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Post-defense reflections ...

On December 18, 2017, I passed the PhD final defense. It was an intellectually challenging experience as well as an important milestone in my academic life. There may be many students who wonder about this event. So, let me reflect on it.

At the University of Alberta and in my Faculty, a PhD final defense consists of two components: a public presentation and the actual defense of your dissertation. The first part meant to be an opportunity for you to what you studies to the public - faculty members, other students, and anyone else. Particularly, this may be a good chance for junior students to get some dissertation ideas and experience the defense's atmosphere. I did a straight up presentation for 25 mins or so. I wish though that I could have adopted a more engaging format. This thought came to my mind, but I also felt the pressure to follow the traditional presentation style as the "authority" of the topic I was speaking about. My dissertation was 350 pages of text (yes, thank you my examiners), so it was a challenge for me to boil it down to 25 mins without being too superficial. And I think my presentation was indeed superficial...

The next part is the meat of the final defense. You would receive rounds of questions about your dissertation from examiners. So, the final defense very much resembles your PhD candidacy exam (or preliminary exam in the U.S.) in terms of format. One major difference, however, is that the candidacy is about whether you have wider knowledge about your field, whereas the defense is about the quality and quantity of your dissertation vis-a-vis the standards in your discipline. The defense usually starts from the most external examiner and moves on to your supervisor. As such, I found it very important to have the external who can set the "right tone" for the entire defense. Luckily I had someone who both commended and constructively critiqued my work.

I find that the most important thing for a successful defense (and probably candidacy exam) is - and my supervisor and a few other faculties agreed with this - the balance between confidence and humbleness. Students have to be confident in their research (provided that their research projects are thoughtfully done) and being able to defend their decisions and arguments. This confidence, however, should be balanced with humbleness to be open to critiques and different viewpoints and to accept some of them as limitations of their research. Over the past 6 years of graduate student life, I think that I have seen more over-confident students than over-humble ones. They tend to think that they have to "answer" every single question and defend against every single critique. One student once told me that I seemed giving up on my arguments in a Q&A session. What I thought I was doing was having an intellectual dialogue: seeing the other party's point and examining pros and cons of both my and his/her points. Over-confident students would have difficult time in their defense because they may forget - or fail to communicate that: (a) their examiners are often more experienced than they are and come with good points, (b) every single research has limitations, and/or (c) their dissertation is just one research project.

The other side of this confidence-humbleness continuum is over-humble students. And believe or not, I am on this side at least when I talk (it seems that I come across as more "aggressive" when I write). Knowing that you did quality research and being able to communicate that is one thing. However, I see another layer of issue: culture. As Japanese, I find myself spending more time acknowledging others' perspectives, noting pros and cons of both sides, and not taking a strong stance (for my own perspective). I mean, who have so many flawless arguments? But, this could make a dangerous impression that you are incapable of defending your points. Luckily I had 4 (out 6) examiners who had a rich understanding of more collectivist culture. But, if you are not as lucky as I was and find yourself having a similar tendency, you need to be careful. How? I found it easier not to try to defend my decisions or arguments, but to explain them. I just tell a story of what I did and why I did it. Approaching this way takes off pressures for me. If you can also explain the examiner's point, compare their merits, and provide reasons why your decisions appear more sensible, that's perfect. But, only explaining your own points helps. Often, examiners can sense that you did something for a reason; but they need to know - they need to know that you actually had a good reason AND you can explain it.

Beyond these two extremes, how can we calibrate our balance between confidence and humbleness? I think that this is one of the most important academic qualities PhD students should strive to acquire (and continue to polish it). One effective way is to publish papers, or submit manuscripts to good peer-reviewed journals and experience the revision process. In fact, the defense is like a revision process (not my word, but my defense chair's) but it's in just a verbal form. I strongly recommend that PhD students submit their work from early on, and be in charge of the revision process. Get comments from your supervisor and (potential) examiners about how they think of the way you address reviewers' critiques. Over confident, too humble, or good balance? Even if it's not get published in those journals eventually, you will learn a great deal (and at least know what your future examiners prefer!). And prestigious journals attract quality reviewers and quality comments, and thus help you more. So, go to some of the best journals in your field. Don't think publication is one of the last things you do in your PhD, or worse, the thing you do after your PhD.

And lastly, for my international student folks, the defense (and the candidacy) is especially challenging for some of us who do not speak English as the first language. Conversations are heavily academic and there isn't too much time to elaborate on your points. My advice? Make sure that you clearly understand examiners' points first. Ask them a question if you need. Take memos. Then, do everything to communicate your points. Use gestures and any other means (e.g., drawing on a white board) if you need and can. Do not rush into your points though. Start with the easiest ones for you, and get the flow. By the time when you reach the fourth and most difficult point, usually either time for that examiner is up or s/he has been confident in your ability. Long-term solution would be to expose yourself to intense academic conversations, such as class discussion and conference presentation Q&A. Don't be shy. Even native speakers are not making sense of themselves 95% of the time in these situations. I have embarrassed myself hard many times in these occasions throughout my PhD program, but I am now glad that I did.

Finally, the defense (and the candidacy) is such a treat for an academician. Think about it. How many times do we get to have all the attention of 5 or 6 very established scholars in your field for 3 to 4 hours in our academic life? After doing all the homework, embrace this wonderful opportunity and have fun with it.

Good luck.


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