Do you remember “The Paper Chase,” that 1970s TV show and movie about law students at Harvard?

Tough Love?

Based on the book by Scott Turow, both the movie and the television versions of the Paper Chase featured first year-law students being terrorized by the formidable Professor Kingsfield, who taught contract law. Kingsfield would arrive in class and use the Socratic method to interrogate his students. If you didn’t know an answer, that was it for you for the remainder of the semester.

Many people believe that their dissertation defense will be like a class session with the terrifying Professor Kingsfield. In most cases, nothing could be farther from the truth than this notion. And debunking this very old concept of a defense can help to alleviate needless anxiety.

So, what happens at a dissertation defense?

  • In most cases, the defense, if your advisor and you have done your job well, is really a conversation.  Generally, major objections by a committee member have already been dealt with before you step into that room.  If you’ve done your best dissertation editing or hired a good dissertation editor, then you have nothing to worry about. People will ask for clarification and challenge a few of your ideas, but they’re not going to scream at you and tell you your ideas are all wrong. If they really thought this, they wouldn’t have let you get this far.
  • Now, you could have said something in your dissertation that is directly opposed to something that your one of your committee members has said in print.  For example, in my dissertation, I argued for an interpretation of a novel that was diametrically opposed to one that my external committee member, an expert in the field, had expressed in a major book. He actually called me on this: “Don’t you think you might be wrong here?”  Recognizing that my job that morning was to get four yes votes on the defense, not to redefine critical approaches in the field, I uttered the three most important words you can say at a defense: “You’re absolutely right.” And that was it. Placated, he complimented me on my reasonableness, and we moved on.
  • Believe it or not, you may not be doing most of the talking at a defense.  Your committee members probably will be chatting with each other and, sometimes, arguing with each other. If this situation occurs, you’re actually very lucky, because you just have to sit there and smile.
  • One of the most important and positive things that will happen will be a conversation about next steps. Committee members will ask you to talk about publication plans and further research. This phase of the defense is probably the most useful to you. So try to have some ideas in mind about your future writing and publishing plans.
  • Finally, committee members will vote on your work. Generally, you’ll be asked to leave the room while they deliberate about you.  If all goes well, the door of the room will open, and your advisor will come out and say, “Congratulations, Doctor.”

So, to sum up, the defense can be challenging, but in most cases, your committee members will not play the role of John Houseman in the Paper Chase. So, relax and have a good time at your defense. But be sure you’ve first had your work edited by a good dissertation editing service.