It’s an interesting phrase: defending one’s thesis. It brings up images of medieval soldiers standing their ground, swords drawn and shields raised, images of concrete walls and barbed wire. Images of Alabama linebackers in streaky eye black.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Defending your thesis can be, dare we say it, fun. Because ultimately it’s a celebration of everything you’ve accomplished, with the people who have supported you from Day 1. It’s not designed to be inherently stressful – and the best way to keep it that way is to enter into it as stress-free as possible.
We recently sat down with history professor Laurence Hare to talk about the realities of the thesis defense. “It’s often a lot of fun,” he said, “especially when the student feels confident.” And he should know – he has literally written the book on research and thesis defense (available from Bloomsbury Academic in November 2019). Plus, Professor Hare has served on more than 50 thesis committees, and has been thesis director for 24 students, both at the University of Arkansas and elsewhere. (And in all his years of experience, he says, “I’ve never seen anyone crash and burn.” That’s good news, right?)
Here, we’ve compiled a list of the best tips, from Hare and other honors professors on campus, on how to successfully defend your thesis – no shield or shin guards required. (Blazer optional but recommended.)
1. Practice Makes Perfect
Our first tip is the simplest one: Be prepared. You’ve spent months and months working on this research, so you’re doubtless an expert by now. But don’t just let your ambient knowledge carry you through: Organize your information and know exactly what you’re going to say before you say it. Do your best to anticipate questions, and practice before you get in that room – the more your talk becomes second nature, the less likely your nerves will be able to insinuate themselves into the situation. But don’t just practice beforehand – practice with confidence. It sounds cliché, but keeping a positive attitude will go a long way toward success.
2. Dress the Part
“Dust off your business attire,” Hare says, “and wear the most comfortable dress shoes you own,” in case you’re stuck standing for a long period of time. He advises students to treat the defense like a job interview, so carry yourself with the same degree of professionalism as you would if you were trying to make a good impression on your future boss. This displays a certain level of pride in and respect for not only your work, but also your thesis committee’s time.
3. Relax…Your Committee WANTS you to succeed
“If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve done a good job on your research,” says Noah Pittman, assistant dean of enrollment in the Honors College. The fact that you’re defending at all means that your mentor is confident that you’re ready, so go into your defense knowing that they know you’re capable. And if they know that you know that they know you can do it…you can. Just the fact that these professors have dedicated so much time to your work indicates that what you did matters. And that’s an affirming thought.
4. Bring Something New to the Table
Kirstin Erickson, the honors director for Fulbright College, has this to say about giving your defense that extra kick: “Don’t just rehash your thesis!” Your committee is already familiar with your work, and they’ve already read your thesis – flesh out your defense by putting it into context, both academically and personally: What brought you to this topic? What further questions are raised by your research? “Think of your project as a story,” Hare suggests. Start at the beginning, with your initial interest in the subject. …But what if it’s not your research question? Simple. “Know why your professor started this project. This initial spark of curiosity is a great lead-in to a presentation.” And it’s always a great idea to conclude with what questions remain to be answered.
5. Have your Elevator Pitch Ready
In our college, students do poster presentations,” says Walton College professor John Delery, “so my advice is to have your elevator pitch ready. Reviewers have just a few seconds to talk to you.” Delery’s advice isn’t limited to his own college – whether you’re in Walton, Fulbright, or engineering, a pithy summary is key. “Be ready to answer the ‘So what?’ question,” Erickson advises. “Why is this research original? What gap is it filling in the literature?” This will immediately get your committee interested in your research and will be useful in the future whenever a brief summary of your research is required.
6. Don’t Be Afraid to Admit You Don’t Know.
Honesty is always the best policy, and your committee knows you can’t know everything. Instead of tripping your way through a fake answer to a real question, “ask clarification questions and enter into a dialogue” with committee members, Hare writes in his book. “As is the case for interviews, often the best sessions veer away from feeling like interrogations and become more like conversations.”
And whatever you do, just don’t get defensive.
P.S.: In your thesis defense, be sure to acknowledge any grants or financial assistance you’ve received to help with your project, such as a SURF grant, Honors College Research Grant, or grant from your department. This is common practice in the world of academic research and is an ethical (not to mention polite) consideration. Visit Credit your Grant for details on properly acknowledging grant support on posters, in presentations and (hopefully!) publications.