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 defense is a time when they need to think a little bit “outside the box.”


Review the criteria criteria and guidelines for doctoral oral defences on the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies website

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).


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

Defence committee members will raise questions from various perspectives (Chen, 2014; Trafford, 2003). Understanding the committee members’ backgrounds can help the student anticipate these perspectives. Discussion of the originality, significance, quality and limitations of the research commonly arises during the defense.


Have a rehearsal that includes a question period

Rehearsal is an invaluable experience for students who are preparing for the oral defense. Practicing the questions below can help prepare for the question period following the oral presentation: 

  • 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 generalizable 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 defense?

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.

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. Participants reported 1-5 difficult questions asked at each of their defences. A main factor in the difficulty level was that questions were asked from the examiner's perspectives, and stemmed from disciplines, paradigms, or frameworks that were less familiar to the candidate (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?



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.

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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