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10 Tips for Surviving a Dissertation

The title should probably read “How I survived my dissertation defense,” because each project is different, each committee is different, and, therefore each defense is different. Some of the advice below is from people who advised me before I defended last week, and some are from my observations once it was all over. Depending on your topic, field or university, your mileage may vary. Feel free to add more tips in the comments.

1. Remember that your committee wants you to succeed
This is usually true. Your committee would not let you get to the stage of a public defense if they did not know that you would pass. They have seen drafts and given comments on your project, so they know it and know whether it is ready. They will ask you hard questions, but, in most cases, they won’t try to trap you in unanswerable questions.

2. Know that you know what you know
By the time you get to the defense, you will have been living with your project for years. You will have thought about it, written about it, discussed it, and worried about it on some level, pretty much constantly, for a long time. You know it inside and out.

3. Know when to shut up

My dissertation director’s wife, an attorney, told me this a few days before the defense, and I took it to heart. If you are nervous or aren’t sure of an answer, one of the worst things you can do is keep rambling, hoping to say the right things. You are more likely to start floundering or wander onto a topic that you are not prepared to discuss. Instead, shut up and see if they have follow-up questions.

4. Be aware that your committee is performing as well

Your committee is performing for the audience and for each other just as much as you are. Keep this in mind and it gets a little less intimidating.

5. Keep it simple

When summarizing your project, simply tell them what you did. Keep it simple. Here is my project. Here is the question I posed. Here is the research I did. (A faculty member gave this advice the day before)

6. Engage the question honestly

When I present at conferences, I sometimes adhere to Robert McNamara’s advice in Errol Morris’s documentary Fog of War: “Don’t answer the question they asked. Answer the question you wish they had asked.” Works for politicians and sometimes at conferences, but not in your defense. Your committee members are experts in their field(s), and have been through their own defenses as well as those of others, and they will smell any diversionary tactics. You are better off trying to engage the question as asked, and get as close as possible to an answer. Which leads us to the next two points.

7. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”

There is no shame in admitting you don’t know how to answer a question. A flat out “I don’t know” probably won’t work, but a stab at the question preceded by “I don’t know exactly how to answer that, but…” might work wonders. I often found myself towards the end of an answer that I was not sure I had answered to the questioner’s satisfaction, and I would stop and say “I don’t know if that answered your question…” which invited clarification or guidance (this goes with #3 – know when to shut up).

8. You can’t know everything — don’t expect to

You are the expert in the field of your dissertation, and it’s possible you know more about certain aspects of it than your committee, but you can’t possibly know everything. If questioning goes beyond your topic, admit that you are not familiar with whatever new topic has come up.

9. Get a good night’s sleep

Cramming won’t do you any good. Worrying won’t do you any good. Sleep, if you can get it, might do you good.

10. Have fun

I know this sounds weird. A faculty member told me this the day before, but it makes sense in light of some of these other points. You will pass. This is your chance to show that you are the expert your committee suspects you are, and there is no reason not to try to have fun with it. It is your big moment, after all.