What Family Wears To A Dissertation Defense

[Image by Flickr user 46137 and used under the Creative Commons license.]

In my program, we have two major milestones prior to the dissertation process. These  tasks require that we conduct original research that we must orally defend in front of a faculty committee. I just successfully came through those milestones (woot! bring on the diss!) and thought I would share the collective wisdom that was graciously shared with me as I prepared for my defenses.


  • Know it like your phone number.  If you are presenting your research, you are presenting new knowledge. That means you’ll have to have a good handle on all the previous knowledge that led up to your discovery. It’s easy to get tangled up in the concepts, names, and factoids you’ll need at the ready. I found it was easy to think of these things while wearing my comfy writing pants curled up on the couch, and a lot harder when facing down the sternest member of my committee. I used flashcards. I tried to anticipate what the committee would ask and practiced my answers aloud in the car, while doing the dishes, in the shower, and in line at the grocery store. This helped give me confidence and I believe increased my likelihood of actually remembering the things I knew when it came for my defense.
  • Realize what might be confusing to people who aren’t you. This is the thing I struggle with most. It’s all so clear in my head, especially after spending weeks, months, or years with an idea or concept.  Nonetheless, there are assumptions that we sometimes don’t realize we’ve made that can confuse our readers and/or listeners. Find a person outside your field, preferably not an academic, and try it out on him or her. If they understand it, you’ve got it. If not, there’s more work to be done.
  • Expect technology to be involved and expect it to fail. For my comps defense, my advisor had to be Skyped in. I did this on the same machine that was running my presentation. I had nightmares that something would go wrong and showed up insanely early to pace outside the room (which had a class in it, of course) until defense time , clicking through all the tech issues I might have to troubleshoot. In the end, nothing went wrong, but I was prepared to give the presentation without my slides and ready to use my cell phone as a backup to Skype. More and more issues require members of committees to attend virtually. And almost all presentations have accompanying slides these days. Just make sure that you can carry on without the slides, too. 
  • There are only three acceptable answers to questions. This advice was passed on to me from Dr. Cary Roseth, who tells it to all of his advisees (and anyone else nearby defending something, which is how I heard it). The three acceptable answers are as follows: “The research says,” “The theory says,” or “I don’t know, but…” and then you cite someone else. I realize that this advice is probably somewhat discipline specific, but I can imagine that avoiding saying “I think” with no basis in the literature is good advice for most.
  • Put your rockstar jacket on.  Why yes, I did just quote sage advice from the hit Nick Jr. show/band The Fresh Beat Band (the song “We’re Unstoppable” got me through my comprehensive exam process). Even though I am very outgoing and seemingly without pride or shame (I once recorded a video for my online course with lipstick all over my teeth to drive home a point about peer feedback), I get quite nervous before presentations. It’s just that they are so stiff and formal, with all kinds of rules etiquette I’m sure I will violate. I’ve found that the only way I can overcome this is by pretending to be someone else. I imagine that I am someone more accomplished, more confident, and generally more of a rockstar than I am, and just do what she would do. It’s the only thing I’ve found that consistently gets me through my performance anxiety.

I’m still pretty wet behind the ears and I imagine I will update this list as I take on the dissertation phase of my graduate student life. I’m hoping to take these lessons and make myself a better defender of my own work. I also have the completely selfish hope that our Gradhacker readers will chime in with more advice that I can take with me into dissertation-land.

What lessons have you learned through the process of defending your work? Share them in the comments!


Preparing for a PhD Defense

Table of Contents

Before Defense

Preparing to Start

Before you can start your thesis you must:

  • Complete all courses, exams, and research requirements
  • Meet with your advisory committee to ensure that everyone agrees that the work is ready to defend
  • Decide on a date for the defense
  • Inform your graduate administrator that you have started the process to prepare for your defense

Nominate a Faculty Member to Serve as Chair for Your Defense

A chair is appointed for each PhD oral defense to monitor and promote fairness and rigor in the conduct of the defense. To help eliminate pre-established judgments on the candidate’s work, the chair should be from a different program/department than the student. For more information about chair responsibilities, read the instructions for the chair.

You must identify a faculty member to serve as chair for your defense. The chair must be:

  • A current full-time faculty member at assistant professor rank or higher
  • Outside the department offering the degree program, or outside your advisor's department (interdisciplinary degree programs only)
  • Someone who has not had prior involvement in your research

The selection of the chair is subject to the approval of the department/program, the dean of graduate studies in Arts, Sciences and Engineering, and the University dean of graduate studies.

The chair must be physically present during the entire defense, including the public oral presentation (if applicable) and the questioning session. The chair is welcome to read and comment on the dissertation and/or the defense presentation, but this is not required. The chair does not need to be an expert in your research area.

It is your responsibility to get a copy of the final dissertation to the chair at least one week prior to the defense.

Selecting a Defense Date

You should begin scheduling the actual defense date three months in advance to ensure that your advisor, committee members, and chair are able to be present and that rooms are available on the date and time selected.  

Defenses can be held on any day the University’s Graduate Studies Office is open (not weekends, evenings, holidays, or the days between Christmas and New Year’s). Check the academic calendar for important dates and deadlines.

Use the PhD date calculator to determine the deadline dates for getting your paperwork to the Graduate Studies Office and department committee.

When all committee members and your chair agree to a specific date and time for the defense, inform your graduate administrator as soon as you possibly can, but no later than six weeks prior to your defense date. Your graduate administrator will advise you of any program-specific requirements for the defense as well as work with you to prepare for your thesis defense. They will also help you determine who will schedule the room for your thesis defense.

You should provide your committee members at least two weeks to read and comment on your dissertation before the date you need to register your dissertation.

Participating Via Video Conferencing

While you, your advisor, and the chair must all be physically present in the room for the defense, other committee members are allowed to participate in the defense remotely via Skype or other video conferencing technology so long as all committee members agree to the arrangement. This must also be approved by the AS&E dean of graduate studies and the University dean of graduate studies before the dissertation is registered for defense.

Someone other than you and your committee must handle the IT setup and be on standby for any problems. If anyone involved finds that remote participation is interfering with the defense, he or she can request that the defense be rescheduled.

International Students and Work Visas

We strongly recommend that international students meet with an International Services Office (ISO) representative as soon as permission to start writing is granted. The ISO will provide information on visa options, documentation, and timelines for applying for a visa for employment in the United States.

Registration Categories for Defense

You will register for one of the following categories while preparing your defense:

  • 999: Dissertation—Indicates the PhD student has completed all of the requirements for the degree except the dissertation and is in residenceas a full-time student
  • 995: Continuation of Enrollment—Indicates the PhD student has completed all of the requirements for the degree except the dissertation and is not in residenceas a full-time student

See the registration page for more information about these categories.

Dissertation Writing and Guidelines

The Preparing Your Thesis manual is a great resource to help you bring your dissertation up to the required standard of organization, appearance, and format for the University of Rochester. Before preparing the defense copy of your dissertation, check the contents of the manual carefully to help avoid mistakes that can be time-consuming and costly to correct.

Before beginning your dissertation, you should consult with your advisor for your department or program’s preferred style guide (APA, MLA, Chicago).

Including material produced by other authors in your dissertation can serve a legitimate research purpose, but you want to avoid copyright infringement in the process. For detailed instructions on avoiding copyright infringement, please see ProQuest’s Copyright Guide.

Preparing Your Dissertation for Defense

The University requires that you provide copies of the dissertation to your committee members and exam chair. You should check with your committee members to see if they prefer printed or electronic copies (or both). Printed copies do not need to be printed on heavyweight, expensive paper unless there is the need to do so for figures and images. 

Printing and binding a dissertation can be expensive. You can use the Copy Center or FedEx Office to print and bind your dissertation.

Registering Your Dissertation for the Final Oral Exam

In order to register your dissertation, you or your graduate administrator will need to create a record on the Graduate Studies PhD Completion website. This record will include:

  • Degree information
  • Past degrees
  • Contact information
  • The defense version of your dissertation as a PDF
  • Other relevant documents

The version of your dissertation attached to your online record is considered the registration copy.

When your PhD completion record is finalized, committee members will receive emails with links to access your record and approve your dissertation to progress to defense. You’ll need to provide copies of the dissertation identical to the registration copy to all members of your committee, including the chair, at least two weeks before the record is finalized. Everyone but the chair is required to comment or sign off on the dissertation before it is submitted.

There may be deadlines for registering your dissertation specific to your program. Consult with your graduate administrator to ascertain those deadlines and follow them carefully.

After all committee members have provided their approval, your thesis will be reviewed by your faculty director/department chair, the AS&E dean of dean of graduate studies, and the office of the University dean of graduate studies. When all of these officials have approved your committee and dissertation for defense, your dissertation is considered registered. You will be able to track these approvals in your online record and will receive a confirmation email when approvals are complete.

The Graduate Studies Office and the AS&E dean of graduate studies, as well as the University Graduate Studies Office, may make corrections to the PDF of your dissertation. This annotated copy of your dissertation, along with the original version, will be stored in the PhD completion website. You are not allow to distribute updated versions of your dissertation prior to the defense, but be sure to incorporate any corrections before uploading your final dissertation to ProQuest®. 

After the defense, if the committee has required major revisions to be approved by one or more of its members, it is your responsibility to provide them with the corrected final version for their approval.  They will be asked to submit written confirmation of that approval to the University Graduate Studies Office. Failure to do so could delay conferral of your degree.

After the defense, you will receive additional instructions by email for completion of all PhD degree requirements.

It is important to walk into the defense knowing that your committee wants you to pass. Even if criticism is harsh, it is meant to be constructive. The defense is not solely an opportunity for the committee to compliment and congratulate you for the work you have done. It is also meant to challenge you and force you to consider tough questions.

The Defense

Know the Rituals

The best way to prepare for your defense is to regularly attend the defenses of your colleagues throughout your graduate program, not just several weeks prior to your own defense.

You can also talk to people in your department who already defended to find out what their defenses were like. You should also speak with your advisor to get a sense of his/her specific expectations of a defense.

Guidelines for Presentations

Use PowerPoint or Other Software to Create Slides

You should prepare a presentation of the research that comprises the thesis. Your slides should encapsulate the work and focus on its most salient contributions. In preparing, ask yourself these questions: “What do I want people to know about my thesis? What is the most important information that I can present and talk about?”

Here are some basic tips:

  • Use text large enough to be read by the audience (especially text from figures)
  • Ensure graphics and tables are clear
  • Don’t clutter your slides—if necessary, have things come up on mouse clicks
  • Use spell check and proofread your slides
  • Practice your presentation with your peers
  • Work on pronunciation, if required
  • Time your presentation to ensure it will fit the allotted time while allowing time for questions

Public Lecture

If your defense includes a public lecture, we recommended that you do a trial run a day or two before in the room that has been booked for your lecture. This will allow you to familiarize yourself with the space and the equipment and to address any problems that arise during the trial run. 

Plan your public lecture to allow enough time for questions. Present enough information so that the audience understands what you did, why you did it, what the implications are, and what your suggestions are for future research.

Friends and family are welcome to attend your public lecture. Faculty and students in the audience are given the opportunity to ask questions.

Dress Professionally

Plan to dress professionally for the defense in the same way you would if presenting a paper at a conference or for a job interview. You will be standing for a long time on the day of your defense. You might want to keep this in mind when selecting the shoes you will wear for your defense.

Items to Bring to the Defense

Essentials for your public lecture include:

  • Your presentation
  • A laser pointer
  • A copy of your dissertation
  • A pen or pencil
  • A note pad
  • A bottle of water 

The Closed Examination

You will be asked to leave the room while your committee reviews your program of study, and decides whether:

  • The thesis is acceptable/not acceptable
  • Whether members will ask sequential questions or whether each member will be allotted a specific time period for questioning

The person to start the questioning is designated. You will be called back into the examining room and questioning will begin. After all questions have been addressed, you will be asked to leave the room while your committee decides the outcome of the exam. You will be asked to return to the room to be informed of the outcome by the chair of your exam committee.

Address Questions with Confidence

  • Listen to the entire question no matter how long it takes the faculty member or student to ask it (take notes if necessary).
  • Pause and think about the question before answering.
  • Rephrase the question.
  • Answer the question to the best of your ability; if you do not know the answer, remain calm and say so in a professional way.
  • Remember that no one will know the ins and outs of the thesis and your research materials as well as you. You are the foremost expert in the thesis topic and YOU know the research involved. Be positive!


Possible outcomes include:

  • Acceptable with minor or no revisions (no further approval required)
  • Acceptable with major revisions in content or format (in this case, one or more committee members must be responsible for overseeing and approving the major revisions before the final copies are submitted)
  • Not acceptable

After the Defense

Student Status

You can submit the final corrected copies of your dissertation as soon as you address any remaining comments that were brought up during the defense or noted in the registration copy of your dissertation, which will be returned to you usually within a few days before or after the defense. You can take up to one semester following the defense to address any comments, during which you can remain a full-time student. Your degree conferral date will depend on when you submit the final corrected copies of your dissertation.

Final Corrected Copies of the Dissertation

The day after your defense, you will receive an email from the University dean of graduate studies that provides instructions on how to:

  • Submit the final corrected copies of your dissertation through ProQuest
  • Provide authorization for the release of your dissertation through UR Research
  • Complete a mandatory online exit survey
  • Verify to the University dean of graduate studies’ office that the dissertation has been submitted

Publishing Your Final Dissertation

The University of Rochester requires all doctoral candidates to deposit their dissertations for publication with ProQuest Dissertation Publishing and with the University libraries. Hard copies are not required. The library receives an electronic copy of the dissertation from ProQuest, but students must give the University permission to obtain it.

For questions regarding publishing through ProQuest, contact Author Relations at disspub@proquest.com or (800) 521-0600 ext. 77020.

Binding Your Final Dissertation

Check with your graduate administrator to see if your department wants a bound copy of your dissertation, and, if so, how the cost of binding is covered.

If you want a bound copy for yourself or your family, you can purchase one through ProQuest.


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