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Quick Guide To Preparing For Your Thesis Defense

Some notes I wrote for a student on what you should know and how you should prepare for a thesis defense here at the U of Alberta.

  1. You will be asked to leave at the beginning and the end. Don’t worry if it takes us time to talk about your thesis. There is no relationship between time and quality.
  2. If the defense is online it might be useful to have a cell phone and give the number to the chair in case something freezes.
  3. Typically we do two rounds of questions starting from the most remote examiner to the closest (the supervisors.) In the first round everyone gets 10-15 minutes for sustained questioning. In the second we get less time and we can interrupt each other.
  4. One point of questions is to find the edges of your knowledge. You may be asked difficult or aggressive questions, don’t take them personally. Also, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.
  5. When answering the idea is NOT to run out the clock. Don’t run on and on. Rather, you want to answer efficiently so as to give time for more questions. That way the questioner is satisfied they have explored your understanding.
  6. I favour a breadth and depth style of answer where you answer by first giving an overview (breadth) and then go into depth for one case/example. Then you stop! You don’t go on and on with more examples of the point. Thus your answers take a form of “Generally …. (Breadth). For example … (Depth on ONE example.)” Think of it as a T where the horizontal is the breadth and the vertical is the depth.
  7. You will sometimes get questions of the sort “I think X, don’t you agree …” Don’t be afraid to disagree with examiners.
  8. I favour short Socratic questions that back you into a corner you don’t want to be in. Don’t be intimidated.
  9. It is often said that while a good defense can save a weak thesis, a weak defense won’t spoil a good thesis. So don’t worry that you could be found an imposter and failed despite how good the thesis is.
  10. No matter how good you are there are always typos so don’t sweat it if they are brought up.
  11. The best way to prepare is to get a good night’s sleep.
  12. Remember that your supervisors wouldn’t have let you defend if they didn’t think this was defendable.



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