Dissertation Defense | Strategies & Tips

What goes into a dissertation defense and how can students prepare for a defense? Read all about the dissertation process in this handy guide.
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Introduction
  2. The doctoral program
  3. The dissertation stage
  4. What is a dissertation defense?
  5. What is the structure of a dissertation defense?
  6. Preparation for your dissertation defense
  7. What happens after you defend your dissertation?


The dissertation is the centerpiece of a graduate student's career at the doctoral level. It is a demonstration of a doctoral student's ability to conduct and present research with the skills necessary to contribute to scientific knowledge. As a result, the dissertation defense (sometimes called a thesis defense in non-American contexts) is the main opportunity for doctoral students to demonstrate they can contribute to scholarly discussion.

Many graduate students think of the dissertation defense as a final examination or a job interview. It is often a key final step to complete the doctoral degree.

The dissertation defense is the culmination of a doctoral research agenda.

The doctoral program

Graduate studies are the venue in which students build expertise in a particular field and focus area. There are different kinds of graduate degrees, but what separates the doctoral journey from all others at this level is one's ability to generate or discover new knowledge through research. Mastery of trivia or encyclopedic knowledge is far less important to doctoral studies than a systematic organization of that knowledge through established research methodologies.

Requirements for a doctoral degree will vary depending on the institution and the program and may include coursework, comprehensive examinations, research experience, and an established record of research publication. In most cases, however, graduate students complete a doctoral degree when they successfully defend their dissertation.

The dissertation stage

The culmination of a doctoral program is the graduate student's demonstration of their abilities to conduct and present research in academic work. Not only must students show their understanding of theories, methods, and argumentation necessary for contributing to scientific knowledge, they must also navigate the intricacies inherent to academic institutions in a way that shows that they can cohesively work with and engage scholars.

The dissertation represents this understanding and mastery of skills necessary to work in established academic contexts. The research in a dissertation is deemed credible and worthy of being considered scientific knowledge when a university approves it and adds it to its repository, which is made available to all of its members so they can, in turn, conduct research and generate knowledge. However, this approval comes after a lengthy process that involves assembling members of the academic community together to review and develop research.

To be sure, the main objective of dissertation research is to present new knowledge, but the manner in which students conduct that research should also illustrate their understanding of how to generate insights rigorously, ethically, and in collaboration with others. As a result, doctoral programs, while varying with each other on some level, share a number of core characteristics outlining a long-established process of facilitating dissertation research.

Dissertation committee

A dissertation requires an audience of knowledgeable academic scholars who can comment on and critique the research. A committee made up of faculty members internal or external to the student's university fulfills this role by guiding the research, providing feedback, and asking questions about the resulting dissertation. Is the research that the student has produced "state of the art"? Does it meet reasonable standards of research rigor and transparency? Will the research make a valuable contribution to future academic discussions or practical developments outside of the academy?

It's the job of dissertation committee members to help develop and critique the research. Through this process, graduate students can refine their research design and attain guidance on key theories and methodologies. In turn, committee members gain insight from fresh perspectives on the graduate student's research.

The main committee member is your dissertation chair, which might be your supervisor or a committee member who is most knowledgeable about the research you want to conduct for your dissertation. Beyond that, a good committee member is an established scholar who can provide useful insight about the research context, the issues or theories currently being discussed within the research context, and the methods used to further develop those theories.

Oftentimes, students rely on a faculty member whose classes they have taken to serve as committee members. Students might also identify potential external committee members in academic conferences or by asking for recommendations from their professors.

The role of the dissertation chair is to guide your dissertation research and defense process. Photo by John Schnobrich.

Dissertation proposal

Designing a robust and rigorous study often requires discussion among colleagues within academia so that research methods can be refined before all the data is collected and analyzed.

The proposal stage gives doctoral students a chance to gather preliminary feedback on their prospective research as well as an opportunity to practice their ability to defend their expertise in their chosen field and focus area. At the dissertation level, this aspect of an academic career is represented by the proposal.

The dissertation committee approves the study design as an indication that the dissertation research has potential. Think of the writing and presentation of the dissertation proposal as a practice run for the eventual defense, while the substance of the proposal, in many cases, becomes part of the final dissertation as it details the underlying theories and methodology for the study.

Dissertation research

While the proposal lays out the research design, the study itself is where you will collect and analyze all the data necessary for the findings and discussion sections of your dissertation. Needless to say, the theoretical developments and actionable insights will come from this part of the dissertation process.

What is a dissertation defense?

The oral defense of your dissertation synthesizes every step of the research process you have undertaken for your research project. It's best to look at it like an opportunity to show off your expertise about the research in your field and, more importantly, your methodological process for developing your original research.

What is the role of a defense?

The defense is the main forum in which you share your research with the larger academic community. Some think of it like a job interview or a test where the committee members assess the worthiness of the research and the student who conducted it. Others consider a defense to be more of a coming out party, a critical event where the student is elevated from a novice scholar to an established expert in their chosen research field.

However it is interpreted, the dissertation defense is a critical event in a graduate student's career. In a successful defense, the doctoral candidate is no longer a newcomer but a scholar who understands the intricacies of academic research and can contribute to it in a substantive manner.

Is a dissertation defense just a formality?

If you are well-prepared and your research is robust and rigorous, you should have no problems passing your oral defense. That said, it is by no means "just" a formality. A graduate student who wants to demonstrate expertise should be prepared enough to anticipate and answer questions from the committee that might otherwise stump or confuse a layperson.

Significant planning is required for successfully defending a dissertation. Photo by ThisIsEngineering RAEng.

What is the structure of a dissertation defense?

While defenses will differ depending by program and institution, there are a couple of common elements.

First, the doctoral candidate presents their research in a short presentation or lecture. While your committee is already familiar with your research, many defenses are open to the entire academic community who may be interested in your field but may not have the necessary context to understand your research. As a result, this presentation is vital to providing the fundamental knowledge necessary for later discussion.

That discussion, mainly moderated by your dissertation chair and involving all committee members, serves as the central portion of the defense. Committee members will direct questions to you to interrogate your research, but they will also discuss the research amongst themselves to build their own understanding of the key theories and insights.

In some programs, the audience will also have an opportunity to pose questions to the candidate toward the end of the defense. The dissertation committee wants to know if you can engage with outsiders who are less familiar with your research field. This part of the defense is a test of your ability to share scientific knowledge with the greater academic community.

A dissertation defense requires thorough engagement with other scholars. Photo by Sarah Elizabeth.

Preparation for your dissertation defense

When you get to this stage of the process, most of the preparation for your defense is already complete. That said, the defense is its own event as it is the sole opportunity for the dissertation committee to determine if your research is state of the art and advances scientific knowledge.

In many cases, a dissertation defense can last about two hours and typically follows a set order. It's important to know how to prepare for each part of a defense.

Preparing your dissertation

At this point, the dissertation should be as close to polished as you can make it, but keep in mind you may still receive substantive feedback from your committee members. With the exception of your dissertation chair, members of your committee likely will not deeply engage your research until the oral defense itself. Even so, you still need to present as complete a study as possible during your defense. The key to preparation is to be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of every step of the research process, from research design to how you contribute novel and interesting insights to your field. Successfully defending a dissertation means having a thorough understanding of every major aspect of your study and the surrounding scholarship.

A successful thesis defense requires as polished a written study as possible. Photo by Aaron Burden.

Presenting your dissertation

The dissertation defense typically begins with the student presenting themselves and their research. In many cases, this presentation is similar to those found at conferences or workshops, where the presenter needs to demonstrate that they can showcase their research in a succinct and accessible manner. After all, the audience at a defense will often include members of the academic community who may have a general interest in the research but not a deep familiarity with the specifics of the research.

The presentation itself should be detailed enough to lay out the most important points of the research but within a reasonable amount of time. This presentation lays the groundwork for the ensuing discussion with the rest of the academic community. The dissertation committee or program will often prescribe a set time limit for this presentation; it would be a mistake not to consider this time limit when making your presentation. An overly lengthy presentation or a presenter who meanders with no clear direction will be less persuasive and will not garner the interest of the audience. More importantly, successful time management during the presentation leaves more time for your committee to more thoroughly engage with the research through questions and answers.

A dissertation defense begins with the student presenting their research to the greater academic community. Photo by Sigmund.

Fielding questions asked

Dissertation defense questions make up the primary part of the discussion. This is the main opportunity for members of your committee to point out the novel aspects of your research as well as critique any weak points that should be addressed in revisions to your dissertation.

Ultimately, a successful defense will result in lively discussion among dissertation committee members. A dissertation committee will often look highly on research that engages their thinking and expertise, meaning that novel insights will prove incredibly valuable to a defense.

You may get a question from a committee member to which you may not readily have an answer. After all, it's impossible to anticipate every possible question posed within two hours of scholarly discussion. In the case where a question is truly outside of your knowledge, it's important to acknowledge this and at least explain your thinking about how you would address the question to get a meaningful answer. In other words, it's not always about giving the "correct" answer to all questions asked but demonstrating your ability to reflect and engage in scholarly discussion around your research.

A successful defense requires answering questions that your committee will have about your research. Photo by Headway.

What happens after you defend your dissertation?

Keep in mind that the defense itself is not the end of the doctoral journey. More often than not, the dissertation committee will accept the dissertation on the condition that revisions will be made based on the committee members' feedback. Even the most successful defense will likely require the doctoral student to make revisions to their dissertation.

In many cases, revisions to the dissertation can be more challenging than the dissertation defense itself. Up until this point, your advisor or dissertation chair was likely the main source of feedback on your dissertation research. After your defense, you will have gained a great deal of rich feedback that you can constructively build on to further hone your dissertation as you move forward in publishing and sharing your research.

Revisions are almost always a requirement after a dissertation defense. Photo by Amelia Bartlett.