This page presents some tips on how to prepare for the oral defense portion of your qualifying examinations and how to approach the defense itself.
Before the Defense: Long Term
Be sure to keep in regular contact with your advisor, and preferably with any other professors who will be on your committee. You will be much more comfortable talking to them during your defense if you talk to them often before your defense.
If possible, present a few papers at conferences. Strong verbal skills, particularly when you have applied them in academic settings, will be invaluable during your orals.
Before the Defense: Short Term
Find out if you will be able to review your written examination before your oral defense. If so, make arrangements with your advisor or departmental secretary to pick it up well ahead of time.
If you will not be able to review your written examination, take some time immediately after the written portion of the exam to jot down notes about what you wrote. You would be surprised how much you can forget during even a two- or three-day interval, and the notes will help focus your preparation.
Talk with fellow students about what you have written; if possible, have a small group of friends ask questions they think your professors might ask. Having a “mock defense” under your belt will help you navigate questions more easily.
During the Defense
Listen attentively to your professors’ questions. It sounds silly, but is an important point: many students get so nervous they forget to pay careful attention to what they are being asked. If you aren’t sure you understood the question, try rephrasing it and asking your examiners if that is what they meant.
Avoid talking too much. Your professors will want a chance to respond to your thoughts or ask new questions; if you don’t give them the chance to do this, they will get annoyed.
Avoid being put on the defensive. If one of your examiners criticizes you, think carefully about how his or her perspective might have merit. This is not the time for attempts at intellectual redemption, nor is this the time to try to effect monumental changes in your professor’s intellectual stance.
Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer to a particular question. Some professors intentionally ask questions to which the student will probably not have a ready answer. In these situations, examiners generally hope that students will consider the question carefully and provide an idea of how they would begin to answer it. You aren’t expected to have all the answers.
Finally, be ready for anything. Professors, being people with flaws, sometimes act in a petty or unfair manner. The questions they ask might have nothing to do with what you wrote; they also could be completely outside the scope of what you anticipated. If members of your committee do not get along well with each other, the tension between them might filter down to you. If your examiners don’t agree with each other, you can become an unwitting pawn in their own intellectual struggles. If you are on the lookout for curveballs, you will be able to avoid traps more easily.