alternate (better) version of yourself; it’s fake and off-putting, and people don’t like that stuff. And ask people a lot of questions about their interests and career path. You can learn a lot if you just talk to people.
  • After the conference. Shoot some thank you notes or emails to people who agreed to meet with you, bought you drinks, or gave you some great feedback on your paper. Continue the conversation with these folks into the future and link up with them at next year’s conference. If you were not able to make it to a particular panel to hear a specific paper, email the presenter and ask for a copy of the paper anyway. Connecting with people can lead to a lot of opportunities and some great friendships. You can find mentors, publication opportunities, friends, co-authors, jobs, etc. at these conferences, and it all comes from the human interaction you pursue. Also, after a conference, carry your research to the next level. Incorporate the feedback you receive and send that paper to a journal! And remember that you don’t have to present a paper first in order to publish it.

I’m curious to know if anyone else has some tips to add to this list. Feel free to comment.