By Kate M. Daley
Now that the paperwork is done and I’ve had a chance to reflect, I’ve been asked to share a few thoughts about my recent PhD dissertation defence. So here are five things I learned:
- Those supportive, slightly clichéd things people told me were true. People who had been through the process responded to the news of my upcoming defence with kindness. Many told me that my committee wouldn’t let me to go to defence if I wasn’t ready. Others assured me that I would be the expert in the room on my particular project. Some suggested that the defence would be the most in-depth discussion I would ever have about my work with people who had read and considered it thoroughly. And while my nervousness made it hard for me to fully believe them at the time, they were right.
- The defence is not just about scholarly skills. It’s also about institutional management skills. I’ve always thought that one of the main things PhD programs teach, though we hardly ever acknowledge it, is how to navigate large institutional bureaucracies. Just like writing the dissertation and meeting my other degree requirements, staying informed about administrative processes and making sure I understood what was expected of me was an important part of the defence.
- I wasn’t preparing for a defence. I was preparing for my defence of my specific project. I was lucky to have a supervisor who saw this difference, and who understood me well enough to tailor his guidance based on who I am and how I respond to different kinds of challenges. I eventually realized that I wanted to defend the project without being defensive, and take my work seriously without taking myself too seriously. Everything I already knew about my project and the choices I had made in designing it helped me to do that.
- I mostly expected the questions they asked, but I was surprised by the ones they didn’t. There were some things I knew would be central topics, based on past discussions with my committee. But there were questions I thought were obvious that weren’t asked, and my behemoth of a literature review didn’t come up once. The truth is that two hours go by really quickly. After two rounds of questions, the examiners were satisfied and we had had a robust discussion of what I had done and why, and its potential relevance. But I was prepared for many more questions that didn’t come up. In retrospect, that’s probably a sign that I was ready to defend.
- The defence was nerve-wracking but rewarding. I’m a worrier, so I’d worried about my defence. In the end, it wasn’t perfect. But perfection isn’t the goal. As people had told me, my defence turned out to be a thoughtful and in-depth discussion of my work with a group of well-informed and thoughtful scholars. It’s an experience I’ll always value.
If you’re contemplating your upcoming defence, take heart: you’ll prepare, you’ll ask lots of questions ahead of time, and you’ll do well.
Kate M. Daley defended her PhD dissertation at York University in June 2017. Her dissertation explained politicians’ commitment to ‘smart growth’ planning policies in Waterloo Region, Ontario.