4.2. How Do Doctoral Candidates Prepare for Their Defense?
In terms of preparation for the defense, the largest group (42.6% of participants) did not have any form of practice. About a third (33.7%) had a mock defense, and the remaining part (23.8%) had another type of practice for their defense. The vast majority (91.6%) of respondents did not attend a course to prepare for the defense. A small group (5.5%) of respondents attended a course about the defense itself and the remaining group of respondents (3.0%) received instruction as part of another PhD course.
The majority of respondents (77.2%) also did not read a book, chapter, blog post, or website in preparation for the defense. Of those (22.8%) who consulted written resources, 39 respondents specified the source they consulted. In order of frequency, these resources were websites, blogs, books, general resources, resources provided by the university, papers about the doctoral defense, and YouTube video content (recording of the defense and tips for the defense). Of those who consulted websites, most respondents mentioned that they used search terms in a search engine to find relevant websites and articles. Two resources that are mentioned in particular are the PhD viva
guide from NUI Galway [44
] as well as online discussions. For those who mentioned that they consulted blogs, the resources mentioned by the participants were: PhD Talk [45
], Patter [46
], Thesis Whisperer [47
], GradHacker [48
], The Professors is In [49
], and Viva
]. The book references listed were: How to get a PhD
], The A-Z of the PhD Trajectory
], How to Survive your PhD
], and How to survive your viva
An open-ended question (Q46) addressed the preparation for the defense, asking respondents to describe the actions they undertook to prepare for their defense. The most frequently mentioned category from the inductive thematic analysis of these answers is preparing the presentation for the defense, followed by reading the thesis. Respondents also mentioned practicing (through a mock defense, presentations for an audience, or other forms of practice) and preparing to answer questions that may come up. Respondents who practiced for the defense mentioned the mock defense, practicing in front of colleagues, peers, or the supervisor, as well as practicing for the defense. These actions are reflected by “Gave practice presentations to friends and colleagues who had already passed their defenses successfully
” and “Mock defense with my lab and with friends who had already defended
”. Others revisited the research, by addressing issues in the data analysis, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the thesis, developing a tree of theoretical concepts, reading literature, and reviewing the methodology and framework. A lower number of respondents mentioned the committee as part of the preparation, through meetings with committee members or by reading work by the committee members. The role of colleagues, professors, and the supervisor is reflected by mentions of getting advice and feedback from them, as well as having discussions with them in preparation of the defense. Respondents also mention practical issues in preparation, such as arranging the technology necessary for the defense, food and snacks, preparing clothes for the defense, and focusing on well-being through rest, relaxation, sports, and spiritual practices. Some respondents consider writing the thesis and the years of doing the research crucial to preparing for the defense, and others consider their previous publications (journal papers or conference papers that were presented orally) crucial for the preparation. Highlighting the main contribution of the thesis by emphasizing the novel findings of the work was also mentioned as a preparation step. Finally, a few respondents also attended defenses, did nothing to prepare for the defense, worked on their propositions, read blogs about the defense, or worked on improving their public speaking skills. With 385 tagged mentions for 171 responses, most respondents used strategies from various parent categories, as reflected by:
I went over all the main points in the dissertation and prepared an outline that also included charts, for example, detailing my innovations and contributions to the field chapter by chapter and then also for the theoretical mainframe I built a tree of concepts with my main theoretical contributions at the core, even if they were just disputing accepted views in the field, so giving it more of a critical weighting or expanding it into new scenarios and considerations. I also tried to incorporate all of the feedback that I had received from committee members at that time, even though I only had this feedback from 3 out of the 5 committee members.
Made presentation, showed supervisor who gave feedback, meeting with supervisor who told me what to expect, and how to deal with different types of typical questions, practiced presentation in front of some friends, looked through defense clothes with a friend.
Another open-ended question (Q64) addressed if respondents in hindsight would have prepared differently for the defense. Almost half of the respondents indicated they would have done nothing different, either because they felt well-prepared, or because of the unpredictability of the defense, as reflected by:
No, in the UK [the defense] is very much driven by the examiners so the experience can vary quite a lot depending on whom you get as examiner, whether is from the supervisor’s academic circle, etc., so it is difficult to anticipate.
The second most mentioned category includes the respondents who would have benefited from more preparation, by attending defenses, having more time to prepare, practice more or practice answering more questions, read more, or reflect more on the connection to other research. Some respondents indicated they would have gone into the defense with a different mindset, by being more confident, more relaxed, or treat the defense more like a job interview. Others indicate they would have presented their thesis differently: either by tailoring it more to the committee, or by focusing more on the broader picture. Some respondents would have wanted a different interaction with their committee by having a more (gender-)balanced committee or by consulting more with them, as reflected by:
I would have insisted on having feedback from all of the committee members before the defense so there wouldn’t be any surprises. I could have prepared better in advance if I had known all the criticism before, particularly the negative comments.
Some respondents would have wanted more support from their supervisor and university. Practical issues such as the technology, defense clothes, university bureaucracy, and time to schedule the defense were also mentioned as elements the respondents would like to see different. Those who mention the mock defense as something to change either would have benefited from a mock defense or having a mock defense that is more in line with the actual defense. Research and writing issues that ultimately influenced the defense, such as data analysis flows, approaching the entire doctorate differently, or having publications were also mentioned. Finally, a few respondents would have prepared less for the defense, would have asked for more feedback from peers or their supervisor, or mentioned that nowadays the defense would be different. In addition, some respondents mentioned the positive experience they had during their defense, whereas others flagged committee misconduct or lamented the negative experience they had. An example of a positive experience is:
Honestly, I would not. I surprised myself by how much in control I was and received a lot of praise for the elegance, clarity and accessibility of my talk. Overall, I felt that I was ready and despite the stress I truly enjoyed the chance to discuss my work with the public and the members of my committee.
An example of an unexpected negative experience is:
…/… I had had no reason to believe I would be asked to revise and resubmit until I was actually there.
4.3. Effectiveness of the Mock Defense
The mock defense has a positive impact on some elements of perception of the defense. The first aspect where having a mock defense has a statistically relevant influence (p
= 0.041) is the nervousness after the defense and before receiving the outcome. Those who had a mock defense are less nervous after the defense and before receiving the outcome (average = 3.22 on a 0–10) than those who had a practice presentation (average = 4.31) or no practice (average = 4.48). Nervousness before and during the defense itself is not related to having a mock defense. Figure 1
illustrates the influence of the type of practice on nervousness before, during, and after the defense. For the boxplots in this paper, the whiskers extend between the minimum and maximum datapoints not considered outliers, where the outliers are plotted individually using the “+” marker symbol. The box indicates the first to third quartile, the red line indicates the median, and the blue circle plots the average (mean) value of the data [36
Those who had a mock defense rate the overall value of the defense higher (average = 8.01 on a 0–10 scale of overall value of the defense) than those who had a different form of practice (average = 7.17) or no practice (average = 7.20) (p
= 0.051). Figure 2
illustrates this observation.
In terms of the relation between the type of practice and committee fairness and suitability, we can observe differences across the categories, as shown in Table 3
, although only for committee fairness, a statistically significant relation (p
= 0.05) exists. For those who had a mock defense, a larger percentage of respondents (91.0%) considered their committee fair than for those who had another form of practice (87.5%) or no practice (76.5%). Similarly, we can observe in Table 3
a link between committee suitability and the categories of practice before the defense. A larger percentage of respondents who had a mock defense (82.4%) considered their committee suitable than those who had another form of practice (77.1%) or no practice (79.1%). Combining the observations on committee fairness and suitability, we see for both categories a positive effect for those who had a mock defense.
When it comes to the long-term impact of the defense on student perception in relation to the type of practice, we can observe marked differences between those who had some form of practice (mock defense or other) and those who did not have a practice in advance (see Table 4
), although no statistically significant differences between the categories resulted from the statistical test. In particular, a larger percentage of those who had practice (60.3% for those with a mock defense and 68.8% for those with other practice) felt that the defense increased their perception of their academic competence than for those who did not have practice (47.7%). Similarly, a larger percentage of respondents who practiced (35.3% of those who had a mock defense and 35.4% of those who had other practice) report that the defense increased their desire to continue to work in the sphere of their PhD research than those who did not have practice (26.7%). A larger percentage of respondents who practiced (33.8% of those who had a mock defense and 35.4% of those with other practice) perceived that the defense increased their desire to work in academia, as compared to those who did not practice (19.8%). Finally, a larger percentage of those who practiced (44.1% of those with a mock defense and 43.8% of those without practice) perceived that the defense increased their perceived publishability of their research, as compared to those who did not practice (31.4%).
There is a weak relation (p = 0.068) between the enjoyment of the defense and the type of practice. Those who had a mock defense enjoyed their defense more (average = 7.22 on a 0–10 scale) than those who had another form of practice (average = 6.55) or no practice (average = 6.20).
On the other hand, I found no statistically significant relation between the mock defense and the following aspects of defense outcome and perception: the outcome of the defense (passed, minor revisions, or major revisions), perceived importance of the defense, perceived difficulty of the defense, and perceived purpose of the defense.
Bringing together the results of the influence of different categories of practice before the defense on the perception of the students, I conclude that having a mock defense has a moderately positive impact on the perception of doctoral candidates during the defense and long term. From the thematic analysis of the open-ended question on what candidates would have done differently in hindsight, we can also see that some would have wanted their mock defense to be more in line with the real defense. In the presented analysis, I could not distinguish between what candidates considered a satisfactory mock defense versus one that was not properly organized. As such, it is important to stress that for the mock defense to be effective, it has to be executed with care.
4.4. Effectiveness of Preparatory Courses
There is a statistically significant relation between the categories of preparatory courses and perceived importance of the defense (p
= 0.0178). Those who took a course about the defense perceived the defense as more important (average = 9.45 on a 0–10 scale of perceived importance) than those who prepared with a general PhD course (mean = 7.50) or those who did not take a course (mean = 7.35); see Figure 3
Those who took a preparatory course for the defense perceived the defense as more serious (mean = 8.09 for those who took a course about the defense, and mean = 7.33 for those who took it as part of a general PhD course) than those who did not (mean = 6.23), and this relationship is significant (p
= 0.0343). This observation is also reflected by the boxplot in Figure 3
b. Those who took a preparatory course are thus better aware of the seriousness of the defense, and perhaps less likely to let down their intellectual guard.
When exploring the effectiveness of a preparatory course, the geographic breakdown becomes important. Table 5
shows that it is relatively more common to take a preparatory course in the United Kingdom, where the viva
determines the revisions of the thesis and where major revisions are relatively more common, than in other countries. This observation may explain the link between a preparatory course and the perceived importance of the defense (Figure 3
a): relatively more respondents from the UK participated in a preparatory course, and in the UK the format is such that the defense is crucial in determining the extent of revisions and thus evaluation of the thesis. On the other hand, none of the 32 participants from the Netherlands participated in a course about the defense. In the Netherlands, the thesis is approved by the committee and printed prior to the defense, and failing the defense becomes almost impossible.
In terms of the perceived purpose of the defense, Table 6
shows the results by category of preparatory course. Percentagewise, more participants who took a course about the defense (44.0%) perceived its purpose as that of an examination as compared to those who took it as part of another PhD course (15.8%) and those who did not take a preparatory course (29.3%). At the same time, percentagewise less participants who took a course about the defense in preparation perceived it as a ceremony (8.0%) or rite of passage (12.0%) than those who took it as part of another PhD course (ceremony = 21.1% and rite of passage = 21.1%) and those who did not take a course (ceremony = 16.1%, rite of passage = 19.9%). This observation can be linked to the defense format and country of the defense, with percentagewise more participants from the UK taking a preparatory course. Since in the UK the thesis is finalized only after the defense, and the defense involves committee members who are called examiners, the defense may have felt more like an examination for a relatively larger share of this group of respondents.
In terms of the long-term impact of the defense (Table 7
), the influence of the different categories of preparatory courses shows a mixed picture, and none of the categories resulted in a statistically significant relation. Relatively more respondents who took a defense course (27.3%) report that the defense decreased the perception of their academic competence than those who took it as part of another PhD course (0.0%) or those who did not take a course (8.1%). When it comes to the desire to continue to work in the sphere of the PhD research, more participants who took a course about the defense (45.5%) report an increase in this desire as compared to those who took it as part of another PhD course (33.3%) and those who did not take a preparatory course (30.8%). Yet, at the same time, more participants who prepared with a module as part of another PhD course report a decrease in the desire to continue to work in the sphere of their PhD research (33.3%) than those who took a course about the defense itself (18.2%) and those who took no course (6.5%).
For the majority of participants, regardless of the category of preparatory course, the defense did not influence their desire to work in academia. Those who took a module as part of another PhD course about the defense report a larger percentage of those whose desire to work in academia decreased due to the defense (16.7%) than those who took a defense course (9.1%) and those who took no course (9.2%). The relation between a preparatory defense course and the perceived publishability of the research is not clear. On the one hand, a larger percentage of those who took a course about the defense perceive that the defense increased the perceived publishability of their research (45.5%) than those who took a module in another PhD course (33.3%) and those who did not take a course (38.4%). Yet, at the same time, a larger percentage of those who took a module in another PhD course (33.3%) report a decrease in the perceived publishability of their research as a result of the defense than those who took a defense course (18.2%) and those who did not take a preparatory course (7.6%).
A preparation course about the defense or as part of a larger course about the PhD does not impact the following categories that were studied: the outcome of the defense, the duration of the defense, nervousness before, during, and after the defense, perceived difficulty of the defense, overall value of the defense, and committee fairness and suitability.
Before drawing conclusions from these results, it is important to remark the low number of participants who took a course about the defense: 11 participants took a course about the defense itself and 6 respondents took it as part of another PhD course. The vast majority of respondents (91.6%) did not attend a course to prepare for the defense.
In conclusion, there is no clear positive influence of taking a course on the sentiments during the defense and the long-term impact. However, there are some indications that preparing doctoral candidates for the defense with a course can be positive.
4.5. Effectiveness of Reading about the Defense
There is a statistically significant relation between preparing for the defense by reading and the outcome of the defense (p
= 9.87 × 10−4
using a Wilcoxon rank sum test). Surprisingly, however, the results show that a larger percentage of those who did not read about the defense as part of their preparation (74.4%) passed than those who did read (47.8%). This observation can be linked again to the defense format and country (Table 8
), and we see that in the UK, where corrections are more common because of the defense format, reading about the defense is more common than in other countries. At the same time, respondents from the Netherlands, where the thesis is approved by the committee and printed before the defense, are less likely to read about the defense as a preparatory step.
When it comes to the perceived importance of the defense, we can find that there is a weak correlation (p
= 0.0727) with preparatory reading. Those who prepared by reading rated the perceived importance of the defense higher (average = 8.20 on 0–10 scale of importance) than those who did not (average = 7.25); see Figure 4
. A potential explanation for this observation is that those who read about the defense in preparation understood better the weight and importance of the event.
Reading about the defense is not related to: the duration of the defense, nervousness before, during, and after the defense, enjoyment of the defense, perceived seriousness, perceived formality, perceived difficulty, and the overall value of the defense. Moreover, there is no link between reading about the defense and perceived committee fairness and suitability, perceived purpose of the defense, and long-term impact of the defense.
In conclusion, these analyses show that the influence of reading about the defense as part of the preparation does not impact student perception.