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Defending Your Dissertation: A Guide

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Dissertation defenses are daunting, and no wonder; it’s not a “dissertation discussion,” or a “dissertation dialogue.” The name alone implies that the dissertation you’ve spent the last x number of years working on is subject to attack. And if you don’t feel trepidation for semantic reasons, you might be nervous because you don’t know what to expect. Our imaginations are great at making The Unknown scarier than reality. The good news is that you’ll find in this newsletter article experts who can shed light on what dissertations defenses are really like, and what you can do to prepare for them.

The first thing you should know is that your defense has already begun. It started the minute you began working on your dissertation— maybe even in some of the classes you took beforehand that helped you formulate your ideas. This, according to Dr. Celeste Atkins, is why it’s so important to identify a good mentor early in graduate school.

“To me,” noted Dr. Atkins, who wrote her dissertation on how sociology faculty from traditionally marginalized backgrounds teach about privilege and inequality, “the most important part of the doctoral journey was finding an advisor who understood and supported what I wanted from my education and who was willing to challenge me and push me, while not delaying me.  I would encourage future PhDs to really take the time to get to know the faculty before choosing an advisor and to make sure that the members of their committee work well together.”

Your advisor will be the one who helps you refine arguments and strengthen your work so that by the time it reaches your dissertation committee, it’s ready. Next comes the writing process, which many students have said was the hardest part of their PhD. I’ve included this section on the writing process because this is where you’ll create all the material you’ll present during your defense, so it’s important to navigate it successfully. The writing process is intellectually grueling, it eats time and energy, and it’s where many students find themselves paddling frantically to avoid languishing in the “All-But-Dissertation” doldrums. The writing process is also likely to encroach on other parts of your life. For instance, Dr. Cynthia Trejo wrote her dissertation on college preparation for Latin American students while caring for a twelve-year-old, two adult children, and her aging parents—in the middle of a pandemic. When I asked Dr. Trejo how she did this, she replied:

“I don’t take the privilege of education for granted. My son knew I got up at 4:00 a.m. every morning, even on weekends, even on holidays; and it’s a blessing that he’s seen that work ethic and that dedication and the end result.”

Importantly, Dr. Trejo also exercised regularly and joined several online writing groups at UArizona. She mobilized her support network— her partner, parents, and even friends from high school to help care for her son.

The challenges you face during the writing process can vary by discipline. Jessika Iwanski is an MD/PhD student who in 2022 defended her dissertation on genetic mutations in sarcomeric proteins that lead to severe, neonatal dilated cardiomyopathy. She described her writing experience as “an intricate process of balancing many things at once with a deadline (defense day) that seems to be creeping up faster and faster— finishing up experiments, drafting the dissertation, preparing your presentation, filling out all the necessary documents for your defense and also, for MD/PhD students, beginning to reintegrate into the clinical world (reviewing your clinical knowledge and skill sets)!”

But no matter what your unique challenges are, writing a dissertation can take a toll on your mental health. Almost every student I spoke with said they saw a therapist and found their sessions enormously helpful. They also looked to the people in their lives for support. Dr. Betsy Labiner, who wrote her dissertation on Interiority, Truth, and Violence in Early Modern Drama, recommended, “Keep your loved ones close! This is so hard – the dissertation lends itself to isolation, especially in the final stages. Plus, a huge number of your family and friends simply won’t understand what you’re going through. But they love you and want to help and are great for getting you out of your head and into a space where you can enjoy life even when you feel like your dissertation is a flaming heap of trash.”

While you might sometimes feel like your dissertation is a flaming heap of trash, remember: a) no it’s not, you brilliant scholar, and b) the best dissertations aren’t necessarily perfect dissertations. According to Dr. Trejo, “The best dissertation is a done dissertation.” So don’t get hung up on perfecting every detail of your work. Think of your dissertation as a long-form assignment that you need to finish in order to move onto the next stage of your career. Many students continue revising after graduation and submit their work for publication or other professional objectives.

When you do finish writing your dissertation, it’s time to schedule your defense and invite friends and family to the part of the exam that’s open to the public. When that moment comes, how do you prepare to present your work and field questions about it?

“I reread my dissertation in full in one sitting,” said Dr. Labiner. “During all my time writing it, I’d never read more than one complete chapter at a time! It was a huge confidence boost to read my work in full and realize that I had produced a compelling, engaging, original argument.”

There are many other ways to prepare: create presentation slides and practice presenting them to friends or alone; think of questions you might be asked and answer them; think about what you want to wear or where you might want to sit (if you’re presenting on Zoom) that might give you a confidence boost. Iwanksi practiced presenting with her mentor and reviewed current papers to anticipate what questions her committee might ask.  If you want to really get in the zone, you can emulate Dr. Labiner and do a full dress rehearsal on Zoom the day before your defense.

But no matter what you do, you’ll still be nervous:

“I had a sense of the logistics, the timing, and so on, but I didn’t really have clear expectations outside of the structure. It was a sort of nebulous three hours in which I expected to be nauseatingly terrified,” recalled Dr. Labiner.

“I expected it to be terrifying, with lots of difficult questions and constructive criticism/comments given,” agreed Iwanski.

“I expected it to be very scary,” said Dr. Trejo.

“I expected it to be like I was on trial, and I’d have to defend myself and prove I deserved a PhD,” said Dr Atkins.

And, eventually, inexorably, it will be time to present.  

“It was actually very enjoyable” said Iwanski. “It was more of a celebration of years of work put into this project—not only by me but by my mentor, colleagues, lab members and collaborators! I felt very supported by all my committee members and, rather than it being a rapid fire of questions, it was more of a scientific discussion amongst colleagues who are passionate about heart disease and muscle biology.”

“I was anxious right when I logged on to the Zoom call for it,” said Dr. Labiner, “but I was blown away by the number of family and friends that showed up to support me. I had invited a lot of people who I didn’t at all think would come, but every single person I invited was there! Having about 40 guests – many of them joining from different states and several from different countries! – made me feel so loved and celebrated that my nerves were steadied very quickly. It also helped me go into ‘teaching mode’ about my work, so it felt like getting to lead a seminar on my most favorite literature.”

“In reality, my dissertation defense was similar to presenting at an academic conference,” said Dr. Atkins. “I went over my research in a practiced and organized way, and I fielded questions from the audience.

“It was a celebration and an important benchmark for me,” said Dr. Trejo. “It was a pretty happy day. Like the punctuation at the end of your sentence: this sentence is done; this journey is done. You can start the next sentence.”

If you want to learn more about dissertations in your own discipline, don’t hesitate to reach out to graduates from your program and ask them about their experiences. If you’d like to avail yourself of some of the resources that helped students in this article while they wrote and defended their dissertations, check out these links:

The Graduate Writing Lab

The Writing Skills Improvement Program

Campus Health Counseling and Psych Services

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Doctoral Education: Research-Based Strategies for Doctoral Students, Supervisors and Administrators pp 97–114 Cite as

Making Sense of the Doctoral Dissertation Defense: A Student-Experience-Based Perspective

  • Shuhua Chen 3  
  • First Online: 01 January 2011

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An oral defense of a written dissertation is a requirement for most doctoral programs in the world, yet little has been written about this exam. The numerous how-to guides tend to focus on offering “survival strategies” to doctoral students and have largely failed to reveal the nature of the defense. Also missing in these books is doctoral student voices about the experience of defending their dissertation. This chapter explores the nature of the doctoral dissertation defense and its significance in the doctoral experience. It synthesizes ideas from how-to guides, findings from the existing research literature, and findings from the author’s ongoing study. In particular, the chapter draws on interviews with recent PhD graduates as well as observation notes taken by the author (a PhD candidate) from several successful dissertation defenses in order to open up a space for doctoral student voices about this exam. It also raises questions for supervisors and their doctoral students to consider and discuss when preparing for the dissertation defense.

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Please see Further Reading for research literature that is not listed in the References.

All the defenses observed have been passes and all the doctoral candidates interviewed have been asked to make only minor changes.

All of the doctoral candidates were called “Dr. X” right after their dissertation defense.

Cone, J. D., & Foster, S. L. (2006). Dissertations and theses from start to finish: Psychology and related fields (2nd ed.). Washington: American Psychological Association.

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Glatthorn, A. A. (1998). Writing the winning dissertation: A step-by-step guide . Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Fraser, G., & Rowarth, J. (2007). Preparing candidates for oral examination. In C. J. Denholm & T. D. Evans (Eds.), Supervising doctorates downunder: Keys to effective supervision in Australia and New Zealand (pp. 243–250). Camberwell: ACER Press.

Hartley, J., & Jory, S. (2000). Lifting the veil on the viva: The experiences of psychology PhD candidates in the UK. Psychology Teaching Review, 9 (2), 76–90.

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Tinkler, P., & Jackson, C. (2000). Examining the doctorate: Institutional policy and the PhD examination process in Britain. Studies in Higher Education, 25 (2), 167–180.

Tinkler, P., & Jackson, C. (2004). The doctoral examination process: A handbook for students, examiners and supervisors . Glasgow: Open University Press.

Trafford, V. (2003). Questions in doctoral vivas: Views from the inside. Quality Assurance in Education, 11 (2), 114–122.

Trafford, V., & Leshem, S. (2002). Starting at the end to undertake doctoral research: Predictable questions as stepping stones. Higher Education Review, 35 (1), 31–49.

Trafford, V., & Leshem, S. (2008). Stepping stones to achieving your doctorate: Focusing on your viva from the start . Berkshire: Open University Press.

Wellington, J. (2010). Supporting students’ preparation for the viva: Their pre-conceptions and implications for practice. Teaching in Higher Education, 15 (1), 71–84.

Wellington, J., Bathmaker, A. M., Hunt, C., McCulloch, G., & Sikes, P. (2005). Succeed with your doctorate . London: Sage.

Wisker, G. (2005). The good supervisor: Supervising postgraduate and undergraduate research for doctoral theses and dissertations . New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Further Reading

Cryer, P., & Mertens, P. (2003). The PhD examination: Support and training for supervisors and examiners. Quality Assurance in Education, 11 (2), 92–99.

Denicolo, P. (2003). Assessing the PhD: A constructive view of criteria. Quality Assurance in Education, 11 (2), 84–91.

Grabbe, L. L. (2003). The trials of being a PhD external examiner. Quality Assurance in Education, 11 (2), 128–133.

Hartley, J., & Fox, C. (2004). Assessing the mock viva: The experiences of British doctoral students. Studies in Higher Education, 29 (6), 727–738.

Isaac, P. D., Quinlan, S. V., & Walker, M. M. (1992). Faculty perceptions of the doctoral dissertation. Journal of Higher Education, 63 (3), 241–268.

Jackson, C., & Tinkler, P. (2000). The PhD examination: An exercise in community-building and gatekeeping. In I. McNay (Ed.), Higher education and its communities (pp. 38–50). Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Morley, L., Leonard, D., & David, M. (2002). Variations in vivas: Quality and equality in British PhD assessments. Studies in Higher Education, 27 (3), 263–273.

Powell, S., & Green, H. (2003). Research degree examining: Quality issues of principle and practice. Quality Assurance in Education, 11 (2), 55–63.

Powell, S., & Green, H. (Eds.). (2007). The doctorate worldwide . Berkshire: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Powell, S., & McCauley, C. (2003). The process of examining research degrees: Some issues of quality. Quality Assurance in Education, 11 (2), 73–83.

Tinkler, P., & Jackson, C. (2002). In the dark? Preparing for the PhD viva. Quality Assurance in Education, 10 (2), 86–97.

Trafford, V., & Leshem, S. (2002). Anatomy of a doctoral viva. Journal of Graduate Education, 3, 33–41.

Wallace, S. (2003). Figuratively speaking: Six accounts of the PhD viva. Quality Assurance in Education, 11 (2), 100–108.

Wallace, S., & Marsh, C. (2001). Trial by ordeal or the chummy game? Six case studies in the conduct of the British PhD viva examination. Higher Education Review, 34 (1), 35–59.

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Chen, S. (2011). Making Sense of the Doctoral Dissertation Defense: A Student-Experience-Based Perspective. In: McAlpine, L., Amundsen, C. (eds) Doctoral Education: Research-Based Strategies for Doctoral Students, Supervisors and Administrators. Springer, Dordrecht.

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13 Tips to Prepare for Your PhD Dissertation Defense

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How well do you know your project? Years of experiments, analysis of results, and tons of literature study, leads you to how well you know your research study. And, PhD dissertation defense is a finale to your PhD years. Often, researchers question how to excel at their thesis defense and spend countless hours on it. Days, weeks, months, and probably years of practice to complete your doctorate, needs to surpass the dissertation defense hurdle.

In this article, we will discuss details of how to excel at PhD dissertation defense and list down some interesting tips to prepare for your thesis defense.

Table of Contents

What Is Dissertation Defense?

Dissertation defense or Thesis defense is an opportunity to defend your research study amidst the academic professionals who will evaluate of your academic work. While a thesis defense can sometimes be like a cross-examination session, but in reality you need not fear the thesis defense process and be well prepared.


What are the expectations of committee members.

Choosing the dissertation committee is one of the most important decision for a research student. However, putting your dissertation committee becomes easier once you understand the expectations of committee members.

The basic function of your dissertation committee is to guide you through the process of proposing, writing, and revising your dissertation. Moreover, the committee members serve as mentors, giving constructive feedback on your writing and research, also guiding your revision efforts.

The dissertation committee is usually formed once the academic coursework is completed. Furthermore, by the time you begin your dissertation research, you get acquainted to the faculty members who will serve on your dissertation committee. Ultimately, who serves on your dissertation committee depends upon you.

Some universities allow an outside expert (a former professor or academic mentor) to serve on your committee. It is advisable to choose a faculty member who knows you and your research work.

How to Choose a Dissertation Committee Member?

  • Avoid popular and eminent faculty member
  • Choose the one you know very well and can approach whenever you need them
  • A faculty member whom you can learn from is apt.
  • Members of the committee can be your future mentors, co-authors, and research collaborators. Choose them keeping your future in mind.

How to Prepare for Dissertation Defense?

dissertation defense

1. Start Your Preparations Early

Thesis defense is not a 3 or 6 months’ exercise. Don’t wait until you have completed all your research objectives. Start your preparation well in advance, and make sure you know all the intricacies of your thesis and reasons to all the research experiments you conducted.

2. Attend Presentations by Other Candidates

Look out for open dissertation presentations at your university. In fact, you can attend open dissertation presentations at other universities too. Firstly, this will help you realize how thesis defense is not a scary process. Secondly, you will get the tricks and hacks on how other researchers are defending their thesis. Finally, you will understand why dissertation defense is necessary for the university, as well as the scientific community.

3. Take Enough Time to Prepare the Slides

Dissertation defense process harder than submitting your thesis well before the deadline. Ideally, you could start preparing the slides after finalizing your thesis. Spend more time in preparing the slides. Make sure you got the right data on the slides and rephrase your inferences, to create a logical flow to your presentation.

4. Structure the Presentation

Do not be haphazard in designing your presentation. Take time to create a good structured presentation. Furthermore, create high-quality slides which impresses the committee members. Make slides that hold your audience’s attention. Keep the presentation thorough and accurate, and use smart art to create better slides.

5. Practice Breathing Techniques

Watch a few TED talk videos and you will notice that speakers and orators are very fluent at their speech. In fact, you will not notice them taking a breath or falling short of breath. The only reason behind such effortless oratory skill is practice — practice in breathing technique.

Moreover, every speaker knows how to control their breath. Long and steady breaths are crucial. Pay attention to your breathing and slow it down. All you need I some practice prior to this moment.

6. Create an Impactful Introduction

The audience expects a lot from you. So your opening statement should enthrall the audience. Furthermore, your thesis should create an impact on the members; they should be thrilled by your thesis and the way you expose it.

The introduction answers most important questions, and most important of all “Is this presentation worth the time?” Therefore, it is important to make a good first impression , because the first few minutes sets the tone for your entire presentation.

7. Maintain Your Own List of Questions

While preparing for the presentation, make a note of all the questions that you ask yourself. Try to approach all the questions from a reader’s point of view. You could pretend like you do not know the topic and think of questions that could help you know the topic much better.

The list of questions will prepare you for the questions the members may pose while trying to understand your research. Attending other candidates’ open discussion will also help you assume the dissertation defense questions.

8. Practice Speech and Body Language

After successfully preparing your slides and practicing, you could start focusing on how you look while presenting your thesis. This exercise is not for your appearance but to know your body language and relax if need be.

Pay attention to your body language. Stand with your back straight, but relax your shoulders. The correct posture will give you the feel of self-confidence. So, observe yourself in the mirror and pay attention to movements you make.

9. Give Mock Presentation

Giving a trial defense in advance is a good practice. The most important factor for the mock defense is its similarity to your real defense, so that you get the experience that prepares for the actual defense.

10. Learn How to Handle Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. However, it is important to carry on. Do not let the mistakes affect your thesis defense. Take a deep breath and move on to the next point.

11. Do Not Run Through the Presentation

If you are nervous, you would want to end the presentation as soon as possible. However, this situation will give rise to anxiety and you will speak too fast, skipping the essential details. Eventually, creating a fiasco of your dissertation defense .

12. Get Plenty of Rest

Out of the dissertation defense preparation points, this one is extremely important. Obviously, sleeping a day before your big event is hard, but you have to focus and go to bed early, with the clear intentions of getting the rest you deserve.

13. Visualize Yourself Defending Your Thesis

This simple exercise creates an immense impact on your self-confidence. All you have to do is visualize yourself giving a successful presentation each evening before going to sleep. Everyday till the day of your thesis defense, see yourself standing in front of the audience and going from one point to another.

This exercise takes a lot of commitment and persistence, but the results in the end are worth it. Visualization makes you see yourself doing the scary thing of defending your thesis.

If you have taken all these points into consideration, you are ready for your big day. You have worked relentlessly for your PhD degree , and you will definitely give your best in this final step.

Have you completed your thesis defense? How did you prepare for it and how was your experience throughout your dissertation defense ? Do write to us or comment below.

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The tips are very useful.I will recomend it to our students.

Excellent. As a therapist trying to help a parent of a candidate, I am very impressed and thankful your concise, clear, action-oriented article. Thank you.

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Dissertation Committee

Dissertation defense process.

The dissertation defense is one of the most important moments in a graduate student’s career. When a student is deemed to be ready to defend the doctoral thesis, the student is the expert in a particular research area.  At the defense the student is expected to cogently and clearly explain their research and how it fits with other scholarship in the field of study. The exact nature of the oral defense may vary by discipline and department, so it is important that the student talk to the dissertation committee chair about what to expect and how to prepare.

The defense typically lasts about two hours and may be open to the public. The defense aims to accomplish two goals. First, it will provide an occasion for the presentation and recognition of the completed doctoral work. Second, it will furnish the opportunity for discussion and formal evaluation of the dissertation.

The timing of the defense will be set by the student in consultation with the dissertation committee. Students should contact their departments to schedule the dissertation defense. Note that some departments do not schedule examinations in summer. The student should send copies of the dissertation to the members of the committee no later than three weeks prior to the defense. The time and place of the defense shall be announced on the department’s calendar of events.  

The chair of the student's dissertation committee and at least one other committee member must be present in person. In the case that a committee member is unable to attend in person, the committee member may participate by Skype or other teleconference media. The defense must be open to all faculty within the department. Broader attendance will be left to the discretion of the student in consultation with the committee.

Please note: Departments will be allowed to have in-person defenses. Additionally, there is no reason to limit remote defenses if that is what the participants want and the department/committee approves. 

The dissertation defense shall be an open presentation by the student on the main aspects of the research reported in the dissertation, followed by questions, comments, and discussion. The chair of the dissertation committee or a designee shall act as the moderator of this discussion and shall have discretion to decide whether questions are germane to the topic of the dissertation. After discussion is completed, the departmental faculty in attendance and the dissertation committee will decide privately whether the dissertation defense has been satisfactory.

The dissertation chair or designee will report the results as soon as possible after the dissertation defense to the Dean of Students office by submitting a signed Report of Final Examination and a Dissertation Defense Form. If the manuscript is to undergo revisions, the student will be informed of the timeframe in which the revisions are to be completed.

Dissertation Submission

A final copy of the dissertation must be submitted following the procedure outlined on the  Dissertation Office  website by Friday of the seventh week of the quarter in which a student is graduating, sixth week in summer quarter. The defense should be held in sufficient advance of this deadline to allow revisions recommended by the student's dissertation committee.

Students should contact the Dissertation Office no later than early in the quarter in which they intend to graduate in order to resolve any questions or problems they may have in preparing the dissertation. The Dissertation Office staff is willing to look at a draft of the dissertation. Having them do so avoids both the expense and headache of having to re-format the dissertation. They offer a schedule to help students plan for a smooth process to meet these deadlines.

Office of the Dean of Students [email protected] 773.702.1552

Grad Coach

Preparing For Your Dissertation Defense

13 Key Questions To Expect In The Viva Voce

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) & David Phair (PhD) . Reviewed By: Dr Eunice Rautenbach | June 2021

Preparing for your dissertation or thesis defense (also called a “viva voce”) is a formidable task . All your hard work over the years leads you to this one point, and you’ll need to defend yourself against some of the most experienced researchers you’ve encountered so far.

It’s natural to feel a little nervous.

In this post, we’ll cover some of the most important questions you should be able to answer in your viva voce, whether it’s for a Masters or PhD degree. Naturally, they might not arise in exactly the same form (some may not come up at all), but if you can answer these questions well, it means you’re in a good position to tackle your oral defense.

Dissertation and thesis defense 101

Viva Voce Prep: 13 Essential Questions

  • What is your study about and why did you choose to research this in particular?
  • How did your research questions evolve during the research process?
  • How did you decide on which sources to include in your literature review?
  • How did you design your study and why did you take this approach?
  • How generalisable and valid are the findings?
  • What were the main shortcomings and limitations created by your research design?
  • How did your findings relate to the existing literature?
  • What were your key findings in relation to the research questions?
  • Were there any findings that surprised you?
  • What biases may exist in your research?
  • How can your findings be put into practice?
  • How has your research contributed to current thinking in the field?
  • If you could redo your research, how would you alter your approach?

#1: What is your study about and why did you choose to research this in particular?

This question, a classic party starter, is pretty straightforward.

What the dissertation or thesis committee is assessing here is your ability to clearly articulate your research aims, objectives and research questions in a concise manner. Concise is the keyword here – you need to clearly explain your research topic without rambling on for a half-hour. Don’t feel the need to go into the weeds here – you’ll have many opportunities to unpack the details later on.

In the second half of the question, they’re looking for a brief explanation of the justification of your research. In other words, why was this particular set of research aims, objectives and questions worth addressing? To address this question well in your oral defense, you need to make it clear what gap existed within the research and why that gap was worth filling.

#2: How did your research questions evolve during the research process?

Good research generally follows a long and winding path . It’s seldom a straight line (unless you got really lucky). What they’re assessing here is your ability to follow that path and let the research process unfold.

Specifically, they’ll want to hear about the impact that the literature review process had on you in terms of shaping the research aims, objectives and research questions . For example, you may have started with a certain set of aims, but then as you immersed yourself in the literature, you may have changed direction. Similarly, your initial fieldwork findings may have turned out some unexpected data that drove you to adjust or expand on your initial research questions.

Long story short – a good defense involves clearly describing your research journey , including all the twists and turns. Adjusting your direction based on findings in the literature or the fieldwork shows that you’re responsive , which is essential for high-quality research.

You will need to explain the impact of your literature review in the defense

#3: How did you decide on which sources to include in your literature review?

A comprehensive literature review is the foundation of any high-quality piece of research. With this question, your dissertation or thesis committee are trying to assess which quality criteria and approach you used to select the sources for your literature review.

Typically, good research draws on both the seminal work in the respective field and more recent sources . In other words, a combination of the older landmark studies and pivotal work, along with up-to-date sources that build on to those older studies. This combination ensures that the study has a rock-solid foundation but is not out of date.

So, make sure that your study draws on a mix of both the “classics” and new kids on the block, and take note of any major evolutions in the literature that you can use as an example when asked this question in your viva voce.

#4: How did you design your study and why did you take this approach?

This is a classic methodological question that you can almost certainly expect in some or other shape.

What they’re looking for here is a clear articulation of the research design and methodology, as well as a strong justification of each choice . So, you need to be able to walk through each methodological choice and clearly explain both what you did and why you did it. The why is particularly important – you need to be able to justify each choice you made by clearly linking your design back to your research aims, objectives and research questions, while also taking into account practical constraints.

To ensure you cover every base, check out our research methodology vlog post , as well as our post covering the Research Onion .

You have to justify every choice in your dissertation defence

#5: How generalizable and valid are the findings?

This question is aimed at specifically digging into your understanding of the sample and how that relates to the population, as well as potential validity issues in your methodology.

To answer question this well, you’ll need to critically assess your sample and findings and consider if they truly apply to the entire population, as well as whether they assessed what they set out to. Note that there are two components here – generalizability and validity . Generalizability is about how well the sample represents the population. Validity is about how accurately you’ve measured what you intended to measure .

To ace this part of your dissertation defense, make sure that you’re very familiar with the concepts of generalizability , validity and reliability , and how these apply to your research. Remember, you don’t need to achieve perfection – you just need to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your research (and how the weaknesses could be improved upon).

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the defence of doctoral dissertation

#6: What were the main shortcomings and limitations created by your research design?

This question picks up where the last one left off.

As I mentioned, it’s perfectly natural that your research will have shortcomings and limitations as a result of your chosen design and methodology. No piece of research is flawless. Therefore, a good dissertation defense is not about arguing that your work is perfect, but rather it’s about clearly articulating the strengths and weaknesses of your approach.

To address this question well, you need to think critically about all of the potential weaknesses your design may have, as well as potential responses to these (which could be adopted in future research) to ensure you’re well prepared for this question. For a list of common methodological limitations, check out our video about research limitations here .

#7: How did your findings relate to the existing literature?

This common dissertation defense question links directly to your discussion chapter , where you would have presented and discussed the findings in relation to your literature review.

What your dissertation or thesis committee is assessing here is your ability to compare your study’s findings to the findings of existing research . Specifically, you need to discuss which findings aligned with existing research and which findings did not. For those findings that contrasted against existing research, you should also explain what you believe to be the reasons for this.

As with many questions in a viva voce, it’s both the what and the why that matter here. So, you need to think deeply about what the underlying reasons may be for both the similarities and differences between your findings and those of similar studies.

Your dissertation defense needs to compare findings

#8: What were your key findings in relation to the research questions?

This question is similar to the last one in that it too focuses on your research findings. However, here the focus is specifically on the findings that directly relate to your research questions (as opposed to findings in general).

So, a good way to prepare for this question is to step back and revisit your research questions . Ask yourself the following:

  • What exactly were you asking in those questions, and what did your research uncover concerning them?
  • Which questions were well answered by your study and which ones were lacking?
  • Why were they lacking and what more could be done to address this in future research?

Conquering this part dissertation defense requires that you focus squarely on the research questions. Your study will have provided many findings (hopefully!), and not all of these will link directly to the research questions. Therefore, you need to clear your mind of all of the fascinating side paths your study may have lead you down and regain a clear focus on the research questions .

#9: Were there any findings that surprised you?

This question is two-pronged.

First, you should discuss the surprising findings that were directly related to the original research questions . Going into your research, you likely had some expectations in terms of what you would find, so this is your opportunity to discuss the outcomes that emerged as contrary to what you initially expected. You’ll also want to think about what the reasons for these contrasts may be.

Second, you should discuss the findings that weren’t directly related to the research questions, but that emerged from the data set . You may have a few or you may have none – although generally there are a handful of interesting musings that you can glean from the data set. Again, make sure you can articulate why you find these interesting and what it means for future research in the area.

What the committee is looking for in this type of question is your ability to interpret the findings holistically and comprehensively , and to respond to unexpected data. So, take the time to zoom out and reflect on your findings thoroughly.

Discuss the findings in your defense

#10: What biases may exist in your research?

Biases… we all have them.

For this question, you’ll need to think about potential biases in your research , in the data itself but also in your interpretation of the data. With this question, your committee is assessing whether you have considered your own potential biases and the biases inherent in your analysis approach (i.e. your methodology). So, think carefully about these research biases and be ready to explain how these may exist in your study.

In an oral defense, this question is often followed up with a question on how the biases were mitigated or could be mitigated in future research. So, give some thought not just to what biases may exist, but also the mitigation measures (in your own study and for future research).

#11: How can your findings be put into practice?

Another classic question in the typical viva voce.

With this question, your committee is assessing your ability to bring your findings back down to earth and demonstrate their practical value and application. Importantly, this question is not about the contribution to academia or the overall field of research (we’ll get to that next) – it is specifically asking about how this newly created knowledge can be used in the real world.

Naturally, the actionability of your findings will vary depending on the nature of your research topic. Some studies will produce many action points and some won’t. If you’re researching marketing strategies within an industry, for example, you should be able to make some very specific recommendations for marketing practitioners in that industry.

To help you flesh out points for this question, look back at your original justification for the research (i.e. in your introduction and literature review chapters). What were the driving forces that led you to research your specific topic? That justification should help you identify ways in which your findings can be put into practice.

#12: How has your research contributed to current thinking in the field?

While the previous question was aimed at practical contribution, this question is aimed at theoretical contribution . In other words, what is the significance of your study within the current body of research? How does it fit into the existing research and what does it add to it?

This question is often asked by a field specialist and is used to assess whether you’re able to place your findings into the research field to critically convey what your research contributed. This argument needs to be well justified – in other words, you can’t just discuss what your research contributed, you need to also back each proposition up with a strong why .

To answer this question well, you need to humbly consider the quality and impact of your work and to be realistic in your response. You don’t want to come across as arrogant (“my work is groundbreaking”), nor do you want to undersell the impact of your work. So, it’s important to strike the right balance between realistic and pessimistic .

This question also opens the door to questions about potential future research . So, think about what future research opportunities your study has created and which of these you feel are of the highest priority.

Discuss your contribution in your thesis defence

#13: If you could redo your research, how would you alter your approach?

This question is often used to wrap up a viva voce as it brings the discussion full circle.

Here, your committee is again assessing your ability to clearly identify and articulate the limitations and shortcomings of your research, both in terms of research design and topic focus . Perhaps, in hindsight, it would have been better to use a different analysis method or data set. Perhaps the research questions should have leaned in a slightly different direction. And so on.

This question intends to assess whether you’re able to look at your work critically , assess where the weaknesses are and make recommendations for the future. This question often sets apart those who did the research purely because it was required, from those that genuinely engaged with their research. So, don’t hold back here – reflect on your entire research journey ask yourself how you’d do things differently if you were starting with a  blank canvas today.

Recap: The 13 Key Dissertation Defense Questions

To recap, here are the 13 questions you need to be ready for to ace your dissertation or thesis oral defense:

As I mentioned, this list of dissertation defense questions is certainly not exhaustive – don’t assume that we’ve covered every possible question here. However, these questions are quite likely to come up in some shape or form in a typical dissertation or thesis defense, whether it’s for a Master’s degree, PhD or any other research degree. So, you should take the time to make sure you can answer them well.

If you need assistance preparing for your dissertation defense or viva voce, get in touch with us to discuss 1-on-1 coaching. We can critically review your research and identify potential issues and responses, as well as undertake a mock oral defense to prepare you for the pressures and stresses on the day.

the defence of doctoral dissertation

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This post is part of our dissertation mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project. 

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Jalla Dullacha

Very interesting

Fumtchum JEFFREY

Interesting. I appreciate!

Dargo Haftu

Really appreciating

My field is International Trade

Abera Gezahegn


Peter Gumisiriza

This is a full course on defence. I was fabulously enlightened and I gained enough confidence for my upcoming Masters Defence.

There are many lessons to learn and the simplicity in presentationmakes thee reader say “YesI can”

Milly Nalugoti

This is so helping… it has Enlightened me on how to answer specific questions. I pray to make it through for my upcoming defense

Derek Jansen

Lovely to hear that 🙂


Really educative and beneficial

Tweheyo Charles

Interesting. On-point and elaborate. And comforting too! Thanks.

Ismailu Kulme Emmanuel

Thank you very much for the enlightening me, be blessed

Gladys Oyat

Thankyou so much. I am planning to defend my thesis soon and I found this very useful

Augustine Mtega

Very interesting and useful to all masters and PhD students

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the defence of doctoral dissertation

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Preparing For Your Dissertation Defense

Published by steve tippins on april 4, 2019 april 4, 2019.

Last Updated on: 30th August 2022, 04:43 am

Preparing for your dissertation defense is one of the most important things you’ll do as a doctoral candidate. Now that you’ve completed your dissertation, it’s up to you to present the results to your committee.

However, the results aren’t just about your study. Your committee wants to see what you learned through the process and whether you are ready to take on the responsibility of being a scholar.

What is a Dissertation Defense?

When you finish your dissertation and your committee has said you are ready to move forward, there is a formal meeting–your dissertation defense–where you have the opportunity to explain what you did and what you found.

Your committee then has the opportunity to ask questions related to your work, the implications of what you found, and your future. It is a chance for you to stand before your peers and be welcomed into the academy. Defending your dissertation is one of the great rites of passage into the world of academia.

How to Prepare for Your Dissertation Defense

Rather than write a quick list of dissertation defense tips, I thought I’d create a comprehensive guide to defending your dissertation. After chairing and sitting on countless dissertation committees, these are the steps I recommend you take.

Cultivate The Right Attitude

Perhaps the most important thing to have as you prepare to defend your dissertation is a revised view of your academic self. You’ve spent years gaining knowledge on your chosen subject, and now is your time to shine. While it’s natural to be nervous — after all, you’re jumping the highest hurdle in academia — keep in mind that this is your moment to shine and that you are now an expert on the topic.

One way to look at the dissertation defense is as a rite of passage. You are being tested, and just as with any rite of passage, the more rigorous the test, the prouder you will be of making it through.

During the process of your defense, keep this in mind: your committee tests you not only to ensure your worthiness but also to enable you to see just how much you know; to step into your new role as “expert.”

Prepare For Your Committee’s Questions

With this attitude in mind, you will want to prepare to demonstrate your expertise. That means anticipating questions the committee may have about your research.

black and white photography of a woman defending her dissertation

If your dissertation asserts the likelihood of a recession in the presence of particular economic indicators, your committee will want to know what socio-political conditions are linked to these indicators. If you found that high achieving students are more likely to have had parents who volunteered in their schools, your committee members will likely ask you to speculate about how to increase parent involvement in schools.

In other words, you’ll need to be able to participate in discourse beyond your results — questions that speak to the relevance and implications of your research.

This kind of preparation goes beyond creating a PowerPoint of your findings (though that is necessary too); it’s part of your stepping into your expert role.

One thing I always tell my students is “Be able to explain your topic to your grandparents,” because to elucidate someone who knows nothing about the topic (no offense to the grandparents!) you must know it inside and out.

Of course, you’ll also want to know your topic well enough to discuss the topic with the top researchers in the field, but at this stage, you’ll have read enough of their work that you’ll feel you know them personally. It’s usually more difficult for academics to simplify than to complicate.

To ready yourself for potential questions, give your abstract to a few friends outside your academic program and have them ask you questions about your study. The advantage is their “outsider” perspective; you’ll have fun answering their questions and will likely have to make a few new neuronal connections to do so. Practicing like this will also help you relax during the actual defense.

Here are some questions you may be asked during your dissertation defense :

  • “What are the strengths and weaknesses of your study?”
  • “What was the most surprising thing you found?”
  • “What will you do next with your results?”
  • “If you could do this over, what would you do differently?”

Organize Your Presentation

Keep in mind that your presentation to your committee can double as your presentation to the faculty at any university to which you apply; your preparation will serve a dual purpose. You’ll need, therefore:

  • a concise overview of the literature in which your study is grounded,
  • a clear description of your study’s purpose, methodology, and findings,
  • and a discussion of the implications of these findings.

Naturally, you will need to consult your department’s and college’s specific requirements, but every dissertation committee (and faculty search committee) will want to fully understand these basic elements of your work.

woman in a sleeveless shirt working on her laptop with a cup of coffee

I have provided a list of questions to help prepare your dissertation defense. If you have time restrictions I would put more emphasis upon your results and the implications of your work. Think of organizing your slides according to these questions:

1. Why did I choose to study this? Don’t be afraid to reveal something personal about your motivation, as long as you can do so with poise and dignity. Your committee members will appreciate this humanizing element but keep it brief!

2. What have other people interested in this topic found? If your study is the next clue in the hunt for answers about this topic, what were the clues that led you here? What paths have past researchers gone down — both fruitful and not? What solid theoretical foundation stands under your study?

This portion of your presentation is the easiest to overdo. You will likely need to edit it again and again to ensure it is both concise and comprehensive. Stick to the major themes in your presentation but be prepared to answer questions about less dominant streams of research.

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3. How did my research question evolve? Answering this question links your research to what has already been established, placing your study in the stream of knowledge. Keep it brief but don’t skip this step, as it is key to showing you as an academic, rather than a student.

4. How did I organize my study? This is a description of the basics of your study and the “whys” of these choices. You can expand a bit here, as the decisions you made at this stage demonstrate your ability to think critically about approaching a research question. Why did you choose your particular methodology? What was the benefit of this design over another option you might have chosen?

5. What did I find? You can begin this section with what you expected to find and why, then explain what you actually found. Keep this section simple and factual.

6. What do the findings mean in relation to the question? Whether or not your findings matched your expectations, they tell you and your colleagues something important about the topic. What is it? Can we speculate that this is a promising area of research, or is this a path we might think of as a dead end? What, exactly, does this study tell us?

7. What’s next for me and for the research? You’ll want to give your committee (and any faculty search committee) a preview of your prospective academic career. What new questions has your study sparked for you? What would you hope other researchers would look at next? How do you intend to fit into the academic conversation on this topic?

Depending on your committee and requirements, you may want to include potential grants you will consider applying for to fund your next study. (This inclusion becomes more important when applying for academic positions.)

Prepare Yourself Mentally

man in black suit and brown shoes waiting on the stairs

Going back to attitude, remind yourself that a dissertation defense is your opportunity to step into your new role. This is your domain now. Breathe deeply and feel the pride that comes with a job well done. Know that you belong in this realm and the dissertation defense is your chance to prove it. Be humble, too; after all, you stand on the shoulders of giants.

Getting enough rest the night before, drinking water and bringing some with you to drink when your mouth gets dry, and being wise about what you consume prior to the defense (maybe go easy on the carbs and caffeine) are all obvious but frequently overlooked pointers. Your committee members want to know you can handle the pressure and take care of yourself under duress .

You might want to give yourself a few minutes of silence and rest before heading in to defend. Take those moments to recognize whatever you’re feeling, then humbly begin your academic career by presenting your most important work to date. And then get ready to roll up your sleeves for the next one. Congratulations, Doctor!

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Steve Tippins

Steve Tippins, PhD, has thrived in academia for over thirty years. He continues to love teaching in addition to coaching recent PhD graduates as well as students writing their dissertations. Learn more about his dissertation coaching and career coaching services. Book a Free Consultation with Steve Tippins

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Defense of the Dissertation

The committee before which the student is examined consists of at least five members, who normally meet two independent criteria:

  • Four of the five must be tenured or tenure-track Washington University faculty; one of these four may be a member of the Emeritus faculty. The fifth member must have a doctoral degree and an active research program, whether at Washington University, at another university, in government, or in industry.
  • Three of the five must come from the student's degree program; at least one of the five must not.

All committees must be approved by the Dean of the Graduate School or by his or her designee, regardless of whether they meet the normal criteria.

Attendance by a minimum of four members of the Dissertation Defense Committee, including the committee chair and an outside member, is required for the defense to take place. This provision is designed to permit your defense to proceed in case of a situation that unexpectedly prevents one of the five members from attending. Do not plan in advance to have only four members in attendance; if one of those four cannot attend, your defense must be rescheduled. Note that the absence of all outside members or of the committee chair would necessitate rescheduling the defense.

Members of the Dissertation Defense Committee normally attend in person, but one of the five (or, in case of an emergency, one of the four) members may attend virtually instead.

Dissertation Defense Committee

The committee is appointed by the Dean of the Graduate School upon the request of the degree program. The student is responsible for making the full text of the dissertation accessible to his or her committee members for their review in advance of the defense. Faculty and graduate students who are interested in the subject of the dissertation are normally welcome to attend all or part of the defense but may ask questions only at the discretion of the committee members. Though there is some variation among degree programs, the defense ordinarily focuses on the dissertation itself and its relation to the student’s field of expertise.

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Defending your doctoral thesis: the PhD viva

Format for defending a doctoral thesis.

Every institution will have specific regulations for the thesis defence. In some countries or institutions, the convention is for thesis defences to be public events where you will give a lecture explaining your research, followed by a discussion with a panel of examiners (opponents). Both your examiners and the audience are able to ask questions.

In other countries, including the UK, the oral examination is usually conducted behind closed doors by at least two examiners, usually with at least one being from another institution (external examiner) and an expert in your topic of research. In the UK the supervisor does not participate in the viva, but may be allowed to observe. Sometimes someone from your own institution is appointed as an independent chair. Although it is now becoming more common for the candidate to have an opportunity to give a public lecture in UK institutions, this does not form part of the examination and may or may not be attended by the examiners.

Viva preparation

Take the preparation for your viva seriously and devote a substantial amount of time to it. The viva preparation checklist may be useful to help you prepare.

Your institution may offer courses on viva preparation and there may be opportunities to organise a practice viva. Take advantage of these opportunities: they can be extremely valuable experiences.

Things you may wish to take with you

  • your thesis – mildly annotated if you wish
  • a list of questions that you might be asked and your planned responses
  • any questions that you want to ask your examiners
  • additional notes which you have made during your revision
  • list of minor corrections that you have come across during your revision.

During the viva

Your study will have strengths and weaknesses: it is essential that you are prepared to discuss both. You could think of any weaknesses as an opportunity to demonstrate your skill at critical appraisal. Examiners will seek to find and discuss weaknesses in all theses. Do not interpret criticism as indication of a possible negative outcome.

Examiners have different personalities, styles and levels of experience. Sometimes a candidate may feel that a challenge is made in a confrontational way. Experienced, effective examiners will not be inappropriately confrontational, but some will. Do not take offence. A relaxed, thoughtful, and non-confrontational response from you will help re-balance the discussion. Having an independent chair can help maintain a constructive environment.

Useful tips for during your viva:

  • Ask for clarification of ambiguous questions or ask for the question to be repeated if necessary
  • Take time to think before answering
  • Be prepared to ask questions and enter into a dialogue with your examiners
  • Be prepared to discuss your research in context of other work done in your field
  • Be ready to admit if you don't know the answer to a question
  • Be prepared to express opinions of your own

You are not expected to have perfect recall of your thesis and everything that you have read and done. If you get flustered, or need to refer to notes your examiners will understand. They have been in your situation themselves!

After your viva

There are several possible outcomes   of a thesis defence. Most commonly, your examiners will recommend to your institution that you are awarded your degree subject to minor corrections, although in some instances they might ask for more substantial work.

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How to prepare an excellent thesis defense

Thesis defence

What is a thesis defense?

How long is a thesis defense, what happens at a thesis defense, your presentation, questions from the committee, 6 tips to help you prepare for your thesis defense, 1. anticipate questions and prepare for them, 2. dress for success, 3. ask for help, as needed, 4. have a backup plan, 5. prepare for the possibility that you might not know an answer, 6. de-stress before, during, and after, frequently asked questions about preparing an excellent thesis defense, related articles.

If you're about to complete, or have ever completed a graduate degree, you have most likely come across the term "thesis defense." In many countries, to finish a graduate degree, you have to write a thesis .

A thesis is a large paper, or multi-chapter work, based on a topic relating to your field of study.

Once you hand in your thesis, you will be assigned a date to defend your work. Your thesis defense meeting usually consists of you and a committee of two or more professors working in your program. It may also include other people, like professionals from other colleges or those who are working in your field.

During your thesis defense, you will be asked questions about your work. The main purpose of your thesis defense is for the committee to make sure that you actually understand your field and focus area.

The questions are usually open-ended and require the student to think critically about their work. By the time of your thesis defense, your paper has already been evaluated. The questions asked are not designed so that you actually have to aggressively "defend" your work; often, your thesis defense is more of a formality required so that you can get your degree.

  • Check with your department about requirements and timing.
  • Re-read your thesis.
  • Anticipate questions and prepare for them.
  • Create a back-up plan to deal with technology hiccups.
  • Plan de-stressing activities both before, and after, your defense.

How long your oral thesis defense is depends largely on the institution and requirements of your degree. It is best to consult your department or institution about this. In general, a thesis defense may take only 20 minutes, but it may also take two hours or more. The length also depends on how much time is allocated to the presentation and questioning part.

Tip: Check with your department or institution as soon as possible to determine the approved length for a thesis defense.

First of all, be aware that a thesis defense varies from country to country. This is just a general overview, but a thesis defense can take many different formats. Some are closed, others are public defenses. Some take place with two committee members, some with more examiners.

The same goes for the length of your thesis defense, as mentioned above. The most important first step for you is to clarify with your department what the structure of your thesis defense will look like. In general, your thesis defense will include:

  • your presentation of around 20-30 minutes
  • questions from the committee
  • questions from the audience (if the defense is public and the department allows it)

You might have to give a presentation, often with Powerpoint, Google slides, or Keynote slides. Make sure to prepare an appropriate amount of slides. A general rule is to use about 10 slides for a 20-minute presentation.

But that also depends on your specific topic and the way you present. The good news is that there will be plenty of time ahead of your thesis defense to prepare your slides and practice your presentation alone and in front of friends or family.

Tip: Practice delivering your thesis presentation in front of family, friends, or colleagues.

You can prepare your slides by using information from your thesis' first chapter (the overview of your thesis) as a framework or outline. Substantive information in your thesis should correspond with your slides.

Make sure your slides are of good quality— both in terms of the integrity of the information and the appearance. If you need more help with how to prepare your presentation slides, both the ASQ Higher Education Brief and James Hayton have good guidelines on the topic.

The committee will ask questions about your work after you finish your presentation. The questions will most likely be about the core content of your thesis, such as what you learned from the study you conducted. They may also ask you to summarize certain findings and to discuss how your work will contribute to the existing body of knowledge.

Tip: Read your entire thesis in preparation of the questions, so you have a refreshed perspective on your work.

While you are preparing, you can create a list of possible questions and try to answer them. You can foresee many of the questions you will get by simply spending some time rereading your thesis.

Here are a few tips on how to prepare for your thesis defense:

You can absolutely prepare for most of the questions you will be asked. Read through your thesis and while you're reading it, create a list of possible questions. In addition, since you will know who will be on the committee, look at the academic expertise of the committee members. In what areas would they most likely be focused?

If possible, sit at other thesis defenses with these committee members to get a feel for how they ask and what they ask. As a graduate student, you should generally be adept at anticipating test questions, so use this advantage to gather as much information as possible before your thesis defense meeting.

Your thesis defense is a formal event, often the entire department or university is invited to participate. It signals a critical rite of passage for graduate students and faculty who have supported them throughout a long and challenging process.

While most universities don't have specific rules on how to dress for that event, do regard it with dignity and respect. This one might be a no-brainer, but know that you should dress as if you were on a job interview or delivering a paper at a conference.

It might help you deal with your stress before your thesis defense to entrust someone with the smaller but important responsibilities of your defense well ahead of schedule. This trusted person could be responsible for:

  • preparing the room of the day of defense
  • setting up equipment for the presentation
  • preparing and distributing handouts

Technology is unpredictable. Life is too. There are no guarantees that your Powerpoint presentation will work at all or look the way it is supposed to on the big screen. We've all been there. Make sure to have a plan B for these situations. Handouts can help when technology fails, and an additional clean shirt can save the day if you have a spill.

One of the scariest aspects of the defense is the possibility of being asked a question you can't answer. While you can prepare for some questions, you can never know exactly what the committee will ask.

There will always be gaps in your knowledge. But your thesis defense is not about being perfect and knowing everything, it's about how you deal with challenging situations. You are not expected to know everything.

James Hayton writes on his blog that examiners will sometimes even ask questions they don't know the answer to, out of curiosity, or because they want to see how you think. While it is ok sometimes to just say "I don't know", he advises to try something like "I don't know, but I would think [...] because of x and y, but you would need to do [...] in order to find out.” This shows that you have the ability to think as an academic.

You will be nervous. But your examiners will expect you to be nervous. Being well prepared can help minimize your stress, but do know that your examiners have seen this many times before and are willing to help, by repeating questions, for example. Dora Farkas at notes that it’s a myth that thesis committees are out to get you.

Two common symptoms of being nervous are talking really fast and nervous laughs. Try to slow yourself down and take a deep breath. Remember what feels like hours to you are just a few seconds in real life.

  • Try meditational breathing right before your defense.
  • Get plenty of exercise and sleep in the weeks prior to your defense.
  • Have your clothes or other items you need ready to go the night before.
  • During your defense, allow yourself to process each question before answering.
  • Go to dinner with friends and family, or to a fun activity like mini-golf, after your defense.

Allow yourself to process each question, respond to it, and stop talking once you have responded. While a smile can often help dissolve a difficult situation, remember that nervous laughs can be irritating for your audience.

We all make mistakes and your thesis defense will not be perfect. However, careful preparation, mindfulness, and confidence can help you feel less stressful both before, and during, your defense.

Finally, consider planning something fun that you can look forward to after your defense.

It is completely normal to be nervous. Being well prepared can help minimize your stress, but do know that your examiners have seen this many times before and are willing to help, by repeating questions for example if needed. Slow yourself down, and take a deep breath.

Your thesis defense is not about being perfect and knowing everything, it's about how you deal with challenging situations. James Hayton writes on his blog that it is ok sometimes to just say "I don't know", but he advises to try something like "I don't know, but I would think [...] because of x and y, you would need to do [...] in order to find out".

Your Powerpoint presentation can get stuck or not look the way it is supposed to do on the big screen. It can happen and your supervisors know it. In general, handouts can always save the day when technology fails.

  • Dress for success.
  • Ask for help setting up.
  • Have a backup plan (in case technology fails you).
  • Deal with your nerves.

the defence of doctoral dissertation


Evaluation Decisions for Doctoral Defense

Doctoral students are required to review the degree plans for their program, along with information about specific degree requirements and estimated timelines to reach various benchmarks for the different degree plan specializations.

There are three possible evaluation decisions for the doctoral defense.  All decisions—with the exception of “fail”—must be unanimous.

“Pass” requires that both the defense and the document (dissertation or treatise) are acceptable. In some cases, the committee may require revisions, which will be checked by the entire committee or by the supervising professor only. This should be agreed upon at the time of the defense and communicated with the student.

While the supervisor should wait to sign the Report of Dissertation Committee until all revisions have been reviewed, the other committee members may choose to sign at the defense. The committee should agree upon the length of time allowed for submission of the revised dissertation; this must be communicated clearly to the student.

The completed Report of Dissertation Committee should be returned to the Graduate School only after the final revisions to the dissertation have been approved and the GSC designee has signed.

If the dissertation and/or defense are not acceptable to all members of the committee, the decision will change to either "re-defend" or "fail" as discussed below:

“Re-defend” indicates that the committee is not satisfied with the dissertation or with the oral examination, but believes that rewriting may make it acceptable. In this case, the fully signed Report of Dissertation Committee should be returned to the Graduate School by the Supervisor, with each member of the committee indicating their decision. Another scheduled defense will be required and a new report will be generated.

Report on Doctoral Dissertation forms

Committee members should submit their individual Report on Doctoral Dissertation forms indicating their dissatisfaction.

“Fail” indicates that at least one member of the committee has decided that the dissertation is unsatisfactory and may not be rewritten. The fully signed Report of Dissertation Committee should be returned to the Graduate School by the supervisor, with each member of the committee indicating their decision.

Committee members should also submit their individual Report on Doctoral Dissertation forms indicating their dissatisfaction. This decision normally results in the termination of a doctoral student’s program.


Document a dissertation defense as follows:

The supervisor should bring the Report of Dissertation Committee to the defense.

The scheduling information on the Report must be correct; if the time or location changes, the Graduate School must be informed.

All committee members sign the Report of Dissertation Committee, even if the member was not present at the defense.

Scanned or electronic signatures will be accepted as long as they are legible and dark enough to be imaged. Typed names as a signature are not allowed. Electronic and digitally authorized signatures may be accepted in any font format so long as they include the insignia or logo of the e-signature software used showing authorization.

Once all members have signed the report the Graduate Studies Committee chair or designee should provide the final signature.

The final signature indicates that all coursework and other departmental requirements have been completed. All signatures should be on a single page.

The Report of Dissertation Committee should be submitted to the Graduate School by the student.

The report should be submitted along with the student's final paperwork.

Defense and Dissertation Overview

Once a student’s box is checked, the BPH student should set up a one-on-one “Defense Packet Meeting” with the BPH Associate Director to review the Defense and Dissertation Process, which includes reviewing all required materials, logistics, timing, FAS/Harvard Griffin GSAS Form of the Dissertation, sample forms, and to answer student questions related to these processes.

the defence of doctoral dissertation

  • Defense Committee Chair: One member of the student’s DAC, often the DAC chair, is required to chair the oral defense. This required holdover from the DAC serves the purpose of providing insight to the examiners regarding the path the student has taken in completing the dissertation research. Their primary role is to assess committee satisfaction with the written dissertation, administer the exam, arbitrate any problems that may arise, and make final recommendations for completion of necessary corrections and additions to the dissertation. No other DAC members can serve on the defense committee .
  • At least one member must be a BPH faculty member, often from the same academic department.
  • One member of the examination committee must be from outside of Harvard University.
  • The fourth member may be from either BPH or another Harvard-affiliated program.
  • Co-authors and collaborators cannot be members of the Defense committee
  • Students should notify the BPH Program as far in advance as possible with the details of the exam. 
  • The student is required to notify the BPH office no later than 3 weeks in advance of the defense with the final dissertation title.
  • At least two weeks before the date of exam, defense members should be sent copies of the dissertation for review. A copy of the dissertation should also be sent to the BPH program.
  • If any defense committee member foresees problems with the exam, they should contact the chair of the defense committee in advance of the meeting. If major problems are found with the written document, the Committee can decide to postpone the oral defense until satisfactory changes are made. While rare in our program, these occasions can involve the insufficient or improper use of statistical methods, grossly overstated conclusions, insufficient background or discussion, or evidence of plagiarism.
  • More details about the timing and format are provided in the “Defense Packet Meeting” held with each student.


If a student successfully defends the dissertation before the 15th of the month, the stipend will be terminated at the end of that month. If the student successfully defends on or after the 15th, the next month’s stipend will be the final month the student is paid, at the discretion of their advisor.

Students are encouraged to speak to their advisors directly about how they should be paid as they complete their graduate work. If an advisor wishes to pay the student for one additional month, beyond what has been explained above, the advisor must notify the department’s financial administrator. For administrative reasons, a stipend cannot be issued to a student after their graduation/degree conferral date.


Part 1: Public Seminar As part of the exam, the PhD candidate will present a public seminar followed by a private oral examination.  The public presentation lasts no longer than 1 hour, which includes time for the advisor’s introduction, the student’s oral presentation and acknowledgements, and time for audience questions and answers.  The Defense Committee is required to attend the public seminar; however, it is customary for members of the defense committee to hold their questions until the private oral exam.

Part 2: Private Oral Examination A private oral examination follows the public seminar.  Initially, the student will be asked to leave the room for several minutes, along with the dissertation advisor if the dissertation advisor has decided to remain for the private exam.  During this time, the committee will discuss the merits of the dissertation, any issues with the dissertation, and areas they may want to focus on during the oral exam.  The student (and advisor if present) is then asked back into the room for the exam.

Each member of the defense committee will direct questions to the candidate based on their review of the dissertation and presentation of the seminar. The Defense Chair will moderate the discussion between the panel and the student.  The closed defense takes up to two hours and involves detailed technical questions as well as broader questions on the conclusions, impact, and limitations of the research.  Dissertation advisors may be present, but they must not participate in the exam (e.g., answer questions posed by the committee).

At the end of the examination, the student (and advisor if present) is once again asked to step out of the room for several minutes.  The Committee will discuss any revisions needed for the thesis and whether these revisions need to be reviewed and by whom.  Once the committee determines the outcomes, the student will be asked back into the room and the Committee provides the student with any [minor] changes needed to the dissertation. While it is extremely rare for the student to fail at this stage, the committee will provide recommendations to the student on their research, communication skills, and development as a scientist, as well as delineating the required changes to the dissertation.


Students preparing to write and defend their dissertation must review University requirements as outlined in “ Dissertations ” with guidelines published at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Students are also welcome to visit the BPH Student Lounge (Building 2, Room 113) to look at copies of previous BPH bound dissertations.

Writing the Dissertation Each student must write a comprehensive PhD dissertation on their research topic and the original results of their research. There are a variety of ways a dissertation can be composed, but the core elements described below must be included. The dissertation must show original treatment of the subject, contain a scholarly review of the pertinent literature, provide evidence of independent research of publishable quality, and be clearly, logically, and carefully written. In addition to a compendium of the student’s research, including detailed methods and results, the dissertation must contain a thoughtful discussion of the conclusions, impact, and limitations of the research. The completed work should be critically reviewed by the dissertation advisor before being submitted to the Dissertation Defense Committee.

In some cases, the student has done all of the work in the dissertation; more often portions of the dissertation result from collaborative research. In all dissertations containing collaborative results, the dissertation should indicate concisely who contributed to the work and how.  For example, a chapter containing multi-authored, published work must include a complete reference of the publication and a brief description of the candidate’s and the colleagues’ contributions. For work that is not published but which resulted from multiple researchers, the contributors must be named and respective attributions made clear. This policy allows stylistic flexibility; depending on the amount of collaborative work in the dissertation and the status of publication(s), the attributions can be, preferably, on or accompanying the cover page for each chapter or within an extended acknowledgements section at the end of each chapter. It is recommended that if figures or figure panels are included that are the work of others that the figure panels be clearly identified and the work properly attributed. It is permissible for more than one student to include work from the same collaboration or publication as long as the required attributions are clear, justified, and complete.

Individual chapters can be that of published articles as long as there are also comprehensive Introduction and Conclusion chapters written by the student. While the text can be the same, use of journal reprints as a chapter is not permissible. A word document of the published article must be used, and the pages in the dissertation must be consecutively numbered. Furthermore, the figures and accompanying figure legends must be integrated into the main body of each chapter, preferably following the first mention of the given figure, not clustered at the end of the chapter. Any dissertation that varies significantly from the Graduate School or FAS guidelines, or is not neat and readable, is subject to required stylistic revision before acceptance by the University. (For further information, please visit ).


Dissertation Acceptance Certificate Before the examination, the BPH Program Office will provide the Defense Committee Chair with a copy of the official Dissertation Acceptance Certificate. This certificate must be signed by all readers of the dissertation at the end of the examination and returned to the BPH Program Office. This certificate will be scanned and sent to the student so it can be inserted as page one of the dissertation prior to the online submission. The student must submit the one original, official copy to the Registrar’s in Cambridge by the appropriate deadline.

If extensive corrections are to be made, the BPH Program Office will hold the certificate until the Defense Committee Chair, and/or assigned reviewer(s) provide a written notification to the BPH Program to confirm that the corrected work has been reviewed and approved.

Dissertation Defense Exam Report The Dissertation Defense Exam Report is completed by the members of the Dissertation Defense Committee to provide a record of any comments or recommendations they may have. The report must be signed by all members immediately after the private exam. The completed report must be submitted to the BPH Program Office at the same time as the Dissertation Acceptance Certificate.

Sample Dissertation Title Page Please click here to see a sample BPH Dissertation Title Page.  Again, please refer to the Dissertation website for guidelines about how to format your dissertation.

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PhD Dissertation Defense Slides Design: Start

  • Tips for designing the slides
  • Presentation checklist
  • Example slides
  • Additional Resources

Purpose of the Guide

This guide was created to help ph.d. students in engineering fields to design dissertation defense presentations. the guide provides 1) tips on how to effectively communicate research, and 2) full presentation examples from ph.d. graduates. the tips on designing effective slides are not restricted to dissertation defense presentations; they can be used in designing other types of presentations such as conference talks, qualification and proposal exams, and technical seminars., the tips and examples are used to help students to design effective presentation. the technical contents in all examples are subject to copyright, please do not replicate. , if you need help in designing your presentation, please contact julie chen ([email protected]) for individual consultation. .

  • Example Slides Repository
  • Defense slides examples Link to examples dissertation defense slides.

Useful Links

  • CIT Thesis and dissertation standards
  • Dissertations and Theses @ Carnegie Mellon This link opens in a new window Covers 1920-present. Full text of some dissertations may be available 1997-present. Citations and abstracts of dissertations and theses CMU graduate students have published through UMI Dissertation Publishing. In addition to citations and abstracts, the service provides free access to 24 page previews and the full text in PDF format, when available. In most cases, this will be works published in 1997 forward.
  • Communicate your research data Data visualization is very important in communicating your data effectively. Check out these do's and don'ts for designing figures.

Power Point Template and other Resources

  • CEE Powerpoint Slide Presentation Template 1
  • CEE Powerpoint Slide Presentation Template 2

Source: CEE Department Resources

  • CMU Powerpoint Slide Template

Source: CMU Marketing and Communications

  • Use of CMU logos, marks, and Unitmarks

Email me for questions and schedule an appointment

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Top 7 tips for your defense presentation

1. show why your study is important, remember, your audience is your committee members, researchers in other fields, and even the general public. you want to convince all of them why you deserve a ph.d. degree. you need to talk about why your study is important to the world. in the engineering field, you also need to talk about how your study is useful. try to discuss why current practice is problematic or not good enough, what needs to be solved, and what the potential benefits will be. , see how dr. posen and dr. malings explained the importance of their studies..

  • Carl Malings Defense Slides with Notes
  • I. Daniel Posen Defense Slides with Notes

2. Emphasize YOUR contribution 

Having a ph.d. means that you have made some novel contributions to the grand field. this is about you and your research. you need to keep emphasizing your contributions throughout your presentation. after talking about what needs to be solved, try to focus on emphasizing the novelty of your work. what problems can be solved using your research outcomes what breakthroughs have you made to the field why are your methods and outcomes outstanding you need to incorporate answers to these questions in your presentation. , be clear what your contributions are in the introduction section; separate what was done by others and what was done by you. , 3. connect your projects into a whole piece of work, you might have been doing multiple projects that are not strongly connected. to figure out how to connect them into a whole piece, use visualizations such as flow charts to convince your audience. the two slides below are two examples. in the first slide, which was presented in the introduction section, the presenter used a flow diagram to show the connection between the three projects. in the second slide, the presenter used key figures and a unique color for each project to show the connection..

the defence of doctoral dissertation

  • Xiaoju Chen Defense Slides with Notes

4. Tell a good story 

The committee members do not necessarily have the same background knowledge as you. plus, there could be researchers from other fields and even the general public in the room. you want to make sure all of your audience can understand as much as possible. focus on the big picture rather than technical details; make sure you use simple language to explain your methods and results. your committee has read your dissertation before your defense, but others have not. , dr. cook and dr. velibeyoglu did a good job explaining their research to everyone. the introduction sessions in their presentations are well designed for this purpose. .

  • Laren M. Cook Defense Slides with Notes
  • Irem Velibeyoglu Defense with Notes

5. Transition, transition, transition

Use transition slides to connect projects , it's a long presentation with different research projects. you want to use some sort of transition to remind your audience what you have been talking about and what is next. you may use a slide that is designed for this purpose throughout your presentation. , below are two examples. these slides were presented after the introduction section. the presenters used the same slides and highlighted the items for project one to indicate that they were moving on to the first project. throughout the presentation, they used these slides and highlighted different sections to indicate how these projects fit into the whole dissertation. .

the defence of doctoral dissertation

You can also use some other indications on your slides, but remember not to make your slides too busy.  Below are two examples. In the first example, the presenter used chapter numbers to indicate what he was talking about. In the second example, the presenter used a progress bar with keywords for each chapter as the indicator. 

the defence of doctoral dissertation

Use transition sentences to connect slides 

Remember transition sentences are also important; use them to summarize what you have said and tell your audience what they will expect next. if you keep forgetting the transition sentence, write a note on your presentation. you can either write down a full sentence of what you want to say or some keywords., 6. be brief, put details in backup slides , you won't have time to explain all of the details. if your defense presentation is scheduled for 45 minutes, you can only spend around 10 minutes for each project - that's shorter than a normal research conference presentation focus on the big picture and leave details behind. you can put the details in your backup slides, so you might find them useful when your committee (and other members of the audience) ask questions regarding these details., 7. show your presentation to your advisor and colleagues, make sure to ask your advisor(s) for their comments. they might have a different view on what should be emphasized and what should be elaborated. , you also want to practice at least once in front of your colleagues. they can be your lab mates, people who work in your research group, and/or your friends. they do not have to be experts in your field. ask them to give you some feedback - their comments can be extremely helpful to improve your presentation. , below are some other tips and resources to design your defense presentation. .

  • Tips for designing your defense presentation

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the defence of doctoral dissertation

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Dissertation Defense: Steps To Follow To Succeed

dissertation defense

A dissertation defense is arguably one of the most important milestones in every student’s career. While it signals that your tenure as a student is soon about to close, it validates all your efforts towards your thesis.

Being cautious about including all the necessary details is very important to successfully complete your dissertation proposal defense. This article tells you everything that you need to know about writing a defense that can add great credibility to you as a student.

What is A Dissertation Defense?

The first thing that you need to learn is what is a dissertation defense and what is its purpose. In simple terms, it is a presentation made by a student to defend all the ideas and views that are presented in a dissertation.

The presenter must include details like what is the reason for choosing specific research methods, the theory that has been selected for the paper, and other such points. This presentation is made before an audience that comprises of the university committee, professors and even fellow-students. It is met with questions and answers that gives the student an opportunity to provide more clarity on the dissertation in order to convince the committee to approve it.

Stages of a Dissertation Defense

One of the most important dissertation defense tips provided by several professors is to breakdown the process into three steps:

  • Preparation : This stage involves collection of all the necessary information that must be included in the defense dissertation and making all the arrangements for the actual meeting.
  • The defense meeting : This is where you decide how you will present the defense. The actual meeting is hugely reliant on the performance, body language and the confidence in your oral defense.
  • After the defense meeting : This stage, also known as the follow up, requires you to make the necessary revisions suggested by the university committee. You can even provide bound copies of the whole dissertation to distribute among different members of your departments. In the follow up stage, one must also think about expense that are related to publishing the Ph.D. dissertation defense as well as printing additional copies of the manuscript, if required.

How Long is a Dissertation Defense?

The first thing that a student should know is how long does a dissertation defense last? The length has to be carefully calculated to make the impact that you want. One of the most important steps in the dissertation preparation is to understand how much time each department allocates to the closing oral defense. When you plan in the early stages of your dissertation itself, you can write it in a manner that allows you to defend it in the allocated time.

Usually these meetings including the presentation, the oral defense and the question and answer session last for about two hours. In most cases, these two hours also encompass the time needed by members of the committee to deliberate.

How to Prepare for the Dissertation Defense

Now that you know how long is a dissertation defense, the next step is to prepare well enough to make your presentation impressive.

Here are some tips on how to prepare for a dissertation defense:

  • Watch other students in action to learn about different presentation styles. You can attend defenses of different colleagues in your department as well as other departments in your university.
  • Get all the details about the deadlines and the rules of your college or university about scheduling your defense.
  • Scheduling is also a very important part of your preparation. It is important to note that members of the committee and University chairs need to make time for these defences in a very packed schedule. Coordinate the date, venue and time of your defense as early as possible.
  • Prepare a manuscript adhering to the necessary formatting rules. Review your manuscript thoroughly before you hand it in. During your PH.D, your faculty will also assist you with the defense. For this, they must have a crisp and polished copy of your manuscript.
  • Most colleges have the facility for a pre-defense meeting. This is the best opportunity to sort out any concerns that you may have about the actual meeting. It is a good idea to ask the chairs what types of questions may be put forward and if there are any problems with the defense that need to be resolved. When you prepare for a pre-defense meeting, think of it as the final one and give it your all.
  • Put together all the material that you need for the defense. A detailed, yet to-the-point presentation must be prepared.
  • The final stage of preparation is practicing your presentation over and over again. It is not just the presentation but also the approach towards the questions that you must practice.

Tips To Nail Your Actual Meeting

With these tips you will be one step closer towards a successful defense that will help your dissertation pass and be approved:

  • All meetings should begin by addressing the chair. Make sure you thank all the committee members and the advisors for the efforts that they have put it. This gives you a professional start to the presentation.
  • The presentation should cover the following subjects in brief:
  • The research topic
  • Literature review
  • The methods used for analysis
  • The primary findings of the research
  • Recommendations of additional research on the subject in the focus.
  • Do not get rattled by any discussions among the chairs. They will deliberate on any disagreements or topics of interest. This is a part of the process and is not a reflection of the presentation itself.
  • There are two questions that are commonly asked that you should be prepared for. This includes the weaknesses of the dissertation and the research plans that you have made post-dissertation.
  • Use subtle gestures when you are talking. Do not overuse your hands when doing so. The whole meeting including the question and answer session should have a very formal appeal.
  • The tone of your voice must be assertive without making it seem like you are trying to hard. Be clear and enunciate when you speak.

Once the questions have been answered, the committee will leave the room. Then, after the deliberation, you will be informed if your dissertation has passed or not.

For affordable thesis writing assistance , get in touch our team today. The pricing is cheap but students can be assured of top notch quality in all our final products.

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Defending a PhD thesis like a boss!- an in-depth Guide

A thesis defense is a two-way process of PhD evaluation, a session during which experts ask questions related to the PhD dissertation for awarding a PhD degree.  

Defending a PhD thesis or dissertation is the last station of the PhD. The process of a doctorate is different! Even though prospective candidates don’t need to appear in the written examination, the thesis defense is a must!

It’s a process occurring behind closed doors or openly (sometimes!), under the supervision of subject experts or all, to award someone a prestigious doctor of philosophy degree .

PhD- the Philosophia doctor is a path full of complications and problems. Starting from admission to writing a thesis or viva, a candidate has to achieve every milestone to move forward towards a PhD. 

Broadly, a good graduation or master’s score, completion of the entrance exam, course work, PhD thesis, publication in a peer-reviewed journal, PhD presentation and well-completed PhD research are criteria to appear in the PhD defense. 

If a candidate fails to achieve any of the requirements given above, he or she can’t go-ahead. The PhD is all about research, passion, knowledge on one side whilst depression, lack of confidence, loneliness, frustration on the other side, nonetheless, it is a fun journey. 

Defending a PhD thesis at terminal can relax a doctoral student, although should not be taken for granted. 

The present piece of content is all about defending your PhD thesis, what is it and how to appear. I will also give you some tips that help you to successfully complete it. 

What is a thesis defense? 

The thesis defense is the terminal process of discussing ‘research’ to award the PhD degree. It is also referred to as PhD viva too; however, it is more a discussion session than a viva. 

A prospective student has to appear in the thesis defense along with the PhD thesis, a presentation and all other PhD related documentation. A student also has to carry all the materials and proofs that can be used to convenience a supervisor or expert to award the doctorate. 

The entire process is verbal. Two external subject experts, a guide, and a university VC conducts the process, note that other students can also appear in the PhD defense process too as a guest. 

Universities usually conduct close viva sessions to avoid ‘personal bullying’ during the thesis defense. 

During the process, questions are based on the thesis content, topic and subject of the prospective student’s research. The objective of conducting the defense session is to check the knowledge of a student, research aptitude and how he or he had done their research. 

It is a kind of evaluation process in which experts ask questions and point out gaps in research presented by a student.

Read more: 10 Genuine Suggestions to Design a PhD Title .

What is the process of thesis defense? 

The process of PhD thesis defense starts with the general introduction of experts followed by the presentation session. A candidate has to present their thesis in a PowerPoint presentation, keynotes or google slides. 10 to 20 minutes are alloted to present the work in 15 to 25 slides. 

Soon after, experts ask questions related to research. Several of them are, 

What is the purpose of the present research? 

Why is the present topic chosen? 

What is the study population and why only those are selecting 

What are the outcomes of the present work? 

Why are the results or outcomes important? 

What are the societal benefits of the present work? 

How or what the present research contributes to the present knowledge? 

These are the common questions asked to know the quality, quantity and strength of the research one has conducted. 

The process is of two types; close thesis defense viva and open thesis defense viva. 

In the close thesis defense viva, only a subject expert and a PhD supervisor conduct the entire process of the thesis defense, no one is allowed to interfere in it. A student can defend their thesis confidently, on the positive side, however, sometimes the integrity of the session doesn’t maintain due to lack of a monitoring body. 

During the open thesis defense, anyone can appear in the viva session including students of master’s and graduation. Also, anyone can ask questions related to the topic. 

Open thesis defense sometimes makes things harder for the prospective student. Which type of viva or defense system you have to face will depend on the university. The process and type of thesis defense vary from country to country and university to university.  

2 to 5 examiners or external evaluators are invited for a PhD thesis defense session by the university. The criteria to select examiners for the same are; they should be not from the university, they are experts in a related subject, they are working outside the university. 

University allows a PhD supervisor to the defense session but they can’t participate in the discussion. Examiner examines the thesis and will randomly ask queries to the presenter. 

Who conducts a thesis defense? 

The thesis defense of master’s, M Phil or PhD is held by the university under the vigilance of the supervisor for the student appearing in the degree. 

A PhD supervisor invites two or three other experts of the subject to conduct the session, university presentative or vice-chancellor closely monitors the entire process, if present. 

Related article: How much does a PhD Degree Cost in the USA, UK and India?

How long a thesis defense occurs? 

Per student 10 to 20 minutes are allotted to defend the thesis, however, it may vary, depending on how long a verbal questioning session happens. If it is interesting, it may take up to 2 hours. 

Sometimes, experts wind things in 30 minutes too; that depends on how neatly you have written your thesis and how beautifully you have given your presentation. Still, a few questions are common and asked in every thesis defense. 

Usually 20 minutes to 2 hours it takes to complete the thesis defense. 

What happens after the completion of the thesis defense? 

Defending a thesis isn’t like giving a written exam, which means the results are not like ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. The results are like how excellently one has done their doctorate- research, thesis and presentation. 

There are three possibilities after completing the PhD viva or thesis defense.

  • First, you have successfully completed it.
  • Second, you have failed in defending the thesis- revision required. 
  • Third, there are chances of improvement- minor revision required. 

When you present your thesis excellently, write the dissertation in a proper way and accurately- like a professional writer, proofread it correctly, complete all the objectives mentioned in the thesis, done research in a proper way, you probably come in the first case. 

A PhD degree will be awarded to you soon! 

If a thesis is not written in a good way, not all the objectives are completed, not published a paper, or fails to write a thesis completely or it is partially incomplete, you fail in defending the thesis, need revision.

In this case, you have to re-appear in the Ph.D. to complete the incomplete work. 

The third case is a bit different in which a student is advised to do some minor changes and improvements to make their own thesis much better. Usually, re-viva is not conducted in these cases. 

In the second case, in which a student fails to defend their thesis, re-viva and second round of thesis defense will be conducted after six months or a year. 

Note that awarding the thesis entirely depends on the external examiner. 

Also read: PhD vs PsyD- Differences .

Can anyone fail in the thesis defense? 

I can say yes! But not exactly because it is not an examination. A candidate has to appear again after sometimes to defend the thesis. Here are the cases in which we can say, a candidate failed thesis defense.

  • Improper, incorrect or partial thesis. 
  • Incomplete objectives. 
  • Incomplete research work. 
  • Lack of significant outcomes. 
  • No publication 
  • Fail to answer questions during the defense. 

Practically it is not considered as ‘fail’, re-viva or another round of thesis defense will be conducted. 

Tips to successfully defend the thesis for PhD: 

When you will be on your presentation, an examiner opens your thesis; thoughts of curiosity, nervousness, excitement and energy will flow around you, all at once. 

In these conditions, even if your preparation is excellent, a small mistake can ruin everything for you. 

You have to balance your positive as well as negative emotions at the same time. Here are some of the tips that definitely help you to defend your PhD thesis successfully. 

Fill yourself with positivity: 

You are very near to your goal, one step ahead of getting a degree- an utmost academic honor- the PhD. Surely, you need to balance everything, as I said, but to do so, you need to behave positively. 

Even if you know the gaps, problems, limitations and problems of your PhD thesis, yourself or your knowledge, you need to keep calm and behave like everything will be on your side. 

Only you know what is not perfect in your presentation or thesis, why to show it to others! Stay calm, focus, confident and positive like everything is perfect there. 

If you still feel so negative, imagine there are so many students in the world who have not even reached this level! You are here, on the last step of the PhD- feel proud of yourself. 

Related article: Writing a Research Paper for a Ph.D. Dissertation.

Dress well, look well: 

To feel confident and positive, you have to look better. Wear a good, decent and formal dress, shave your beard or trim it, style your hair and polish your shoes. If you will look good, a positive and joyful atmosphere will be constructed in the room that will definitely help you. 

Don’t look tired, hopeless, restless, sleepless. 

Checklist all things: 

A couple of things are required during the PhD viva or thesis defense session. One is the presentation and the second is the thesis. In addition to this, don’t forget to take other documents related to your PhD like your plagiarism clearance certificate, your registration certificate and even your logbook. 

One can’t appear in the thesis defense session without a presentation and thesis. 

Other things are secondary in this case. 

Also read: How to Avoid Plagiarism in Your PhD Thesis?

Prepare a good presentation: 

Before preparing a PhD presentation, you need to know in which format the university allows to present the thesis. However, the globally accepted format is Microsoft Powerpoint. 

Prepare a good, decent and professional PhD presentation of 10 to 15 slides and save it in multiple formats. Include only necessary information, I know it is very difficult to summarize the 4000 to 5000-word essay in 10 slides. 

Also, don’t forget to include material, methods, theory, results and outcome of the research, those things are very essential. Make your presentation correct with your PhD supervisor before appearing in the thesis defense. 

Make a backup: 

What if your presentation will not run on the day of defending the thesis? What if you lost your hardcopy of the thesis? that is not good, right! 

 You are a PhD student , above all, out of the box thinking ability and good analytic thinking, how can you forget to make backups? 

Backup your presentation in a flash drive, cloud storage and email. Prepare presentations in multiple formats.

Make the back of the thesis soft copy as well and store it on different devices that are easily accessible in case of emergency. In addition to this, also prepare a rough and unbounded draft of the thesis hardcopy as a backup. 

Control yourself: 

Students who have done their PhD sincerely are confident about their work but it is very important to control yourself during the thesis defense. In any harsh condition don’t lose your calm, don’t be aggressive.

Even if you know that the expert is wrong- that is a rare case scenario, respect their opinion and behave accordingly. See it is obvious, no one knows more than you and your guide about your topic.

Try to explain things to the panel member, if it can’t work, leave it, respect their opinion and take it as suggestions. 

Read more: 10 PhD Programs You can choose to Study- A Comprehensive Guide .

Answer to the point: 

Sometimes it happens that you explain things more than the experts’ needs. There are drawbacks of explaining things elaborately, they can trap you! 

As I said, pay attention to the question asked by the expert and try to answer what they want, not more than that. Explain things if they don’t understand. 

Do this if you don’t have an answer: 

Experts’ duties are to find gaps and problems in your research so that they can find knowledge actually required. So it is obvious, they confuse you, and ask questions which you don’t know. 

 Don’t get nervous or panic, if you don’t know the answers. Take a deep breath and admit that you don’t have the answer or don’t have an idea about that. To support this situation, you can even make an assumption that this might happen or this will be the reason or give a probability.

See thesis defense is not like a viva, questions will be intellectual and will challenge your knowledge and thinking every time for sure. You have to show them your ability to think differently, not what to already know! 

Also read: 50 various PhD degree full forms .

Do this if something wrong happens! 

Days change, some are good, rest are bad. Things will be on your side someday, or not on other days. What you will do if something wrong happens whilst defending the thesis? 

Your presentation may not work, You lost your thesis, a big problem with the thesis- you didn’t know and problems in findings of results; these are some common problems I had seen in PhD viva. 

So you have to prepare for that, what to answer in those conditions. Anyone can make mistakes, simply apologize and request panel members that you will fix the problem soon. See, you have to act as per the situation, I can not tell you what you say in which conditions. 

For instance, if your presentation is not working or electricity is not there on the day of the presentation simply apologize for that, present it with the available utilities like chalk and blackboard.

The important thing is don’t panic, apologize first, and request to continue the presentation. For instance, if there is a major issue in the thesis, request the examiner that you will fix it, please allow you to continue the presentation. Try to complete your presentation, anyhow, who knows if they will impress. 

Be prepared for the most common questions: 

 The 10th tip is very useful and kind of a hack for you. There are several questions asked routinely during every thesis defense session. For instance,  what is the purpose of your research? How outcomes help society? Why have you chosen this topic? Why have you selected this technique for your work? What are the applications of your research? Like that. 

Be prepared for these questions, a few of them will be asked during the session. Then after the discussion will pick the heat, and your thinking ability will be tested. 

Read more: What is PhD?- History, Definition, Origin, Requirement, Fees, Duration and Process .


Thesis or dissertation and PhD viva or thesis defense aren’t mandatory for all. Some professional degrees seek only internships for the award of PhD or doctorate. IN PhD in medicine or psychology, thesis or viva isn’t conducted, though the criteria are decided by the universities and hence vary greatly. 

Still, the thesis defense is a common practice performed to award PhD, M Phil or post-graduation degree. 

Dr. Tushar Chauhan is a Scientist, Blogger and Scientific-writer. He has completed PhD in Genetics. Dr. Chauhan is a PhD coach and tutor.

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Plagiarism charges downed Harvard’s president. A conservative attack helped to fan the outrage

Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned Tuesday amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy. (Jan 02) (AP video by Rodrique Ngowi) (AP production by Javier Arciga)

FILE - Then-Edgerley Family Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay addresses an audience during commencement ceremonies, May 25, 2023, on the school’s campus in Cambridge, Mass. Gay, Harvard University’s president, resigned Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

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People take photographs near a John Harvard statue, left, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, on the campus of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned Tuesday amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

FILE - Harvard University President Claudine Gay speaks during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2023, in Washington. Gay resigned Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

A passer-by walks through a gate to the Harvard University campus, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned Tuesday amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

People pause for photographs, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, on the campus of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned Tuesday amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

WASHINGTON (AP) — American higher education has long viewed plagiarism as a cardinal sin. Accusations of academic dishonesty have ruined the careers of faculty and undergraduates alike.

The latest target is Harvard President Claudine Gay, who resigned Tuesday. In her case, the outrage came not from her academic peers but her political foes, led by conservatives who put her career under intense scrutiny .

Reviews by Harvard found multiple shortcomings in Gay’s academic citations, including several instances of “ duplicative language .” The university concluded the errors “were not considered intentional or reckless” and didn’t rise to misconduct. But the allegations continued, with new ones as recently as Monday.

A passer-by walks through a gate to the Harvard University campus, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned Tuesday amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school's conduct policy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

A passer-by walks through a gate to the Harvard University campus, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Conservatives zeroed in on Gay amid backlash over her congressional testimony about antisemitism on campus. Her detractors charged that Gay — who has a Ph.D. in government, was a professor at Harvard and Stanford and headed Harvard’s largest division before being promoted — got the top job in large part because she is a Black woman.

Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who helped orchestrate the effort against Gay, celebrated her departure as a win in his campaign against elite institutions of higher education. On X, formerly Twitter, he wrote “SCALPED,” as if Gay was a trophy of violence, invoking a gruesome practice taken up by white colonists who sought to eradicate Native Americans and also used by some tribes against their enemies.

“Tomorrow, we get back to the fight,” he said on X, describing a “playbook” against institutions deemed too liberal by conservatives. His latest target: efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in education and business .

Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, speaks as University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill listens, during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

“We must not stop until we have abolished DEI ideology from every institution in America,” he said. In another post, he announced a new “plagiarism hunting fund,” vowing to “expose the rot in the Ivy League and restore truth, rather than racialist ideology, as the highest principle in academic life.”

Gay didn’t directly address the plagiarism accusations in a campus letter announcing her resignation, but she noted she was troubled to see doubt cast on her commitment “to upholding scholarly rigor.” She also indirectly nodded to the December congressional hearing that started the onslaught of criticism, where she did not say unequivocally that calls for the genocide of Jews would violate Harvard policy.

Her departure comes just six months after becoming Harvard’s first Black president.

As the figureheads of their universities, presidents often face heightened scrutiny, and numerous leaders have been felled by plagiarism scandals. Stanford University’s president resigned last year amid findings that he manipulated scientific data in his research. A president of the University of South Carolina resigned in 2021 after he lifted parts of his speech at a graduation ceremony.

People pause for photographs, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, on the campus of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned Tuesday amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school's conduct policy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

In Gay’s case, many academics were troubled with how the plagiarism came to light: as part of a coordinated campaign to discredit Gay and force her from office, in part because of her involvement in efforts for racial justice on campus. Her resignation came after calls for her ouster from prominent conservatives including Rep. Elise Stefanik , a Harvard alumna, and Bill Ackman , a billionaire hedge fund manager who has donated millions to Harvard.

The campaign against Gay and other Ivy League presidents has become part of a broader right-wing effort to remake higher education , which has often been seen as a bastion of liberalism . Republican detractors have sought to gut funding for public universities, roll back tenure and banish initiatives that make colleges more welcoming to students of color, disabled students and the LGBTQ+ community. They also have aimed to limit how race and gender are discussed in classrooms.

Walter M. Kimbrough, the former president of the historically Black Dillard University, said what unfolded at Harvard reminded him of an adage from his mother, a Black graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1950s.

As a Black person in academia, “you always have to be twice, three times as good,” he said.

“There are going to be people, particularly if they have any inkling that the person of color is not the most qualified, who will label them a ‘DEI hire,’ like they tried to label her,” Kimbrough said. “If you want to lead an institution like (Harvard) … there are going to be people who are looking to disqualify you.”

FILE - Then-Edgerley Family Dean of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay addresses an audience during commencement ceremonies, May 25, 2023, on the school's campus in Cambridge, Mass. Gay, Harvard University's president, resigned Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

FILE - Then-Edgerley Family Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay addresses an audience during commencement ceremonies, May 25, 2023, on the school’s campus in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

The allegations against Gay initially came from conservative activists, some who stayed anonymous. They looked for the kinds of duplicated sentences undergraduate students are trained to avoid, even with citation.

In dozens of instances first published by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, Gay’s work includes long stretches of prose that mirror language from other published works. A review ordered by Harvard acknowledged she duplicated the language without using quotation marks.

Harvard previously said Gay updated her dissertation and requested corrections from journals.

Among her critics in conservative circles and academia, the findings are clear evidence that Gay, as the top academic at the pinnacle of U.S. higher education, is unfit to serve. Her defenders say it isn’t so clear-cut.

In highly specialized fields, scholars often use similar language to describe the same concepts, said Davarian Baldwin, a historian at Trinity College who writes about race and higher education. Gay clearly made mistakes, he said, but with the spread of software designed to detect plagiarism, it wouldn’t be hard to find similar overlap in works by other presidents and professors.

The tool becomes dangerous, he added, when it “falls into the hands of those who argue that academia in general is a cesspool of incompetence and bad actors.”

John Pelissero, a former interim college president who now works for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, said instances of plagiarism deserve to be evaluated individually and that it’s not always so cut and dried.

“You’re looking for whether there was intentionality to mislead or inappropriately borrow other people’s ideas in your work,” Pelissero said. “Or was there an honest mistake?”

FILE - A copy of the book "And Tango Makes Three" is photographed on a bookstore shelf in Chicago, Nov. 16, 2006. Months after access to the popular children's book about a male penguin couple hatching a chick was restricted at school libraries because of Florida's so-called “Don't Say Gay” law, a central Florida school district says it has reversed that decision. The complaint challenged the restrictions and Florida's new law prohibiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

Without commenting on the merits of the allegations against Gay, President Irene Mulvey of the American Association of University Professors said she fears plagiarism investigations could be “weaponized” to pursue a political agenda.

“There is a right-wing political attack on higher education right now, which feels like an existential threat to the academic freedom that has made American higher education the envy of the world,” Mulvey said.

She worries Gay’s departure will put a new strain on college presidents. In addition to their work courting donors, policymakers and alumni, presidents are supposed to protect faculty from interference so they can research unimpeded.

“For presidents to be taken down like this, it does not bode well for academic freedom,” she said. “I think it’ll chill the climate for academic freedom. And it may make university presidents less likely to speak out against this inappropriate interference for fear of losing their jobs or being targeted.”

Balingit reported from Sacramento.

The Associated Press’ education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at .


Opinion The allegations against Harvard’s Claudine Gay

Keith Henderson's Jan. 1 letter, "Ms. Gay’s dissertation," incorrectly identified Albert Schweitzer as a Pulitzer Prize winner. He won the Nobel Prize. This version has been corrected.

Regarding Ruth Marcus’s Dec. 26 op-ed, “ Harvard’s president should resign ”:

Most of us know that the recent review of Harvard University President Claudine Gay’s doctoral dissertation was precipitated by her testimony before a congressional committee and condemnation of her response about antisemitism, for which she has apologized.

Ms. Gay received her PhD in 1997, more than two decades ago. At the time she wrote her dissertation, she was a student. The responsibility for closely examining and critiquing her dissertation rested with the tenured and distinguished faculty at Harvard who supervised her work. She was learning the craft of her future profession, supposedly guided by more learned people in research and academic writing.

Where is the accountability for Harvard? Since attaining her doctoral degree, Ms. Gay has led a distinguished career and has been recognized and rewarded with tenure by Harvard. She was selected presumably over many other distinguished academics to lead the university. Her credentials were checked and rechecked, and a favorable judgment was made.

I understand the motivation of the bomb-throwers incensed by her testimony — Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), billionaire contributors to Harvard, and others — who continued to look for and find a reason to punish Ms. Gay, a Black woman leading one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, but Ms. Marcus? What a disappointment.

Judith Winston , Washington

Ruth Marcus’s op-ed on Harvard University President Claudine Gay set the right course for all of us . Her call, that Harvard really has no choice but to set the leadership example, given its institutional stature and generational influence, will hopefully move the university’s board, and Ms. Gay herself, to finally do the right thing.

It’s worth noting that this op-ed could not have been easy for Ms. Marcus to write, given that she has a law degree from Harvard.

However, perhaps her task and her conclusion were made a little easier by the fact that it is consistent with her passionate belief in justice and the rule of law and with the for-the-ages quote from Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer: “ Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing .”

Thanks to Ms. Marcus for setting the journalistic opinion example.

Keith Henderson , Washington

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Harvard Finds More Instances of ‘Duplicative Language’ in President’s Work

Claudine Gay has faced growing criticism of not only her response to antisemitism on campus but also her scholarship.

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the defence of doctoral dissertation

By Jennifer Schuessler

Harvard University, in the face of mounting questions over possible plagiarism in the scholarly work of its president, Claudine Gay, said on Wednesday that it had found two additional instances of insufficient citation in her work.

The issues were found in Dr. Gay’s 1997 doctoral dissertation, in which Harvard said it had found two examples of “duplicative language without appropriate attribution.”

Last week, Harvard said that an earlier review had found two published articles that needed additional citations, and that Dr. Gay would request corrections.

“President Gay will update her dissertation correcting these instances of inadequate citation,” the university said on Wednesday of the additional findings.

The news was an embarrassing development for the university, which has sought to quell tumult over Dr. Gay’s leadership in recent weeks.

On Wednesday, a congressional committee currently investigating Harvard sent a letter to the university demanding all its documentation and communications related to the allegations.

More than a week ago, Dr. Gay seemed to survive concerns about her response to the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and charges of antisemitism on campus, only to be faced with criticism of her scholarship. Wednesday’s news has raised more questions about the process by which the university board, known as the Harvard Corporation, has handled plagiarism allegations against Dr. Gay, and whether it has been overly lenient with her.

On Wednesday, Harvard said that the inquiry into Dr. Gay’s work was not handled by the research integrity office of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which would normally investigate plagiarism charges against a member of that faculty. Instead the Corporation, a 12-member board that has been criticized for its insularity, appointed a panel of outside scholars to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, because the head of the research integrity office ultimately reports to the president.

The allegations of plagiarism against Dr. Gay have been driven by conservative media, and on Dec. 10 surfaced publicly when the activist Christopher Rufo published a newsletter piece headlined, “Is Claudine Gay a Plagiarist?” That article , which highlighted issues with Dr. Gay’s dissertation, appeared the night before the board met to decide if she would remain as Harvard’s president.

Additional allegations continued to surface in conservative outlets like The Washington Free Beacon and on social media, even after the board announced on Dec. 12 that it would stand behind her.

The controversy swirling around Dr. Gay raises questions about what it means for a premier American university when its scholarly leader — who at Harvard has final approval on all tenure decisions — has been accused of failing to adhere to scholarly standards. The allegations against her are landing in the middle of a charged political battle. But they have also prompted some to wonder whether Harvard is treating its leader with greater latitude than it would its students.

Altogether, the allegations accuse Dr. Gay, a political scientist, of using material from other sources without proper attribution in her dissertation and about half of the 11 journal articles listed on her résumé .

The examples range from brief snippets of technical definitions to paragraphs summing up other scholars’ research that are only lightly paraphrased, and in some cases lack any direct citation of the other scholars.

In one example that has drawn particular attention and online ridicule, the acknowledgments of Dr. Gay’s dissertation appear to take two sentences from the 1996 book acknowledgments of another scholar, Jennifer L. Hochschild. Dr. Hochschild wrote of a mentor who “showed me the importance of getting the data right and of following where they lead without fear or favor,” and “drove me much harder than I sometimes wanted to be driven.”

In Dr. Gay’s dissertation acknowledgments the next year, she thanked her family, who “drove me harder than I sometimes wanted to be driven.” And she thanked her thesis adviser, Gary King, who “reminded me of the importance of getting the data right and following where they lead without fear or favor.”

As allegations mounted last week, faculty members at Harvard and scholars elsewhere offered varying assessments of the severity of the infractions, with some seeing a disturbing pattern, and others calling them minor or dismissing them as a partisan hit job.

But to some, the issue is plain: Dr. Gay committed plagiarism — a word which does not actually appear in the Harvard board’s initial statement on Dec. 12 — and Harvard should admit it.

Carol Swain, a political scientist who retired from Vanderbilt University in 2017, said that she was “livid,” both at Dr. Gay’s use of her work and Harvard’s defense of her.

“I also have a concern that Harvard University decides it gets to redefine what plagiarism is when it suits its needs,” she said. “That to me is unacceptable.”

In the dissertation, Mr. Rufo said in his newsletter, Dr. Gay used Dr. Swain’s work at least twice with no citation. In one example, Dr. Gay wrote, “Since the 1950s, the re-election rate for incumbent House members has rarely dipped below 90%.” In an earlier book, Dr. Swain had written, “Since the 1950s the re-election rate for House members has rarely dipped below 90%.” (It is unclear if Harvard’s investigation deemed this example problematic.)

The left-leaning Boston Globe editorial board was also scathing about Harvard’s initial statement on the plagiarism allegations, which it called “confusing.”

“If Gay didn’t violate any standards of research, why would she need to correct anything?” it asked.

On Wednesday, Harvard provided some additional details about its investigation. It said that it was spurred by an inquiry on Oct. 24 from The New York Post, seeking comment on what Harvard described as “anonymous allegations” of plagiarism.

Harvard said the Corporation had appointed a three-member independent review board, consisting of scholars with “no ties to Harvard” who are “among the nation’s most respected political scientists, whose disciplinary expertise qualifies them to have conducted this review of Gay’s work.” It declined to publicly disclose the names of the scholars.

The panel reviewed all the allegations in The Post’s inquiry, the summary said, and also reviewed “all of President Gay’s other published works from 1993 to 2019.” It did not review her dissertation, Harvard said, since no questions had been raised about it. Allegations about the dissertation were first publicly raised on Dec. 10, in Mr. Rufo’s newsletter.

Two days later, in a statement saying Dr. Gay would remain as president, the Corporation briefly addressed the allegations about her scholarship.

It said an independent inquiry had investigated her “published work” and found two papers needing additional citations, but no “research misconduct.”

But that hardly settled the question, on campus or beyond.

On the face of it, Harvard’s definition of plagiarism would seem clear — and exacting. “Plagiarism is defined as the act of intentionally OR unintentionally submitting work that was written by somebody else,” a handbook for students says. Every source, including websites and seemingly unauthored documents, “must be cited properly.”

Plagiarism, the handbook says, “is taken very seriously at Harvard.”

The regulations for professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, of which Dr. Gay, a professor of government and of African and African American studies, is a member, define plagiarism similarly.

But it specifies that plagiarism rises to the level of “research misconduct,” which can be punished, only if the infractions were committed “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly.”

In a summary of its process on Wednesday, Harvard reiterated that its review of Dr. Gay’s work did not find evidence that met this bar.

For some faculty members, and not just liberal ones, the details of the charges and Harvard’s procedures were less important than the context in which the charges were being lobbed.

“It’s part of this extreme right-wing attack on elite institutions,” said Charles Fried, a professor at Harvard Law School and a former solicitor general in the Reagan administration. “The obvious point is to make it look as if there is this ‘woke’ double standard at elite institutions.”

“If it came from some other quarter, I might be granting it some credence,” he said of the accusations. “But not from these people.”

Steven Levitsky, a government professor and the organizer of a faculty petition this month urging the Corporation to “resist political pressures that are at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom,” said the passages highlighted seemed to mostly be “mild sloppiness.”

Many, he said, appeared to occur in sections of the papers dealing not with Gay’s core claims, but with summaries of methodologies and of previous scholarship.

“She’s a quantitative scholar,” he said. “She cares about the data. These guys don’t spend time fussing about their literature reviews.”

Few of those who saw the accusations as potentially serious were willing to speak on the record. But some who said they were troubled also noted that students were often punished, sometimes harshly, for similar infractions.

“It’s troubling to see the standards we apply to undergrads seem to differ from the standards we apply to faculty,” Theda Skocpol, a professor of government, said.

Dr. Hochschild, who has known Dr. Gay for years and remains supportive, said in an interview that she was perplexed to learn about the repetition in language in the acknowledgments of her book, from the 1990s. But “I’m not terribly disturbed,” Dr. Hochschild, who joined the Harvard faculty in 2001, said, in part because “the sentiments and phrasing were not especially distinctive.”

How Harvard evaluates and punishes plagiarism — and whether star professors get off lightly compared with students — is a long-running subject of debate.

In 2005, after two prominent law professors, Charles Ogletree Jr. and Laurence Tribe, were publicly accused of plagiarism , The Harvard Crimson ran an editorial decrying the “disappointing double standard,” noting that “students caught plagiarizing are routinely suspended for semesters or even entire academic years.”

In both cases, the investigations — which were led by Derek Bok, a former Harvard president, and unfolded over months — found that each had in fact committed plagiarism. The professors were publicly chastised by the administration, but Harvard did not say whether there were any sanctions, according to news reports at the time.

In an apology, Mr. Ogletree, who died this year , acknowledged that his 2004 book “All Deliberate Speed” included several paragraphs from another law professor almost verbatim, without any attribution, according to a New York Times report at the time. (He said it was the result of a mix-up by his research assistants.)

In Mr. Tribe’s case, he was deemed by Harvard’s president and the law school dean to have unintentionally included “various brief passages and phrases that echo or overlap with material” in a book by another scholar, who was not credited. Mr. Tribe, who still teaches at Harvard, apologized.

At the time, a fellow legal scholar told The Times that for professors whose infractions became public, the humiliation was the true cost: “The discovery is the punishment.”

Anemona Hartocollis and Sarah Mervosh contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

Jennifer Schuessler is a culture reporter covering intellectual life and the world of ideas. She is based in New York. More about Jennifer Schuessler

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

Harvard president Claudine Gay resigns amid plagiarism claims, backlash from antisemitism testimony

Posted: January 2, 2024 | Last updated: January 3, 2024

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned Tuesday amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy.

Gay is the second Ivy League president to resign in the past month following the congressional testimony — Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, resigned Dec. 9.

Gay, Harvard’s first Black president, announced her departure just months into her tenure in a letter to the Harvard community.

Following the congressional hearing, Gay’s academic career came under intense scrutiny by conservative activists who unearthed several instances of alleged plagiarism in her 1997 doctoral dissertation. The Harvard Corporation, Harvard’s governing board, initially rallied behind Gay, saying a review of her scholarly work turned up “a few instances of inadequate citation” but no evidence of research misconduct.

Days later, the Harvard Corporation said it found two additional examples of “duplicative language without appropriate attribution.” The board said Gay would update her dissertation and request corrections.

The Harvard Corporation said the resignation came “with great sadness” and thanked Gay for her “deep and unwavering commitment to Harvard and to the pursuit of academic excellence.”

Alan M. Garber, provost and chief academic officer, will serve as interim president until Harvard finds a replacement, the board said in a statement. Garber, an economist and physician, has served as provost for 12 years.

Gay’s resignation was celebrated by the conservatives who put her alleged plagiarism in the national spotlight — with additional plagiarism accusations surfacing as recently as Monday in The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication.

Christopher Rufo, an activist who has helped rally the GOP against higher education, said he’s “glad she’s gone.”

“Rather than take responsibility for minimizing antisemitism, committing serial plagiarism, intimidating the free press, and damaging the institution, she calls her critics racist,” Rufo said on X, formerly Twitter. “This is the poison” of diversity, equity and inclusion ideology, said Rufo, who has led conservative attacks on DEI both in business and in education.

Gay, in her letter, said it has been “distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor — two bedrock values that are fundamental to who I am — and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus.”

But Gay, who is returning to the school’s faculty, added “it has become clear that it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign so that our community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge.”

Yoel Zimmermann, a visiting research undergrad from Munich, Germany, studying physics at Harvard, said that as a Jewish student he’s noticed fellow members of the Jewish community have felt uncomfortable with the climate on campus.

“I think it was about time that Claudine Gay resigned,” Zimmerman said. “She just did too many things wrong, especially with her testimony in Congress. I think that was just the kind of final tipping point that should have led to her removal immediately.”

Supporters of Gay lamented her resignation.

“Racist mobs won’t stop until they topple all Black people from positions of power and influence who are not reinforcing the structure of racism,” award-winning author Ibram X. Kendi, who survived scrutiny of an antiracist research center he founded at Boston University, said in an Instagram post.

The Rev. Al Sharpton in a statement called pressure for Gay to resign “an attack on every Black woman in this country who’s put a crack in the glass ceiling” and an “assault on the health, strength, and future of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Critics welcomed her decision.

House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx called Gay’s resignation welcome news but said the problems at Harvard are much larger than one leader.

“Postsecondary education is in a tailspin,” the North Carolina Republican said in a statement. “There has been a hostile takeover of postsecondary education by political activists, woke faculty, and partisan administrators.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, in a statement on X, also weighed in on Gay's resignation.

“A little context. A failure in leadership and denial of antisemitism have a price. I hope that the esteemed Harvard University will learn from this dismal conduct,” he wrote.

Gay, Magill and MIT's president, Sally Kornbluth, came under fire last month for their lawyerly answers to a line of questioning from New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate the colleges’ codes of conduct.

The three presidents had been called before the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce to answer accusations that universities were failing to protect Jewish students amid rising fears of antisemitism worldwide and fallout from Israel’s intensifying war in Gaza , which faces heightened criticism for the mounting Palestinian death toll .

Gay said it depended on the context, adding that when “speech crosses into conduct, that violates our policies.” The answer faced swift backlash from Republican and some Democratic lawmakers as well as the White House . The hearing was parodied in the opening skit on “Saturday Night Live.”

Gay later apologized, telling The Crimson student newspaper that she got caught up in a heated exchange at the House committee hearing and failed to properly denounce threats of violence against Jewish students.

“What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged,” Gay said.

The episode marred Gay’s tenure at Harvard — she became president in July — and sowed discord at the Ivy League campus. Rabbi David Wolpe later resigned from a new committee on antisemitism created by Gay, saying in a post on X that “events on campus and the painfully inadequate testimony reinforced the idea that I cannot make the sort of difference I had hoped.”

The House committee announced days after the hearing that it would investigate the policies and disciplinary procedures at Harvard, MIT and Penn. Separate federal civil rights investigations were previously opened at Harvard, Penn and several other universities in response to complaints submitted to the U.S. Education Department.

Binkley contributed from Washington.

FILE - Then-Edgerley Family Dean of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay addresses an audience during commencement ceremonies, May 25, 2023, on the school's campus in Cambridge, Mass. Gay, Harvard University's president, resigned Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

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