Prepping for the Defense

Thus far, this week has been a roller-coaster of emotions that could rival the Texas Giant. Calm confidence to nagging doubt to apathy to sheer terror… and back again, wheeee! Add this week to the previous four years of working at this degree, and now my husband could qualify for his own PhD in Spouse Assurance and Counseling.

In order to share this experience (whee!) and organize my own strategy, here’s a list of what I’m doing to prepare.

Reviewing the Material

Re-reading my own dissertation is, oddly, one of the hardest things I’m doing. Half the time I’m too nervous (or to attention-jumpy) to concentrate, which makes it go very slooowwwlyyy. Also, having lived with the first and second chapters in some form for about 9  months has made me completely and thoroughly sick of those chapters–I find my brain trying to edit for wordiness or simply to change up sentences I’ve read a fillion times. Well, Starr’s Brain, the time for edits is over–please concentrate on the content. Please. I’m begging you.

By contrast, reading chapters 4 (results) and 5 (discussion, implications, conclusions) is rewarding. It’s the outcome of my hard work–look, results! Results that mean things! Yay!

Prepping for the Q & A

Oh, the dreaded committee questions. You can’t predict what they’ll ask, but you can take a good stab at it (re-reading the dissertation and finding things that need editing certainly provides likely questions, arg). I also mined some great books on the dissertation process for common questions. And, as he did with my prep for the proposal defense, Alex will be asking some questions of his own after I practice my presentation for him.

Here are my key strategies for Q&A prep:

  • Write a list of common Qs and Qs you think are likely (your proposal defense might help you anticipate even more of these)
  • Write answersto each of these
    • keep them brief
    • stay focused on the main research questions–don’t bring up tangental data you gathered
    • don’t memorize the answers–use them as brain prompts
  • Have a partner ask you each of these Qs (preferably a day or more after you wrote the answers)
    • have them listen for brevity–you may be talking more than you need to
    • have them assess how confident you sound
    • have them throw out some unexpected questions, so you can practice answering calmly on the spur of the moment
  • When answering, mind these rules:
    • be calm, take the time you need to answer thoughtfully
    • be honest; if you don’t know an answer, say so (but calmly); if you forgot a reference, offer to look it up and send it to the committee after the defense
    • be respectful; don’t attack your committee or act defensively, even if you’re being baited or insulted (rare, but it can happen–though not with my awesome committee!)
    • it’s almost unheard-of to fail a defense based on your answer to a single question.
    • committee members ask Qs because they want to 1) get more information about something they didn’t understand, 2) make sure that you understand concepts in your dissertation, 3) judge your confidence as an independent researcher… and rarely 4) to show their own depth of knowledge.
    • take your time, and let committee members finish their questions (or lectures) before you continue. Why is this so important? Defenses typically aren’t scheduled for more than 2 hours, so the more you let them talk, the less talking you have to do. The less talking you do, the less likely you are to talk yourself into a problem. I repeat: LET THEM TALK.

The reason I practice answering questions isn’t to memorize my answers. It’s to practice how I answer: calmly, thoughtfully, confidently, without revealing any weaknesses in my study or my own knowledge. And it’s to get used to the idea of being on the uncomfortable end of the firing squad, which helps me in turn to remain calm. Yes, having my answers straight in my own mind ahead of time is important, but since I can’t predict what the committee will ask, it’s not the key preparation.

In fact, during my proposal defense there were few actual questions (shocker!) and more a litany of the tremendous amount of edits I needed to incorporate. (Ah, the fun of learning academic humility over and over again.) Rather than defending my document, my main job was to say, “Okay, let me be sure I’ve noted this correctly…” Since this is a dissertation defense, I expect there will be more defending and explaining my rationale, but just goes to show: you can’t ever predict the tone of your defense.

The Presentation

This is the least-anxious part for me, thanks to my academic librarian experience and having presented at umpteen conferences. Hooray for my day job paying off! I’m not saying it’s not going to be nerve-wracking, but at least PowerPoint slides and talking points are my comfort zone. I’ve got 20 minutes to focus primarily on my results and implications (since the committee got my intro, literature review, and method at the proposal defense).

I’ve got about 24 slides, and the first seven will be quick click-throughs to provide a review of the first three dissertation chapters, especially my method (and ensure that the audience attending my defense won’t be completely lost). Then I start with response rate and respondent demographics, and move on to the actual research question results from there. The hardest part is being concise.

I just finished my slides and speaking script yesterday, so today I’ll run through the presentation twice with Alex. First, I’ll wing it roughly without looking at the time (Alex will time me). This usually gives me a sense for what isn’t flowing well, and gives me a lot of edits to the speaking script. Alex also gives me feedback on my timing and mannerisms, and anything that didn’t flow or make sense for him. I tend to read a lot from my notes during the first read-through–my aim is to use the script as an occasional glancing reference for the actual presentation.

I give myself plenty of time between the first and second run-throughs. Alex will ask me the list of questions in the meantime, and then I’ll take a break (Big Bang Theory, anyone?). By the second proposal run-through, I felt confident. Since I have an extra day to prep for the dissertation defense, though, I’ll probably run through it again on Thursday.

General Preparation

I’m defending at noon, and I’ll probably be too nervous to eat much, if anything. Alex and I will bring water bottles for during the defense, and a few protein bars to give me a boost either just before or just afterward. (Or while the committee deliberates my future behind closed doors, if my stomach can take it.)

I’ve already planned what I’m wearing (SUPER-IMPORTANT, at least for me, heh heh). I’ll try it on and coordinate all my jewelry either today or tomorrow, so I don’t have to think about these BIG FASHION DECISIONS on Friday morning. Yes, which shoes I wear is a huge deal–I want to wear something with a heel because I feel more confident when I feel, ahem, “tall.” (Yes, 5’3″ is tall for me–hey, if it’s a psychological boost I don’t fight it, I work it!) But then, comfort is important, too–I don’t want to be in pain or fidget during my 20-minute preso.

I’ll print my handouts (4 copies for committee members, 1 for me, and about 10 for my anticipated audience) either this afternoon or tomorrow morning. I’m doing 2 slides per handout page, printing front and back (black and white), and adding a page that defines the 6 “preparation methods” I surveyed on, and another page listing the theoretical construct for my study. My goal is to make it easy for my committee to refer to key pieces of information on my study.

For myself, I’m also printing:

  • a full copy of my dissertation (I debated using my iPad, but Technology Can And Will Fail in these crucial moments)
  • for the same reasoning: my presentation slides, one slide per page–I can present without power, if necessary!
  • table showing my research Qs, primary variables, and data analysis for each (a method cheat-sheet)

Aaaand I’m hoping there’s time Thursday for a detour to Party City to buy a glitzy fun tiara. I promised I’d wear something fun, ridiculous, and celebratory to all post-defense activities on Friday (heck, possibly for the next two months!), and a tiara was the resounding vote.

And now I need to get my currently-apathetic-self off of WordPress and run through that preso for the first time. *grumbles incoherently* 


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