Your phd examination – the best defense is a good offense

Previously, I’ve written a few blog entries giving research advice, like ‘So you want to write a research paper‘ and ‘What a PhD thesis is really about… really!‘ I thought I’d come up with a good title for this blog entry, but then I saw this.

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The PhD examination is certainly one of the most important moments in a researcher’s career. Its structure differs from country to country, institution to institution, and subject to subject. In some places, the PhD examination is open to the public, and failure is very rare. The student wouldn’t get to that stage unless the committee was confident that only minor issues remained. It might even be a bit of an event, with the committee wearing gowns and some of the student’s family attending.

But in most countries and most subjects it’s a bit more adversarial and passing is not guaranteed. It usually has a small committee. A public talk might be given, but the question and answer sessions are just the student and the committee.

There are lots and lots of guidance online about how to prepare for a PhD exam, and I’m not going to try to summarise them. Instead, I’ll give you some insights from my own experience, being examined, preparing others for a phd examination, or doing the examination myself. And having had experience with students who ranged from near flawless to, unfortunately, almost hopeless.

First off, congratulations for getting to this stage. That is already a major achievement. And keep in mind is that ultimately, it’s the document itself that is most important. If your thesis is strong, and you can explain it and discuss it well, then you’re already in a good position for the defense.

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I’ve noticed that there are questions which seem relevant for me to ask in most PhD examinations, and other examiners tend to ask similar ones. So you can certainly prepare for them. The first are the sort of general PhD study questions; what’s it all about? Here’s a few typical ones.

  • Summarise your key findings?
  • What is your main contribution?
  • What is novel/significant/new?
  • What is the impact? your contribution to the field?
  • What are the weakest parts of your thesis?
  • Knowing what you know now, what would you change?

If there were aspects of your PhD study that were unusual, they also might ask you just to clarify things. For instance, I once examined a PhD whose research had taken a very long time. I wanted to know if there was research that hadn’t made it into the thesis, or whether there were technical issues that made the research more challenging. So I asked a question something like, ‘When did you start your phd research? Were there technical reasons it took so long?’ As it turned out, it was due to a perfectly understandable change of supervisor.

And the examiners will want to know what you know about your subject area and the state of the art.

  • Who else is doing research in this subject?
  • What are the most significant results in the last few years?
  • How does your approach differ from others?
  • Please characterise and summarise other approaches to your topic.

Then there will be some questions specific to your field. These questions might touch on the examiners’ knowledge, or on specific aspects of the literature that may or may not have been mentioned in the thesis.

  • Explain, in your own words, the following concepts -.
  • Compare the – and -. What are the fundamental differences?
  • Is all of your work relevant to other — challenges?
  • Why use —? Are there other approaches?
  • How does your work connect to — and — research?

And many examiners will want to know about the impact of the research so far, e.g. publications or demonstrators. If you do have any demonstrations (audio samples, videos, software, interfaces), it’s a good idea to present them, or at least be ready to present them.

  • Are the community aware of your work? Are people using your software?
  • Do you have any publications?
  • Which (other) results could you publish, and where?
  • Have you attended or presented at any conferences? What did you learn from them?

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Then typically, the examiners start diving into the fine details of the thesis. So you should know where to find anything in your own document. Its also a good idea to reread your whole document a couple of days before the examination, so that its all fresh in your mind. It could have been a long time since you wrote it!

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And best of luck to you!

 

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