Preparing for your Thesis – Dissertation or Capstone Defense

Be aware that the graduate dean is ultimately in charge of the graduate student, not the department chair or the dean of the college. The graduate dean is the final authority over the dissertation.  Some perceive this role as largely ceremonial, which they are disabused of the moment a graduate student petitions them because of trouble with a committee or an advisor. The graduate dean mediates problems of all kinds that arise from the relationship between the student and the advisor or committee members, and acts as the final authority over the quality of the dissertation.

The defense is the final step prior to award of the degree. Both the student and the advisor are part of the Defense because the advisor is considered to be the co-defendant. The advisor’s scholarship is reflected by the quality of a dissertation produced under their direction.  The quality of the dissertation may affect promotion or tenure of the advisor. This is often reflected in overly critical advisors who have job-related concerns based on the final product of the study – the dissertation.

Normally, if a student is invited to defend, it means the committee and the advisor intend to award the student the degree. Students who are deemed unworthy of a degree are discouraged long before any possibility of a Defense arises.
The Defense follows a predictable pattern. The first request is always “Tell us about yourself.” This is not an invitation to talk about one’s private life. It is an invitation to summarize one’s job history, why the relevant graduate program was entered, and why the student was interested in the topic of the dissertation. The next request will be “Tell us about your research project.” Some committees require a PowerPoint presentation; others want to be told without visual aids. Regardless, the presentation should be a 20- minute summary of every chapter of the dissertation beginning with the background of the problem and ending with the recommendations for further study.

Following the presentation, committee members will ask questions related to the study. A favorite subject of questions is statistical tests that were performed, if a quantitative study, or how interview questions were formulated if a qualitative study. Small word changes may be requested. At the end of the questions, the student will be excused from the room so the committee can “deliberate” the outcome. When the student is called back into the room, the degree is approved, after which, by custom, the student is honored with the title “Doctor.” Changes in the dissertation are left to the student to perform without further checking by the committee.  After the changes are made, the graduate reports to the graduate school editor with a copy of the dissertation. The graduate school editor will check the university required format and find any small errors in the text. When those errors are fixed, the dissertation is submitted to the graduate dean for the final signature.

Source: Barbara von Diether, EdD

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