Column Steven: 7 Tips for the academic purgatory

Students wanting to graduate are required first to defend their thesis. Steven has tips.
Steven Snijders

In my case, the day you knew would come fell on a sunny day at the end of May. And you, too, will have to face it at some point. At least if you are a student wishing to graduate. I am referring to the academic purgatory: the thesis defence. For just under an hour, a so-called second examiner asks all manner of critical questions about your thesis. ‘I’m here for the nasty questions’, mine said jokingly. At least, I hoped it was a joke.

On my way to the defence, I felt like a lamb being dragged to the slaughterhouse

In his recent podcast,  Maarten van Rossum called the (PhD-)defence an ‘amusing day’. ‘You are apprehensive, but once it’s over, you want to do it again’, he said. But everyone has 20/20 vision in hindsight. On my way to the defence, I felt like a lamb being dragged to the slaughterhouse.

Having obtained a nine out of ten for my defence, I feel confident in providing some tips:

  1. A defence can be easily prepared. Consider how you may respond to critical questions. Revisit the discussions you had with your supervisor to critically examine your work. You may want to plan a meeting with your supervisor before the defence to discuss your defence strategy and identify improvement points.
  2. Persist in referring to facts. The second reader will always have more limited knowledge of the facts than you, and repetition is permitted. They may even have skipped parts of the thesis when reading it. Make sure you have the knowledge readily available, citing numbers and quotes.
  3. Admit to any limitations your research may have. Nothing in this world is perfect, and that is not an issue as long as you are aware of the fact. Summarise with conclusions that are supported by your research or with facts that substantiate your choices.
  4. Cat got your tongue? Reply with ‘good question’, and repeat the question. An age-old teacher’s trick to stall. And, you may remain silent for a moment to think. Don’t panic. Trust in your ability to improvise. You are now an expert in this field.
  5. Do not hide behind your supervisor’s advice. The choices are ultimately yours.
  6. Test the audio a day ahead of time to familiarise yourself with talking through a microphone. That will help you feel more comfortable and confident.
  7. Nervous? No problem. But rapid breathing and sweaty palms are residual evolutionary effects that help you defend yourself in life-threatening situations but are not at all useful when defending your thesis. Try to relax. Nothing real can happen. To the best of my knowledge, examiners don’t generally pull out weapons (disclaimer: N=1).

Steven (25) is doing a Master’s degree in Economics and Policy and enjoys hitting the squash court. He is always up for a game of squash and a good conversation. You can email him here.

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