The oral defence

Prepare to address questions from various perspectives

Most will agree that doctoral candidates who have arrived at the oral defence are actually experts, albeit novice, on the topic of their research. Yet given the format of the public dissertation defence, students are expected to answer questions from those who look at their research from a range of perspectives. Therefore, the defence is a time when they need to think a little bit “outside the box.”

 

Think about the examination from the committee members’ points of view

Defence committee members will raise questions from various perspectives (Chen, 2014; Trafford, 2003), and being familiar with the committee members’ backgrounds can help the student anticipate these perspectives.

The following is how a candidate read his dissertation when preparing for the defence:

Mainly the thing that I have been doing is looking at [my dissertation] and trying to look at it critically from somebody else’s perspective and being like, you know, where I have been clear, where I haven’t been clear…. [By somebody else I refer to] somebody who is reading it who wasn’t there in the field with me doing my actual research…. If [this person] was reading this for the first time, what looks confusing, what doesn’t come across as very clear and making sure that that I feel comfortable … giving clarity and justification for statements that I have made or key theoretical issues that I have put forward.
(Social Sciences PhD student: McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)

This student, after her defence, provided advice to future students regarding answering questions in the defence:

I would say perhaps to think about what you think are the weaknesses of your research and how you would respond to challenges to those weaknesses. It can be hard to do if you don’t know the committee. But I knew [Professor X] was going to be on the committee, for example, and I know what [he] is interested in and I know that somebody like [him] would find that my study was missing certain things that he is interested in. So I had to think about how I respond to [his] questions. So when he asked me those questions, I knew those questions were coming. It doesn’t make them easy to answer but it means that you’ve sort of prepared yourself to be able to answer those types of questions.
(Social Sciences PhD student: McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)

Concentrate on the contribution and significance of the research

Discussion of the originality, significance, quality and limitations of the research and thesis commonly arises during the defence. Preparation for this can include reviewing definitions of these terms (such as how the Oxford Learning Institute defines originality, significance, and quality based on Lovitts (2007)) and considering what the weaker points of the thesis are.

This student revealed that one strategy that he used in his preparation was re-thinking the limitations and contributions of his research:

I am trying to…really get a sense on the limitations of studies as well as the contributions to knowledge. This is the part that I realized that I didn’t do as a good job in my dissertation – because you run out of energy at the end. You know, you do your literature review, your methodology, results and discussion and all until you are at the end you just sort of do the best you can, but I find that it would have been good to spend some more time in that. So I am trying to spend a little bit more time just making sure that I understand…what truly was the purpose of my study and how does it contribute to knowledge.
(Social Sciences PhD student: McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)

Have a rehearsal including a question period

Rehearsal is an invaluable experience for students who are preparing for the oral defence, as this student said:

My friends and my lab members were very helpful and [they] helped time me to make sure it finished within time and then also in terms of how to present it in a way that is easier for the audience. That’s why I used colours. I colour-coded my findings otherwise there were so many tables that one could get lost. … they also asked me questions to prepare me… to get into the mood.
(Social Sciences PhD student: McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)

Including a question period in the rehearsal can help anticipate and prepare for questions that may be asked, and to practise answering questions that may not have been anticipated. These twelve predictable questions (Trafford & Leshem, 2002, p. 41-46) can be used as the basis for an effective question period rehearsal.

  • Why did you choose this topic for your doctoral study?
  • How did you arrive at your conceptual framework?
  • How did you arrive at your research design?
  • How would you justify your choice of methodology?
  • Why did you decide to use XYZ as your main instrument?
  • How did you select your respondents/materials?
  • How did you arrive at your conceptual conclusions?
  • How generalisable are your findings – and why?
  • What is your contribution to knowledge?
  • What criticisms would you make of your thesis?
  • What are you going to do after you gain your doctorate?
  • Is there anything else that you would like to tell us about your thesis which you have not had the opportunity to tell us during the defence?

Attend at least one defence in your department or program

Attending others’ oral defences, especially those within a few weeks of your defence, is a great learning experience. They provide an opportunity to see what works well and implement that into your defence, learn from situations that did not go well, and get an idea of the types of questions that may be asked.

This student outlined the benefits of attending others’ defences:

I just felt that I needed that exposure, you know, I wanted to see what a defence looked like, I wanted to see if it was … great and if it wasn’t, what went wrong and why. And sometimes afterwards I would approach—I remember for one defence approaching [Prof. X] and saying "What did you think of that?" afterwards, because I just had a feeling this person just might not have passed. And he was very kind and he did tell me that what he saw what he was feeling. And I thought "This is all good information for me to have: why didn’t this quite work, what was wrong here, what was missing.
(Social Sciences PhD student: McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)

 

See the presenting at seminars and conferences page for more presentation tips.

How challenging should the defence be?

Research at McGill in which oral defences were observed and candidates were interviewed (Chen, 2012; Chen, 2014) indicated that surprisingly, some doctoral candidates expect and want to be challenged in their oral defences. Many, but not all, students feel that their defence was appropriately challenging.

 

This student, for example, felt disappointed when she found out that all questions in her defence were easy:

I didn’t feel at all that…people were trying to see if I understood or see if I knew what I was talking about. I think everybody was starting with the assumption that what they read they liked and then they just wanted vague questions about the field in general. …I think it was good that it was easy and that it is done but…I thought I could be more challenged. … I mean it is a PhD!
(Chen, 2012)

This is not a typical response, as all other participants in the same study reported 1-5 difficult questions asked at each of their defences. A main factor in the difficulty level was that the questions were asked from the different perspectives (e.g., disciplines, paradigms, or frameworks) of the examiners (Chen, 2014).

 

As a student

  • Do you expect and want to be challenged in your defence?
  • What types of questions would you find appropriately challenging?

 

As a supervisor or examiner

  • How challenging do you think a defence should be?
  • Do you ask questions with the intent of challenging the candidate?
  • What types of questions do you think provide an appropriate level of challenge?
  • How can you prepare a supervisee to expect some challenge during their defence?

Defences vary by country, institution and discipline

Despite many commonly known characteristics, the oral defence is a variable event in academia, which is significantly shaped by local cultures including the university, department, and discipline. Its purpose and importance relative to the written thesis are also viewed variably. Many academics believe the oral can be formative and celebratory, while students tend to conceive it as a test.

 

The format and conduct of the defence can be influenced by a variety of factors (Chen, 2014; Denicolo, 2003; Jackson & Tinkler, 2001; Tinkler & Jackson, 2000; Tinkler & Jackson, 2004; Trafford, 2003). It is important to note that much of the research on this topic has been conducted on the viva voce in the UK (e.g., Jackson & Tinkler, 2001; Trafford, 2003), but there has been research done on oral defences at McGill (Chen, 2014).

At McGill and most North American universities, the doctoral oral defence is a public event. In other countries (e.g., the United Kingdom), the viva voce is a private event.

Institutions all have criteria and guidelines with respect to:

  • who can be an examiner
  • how many oral defence committee members there will be
  • the definitions of the outcomes of the oral defence
  • what the role of the supervisor is at the oral defence
  • when the outcome and examiner reports are given to the candidate

At the departmental level, there may be discipline-specific norms with respect to the order of questions in the oral defence (e.g., external examiner’s questions first, or last).

To help you prepare your students for the defence, it will be relevant to talk to colleagues about their local experience (and equally, if you are to examine at another university you will need guidance about the particular expectations there).

In addition to variations in format and conduct, there are also differing perspectives of the purpose and importance of the oral defence (Denicolo, 2003; Jackson & Tinkler, 2001). Perceived purposes of the oral defence include (Carter, 2008; Denicolo, 2003; Jackson & Tinkler, 2001; Poole, 2015; Share, 2015; Tinkler & Jackson, 2004):

  • examination of the knowledge and skills of the candidate;
    • This tends to be the dominant perceived purpose for candidates.
    • Assessed abilities include:
      • knowledge and understanding of the literature
      • theories and methodologies
      • research skills
      • presentation and critical thinking skills
      • thinking under pressure
      • presenting oneself professionally
      • arguing and defending the work
  • authenticating that the research and writing of the thesis belongs to the candidate;
  • development of the candidate and the research work through formative comment and guidance;
    • This tends to be the dominant perceived purpose for supervisors and examiners.
  • discussion of issues with or questions about the written thesis;
  • confirmation of the examiners’ opinions on the thesis;
  • opportunity for the candidate to talk in depth about their work with the undivided attention of academics; and
  • officially transforming the candidate from a student to a scholar.

A common view of academics is that the defence is important, but is not usually a major factor in deciding the final outcome, except in borderline cases (Denicolo, 2003; Poole, 2015; Share, 2015).

 

References

Carter, S. (2008). Examining the doctoral thesis: a discussion, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 45(4), 365-374.

Chen, S. (2012). Making sense of the public PhD dissertation defence: A qualitative multi-case study of education students’ experiences. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Chen, S. (2014). Balancing knowing and not-knowing: An exploration of doctoral candidates’ performance of researcher selves in the dissertation defence. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(3), 364-379.

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

Jackson, C., & Tinkler, P. (2001). Back to basics: A consideration of the purposes of the PhD viva.Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 26(4), 355-366.

Lovitts, B. (2007). Making the implicit explicit: Creating performance expectations for the dissertation. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Poole, B. (2015). Examining the doctoral viva: Perspectives from a sample of UK academics. London Review of Education, 13(3), 92-105.

Share, M. (2015). The PhD viva: A space for academic development. International Journal for Academic Development, 1-16. doi:10.1080/1360144X.2015.1095759

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. Buckingham: SRHE and 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.

Further Reading

Foote, A. L. (2015). Oral Exams: Preparing For and Passing Candidacy, Qualifying, and Graduate Defenses. Academic Press.

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.