Preparing for Your Oral Defense

by Tom Green

Examples of Common Questions

1. If you had five years and $5 million, how would you improve this project? In other words, what are the methodological limitations in this study and how would you correct them given basically unlimited time and money?

2. It’s important that you are able to explain the meaning of every number and word and statistical test in your Results Chapter tables and narrative. Also, be able to find those numbers easily on your statistical software printout should a question be asked.

3. Please discuss the findings and implications of this study in light of the training that you received in other courses in your major.

4. What did you like best and least about this study?

5. What did you learn from this project?

6. How would you interpret these findings in light of the _______ Theory of ________? In other words, be able to interpret your findings based on any of the authors that you mentioned in your Literature Review.

7. Please discuss how your findings fit or don’t fit with your theoretical framework.

8. What government policy recommendations might you make?

9. What recommendations and implications are there for practitioners in your discipline?

10. What recommendations do you have for future research?

11. What questions do you have for the committee? (Know the content expertise for committee members and be ready to ask them for their opinion about the findings in light of that expertise. However, always remember to ask a question that they can answer easily so they will shine and sound brilliant in front of their peers!).

12. Who are some of the major writers in your field who would agree or disagree with your conclusions/recommendations?

13. Are there any closing comments you would like to make? (Mention how much you learned and find at least one or two things to thank each committee member about).

Other Helpful Preparation Tips

1. If possible, attend a few Final Orals presentations before your own to get a feel for the process. It’s even better if the candidate you watch has the same advisor as you.

2. Ask your advisor about the format of the Final Orals Defense. Often the candidate presents their findings for about 30-minutes and then the committee asks questions.

3. Ask your advisor if there are any special arrangements or formats or traditions that they or your department likes to follow in setting up the presentation. Often, your department has already prepared a checklist or list of helpful suggestions.

4. Ask your advisor if you need to make a formal PowerPoint presentation or would they be happy if you merely distributed paper copies of the presentation.

5. If not given a presentation format, consider this simple 30-minute approach: spend five minutes summarizing each of the first three chapters: Introduction, Literature Review and Methods. Spend the remaining time presenting your findings in this format: state your research question/hypothesis, what you found and then what you conclude/recommend.

6. Often, the candidate presents their study and then the advisor asks the first few questions. Ask your advisor in advance what their first few questions will be so that you can prepare good answers and then have more confidence with the other questions.

7. Contact each committee member before the Final Orals and ask them for the types of questions that they or other committee members are typically going to ask.

8. If possible, practice your presentation enough times (maybe even 5-10 times) so you feel confident with your material. Ask friends to watch you practice and give feedback.

9. Realize that it’s okay to say, “You know, that’s a great question! I haven’t thought about that. Would anyone else like to address that question?  (Of course, don’t use that response too often!). Expect a few questions that you won’t be able to answer.

10. Find out what the “pass-rate” is at your school. At most schools, the pass-rate is 100% because your committee won’t let you schedule the Defense until your dissertation is good enough. What often happens is that the committee gives you a passing grade but asks that your advisor work with you on a set of revisions. If that happens, consider your Final Orals to be a success. An old adage from airplane pilots fits here: “any landing that you can walk away from is a good landing!  Your Final Orals doesn’t have to be perfect; it only needs to be good enough for you to pass and then eventually graduate.

11. Determine the overall tone of the Final Orals Defense in your department. In many schools, family members attend and the tone is celebratory in nature. In other departments, the Final Orals is an actual exam and the tone can be adversarial. It’s good to know this before you get there and prepare accordingly.

12. Remember to get enough sleep and exercise in the weeks leading up to the Defense.

13. Realize that you know your specific study better than any of your committee members. That is a clear advantage for you during the question and answer section.

14. Realize that, in most cases, your committee wants you to do well because a failure at the Final Orals Defense reflects poorly on their ability to mentor students.

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