Dissertation Advice: Attend Defenses

In addition to thinking about reading and writing for your dissertation, I recommend attending a lot of defenses. Even if you get nothing else out of them, visualizing yourself defending your own dissertation in the room where it will be held someday certainly cannot hurt.

Above is a photo of 202 Jones Hall, where I spent countless hours over the course of my graduate career, including my own dissertation defense. If you have a keen eye, you might recognize it from the opening scene in A Beautiful Mind, with Russell Crowe sitting in the corner in the role of John Forbes Nash Jr.

It was a real pleasure and honor to present my work in front of people in a room like this (or any room, for that matter), but that’s the whole point of visualizing the process ahead of time–you get to imagine yourself enjoying the experience.

The Process

More importantly, though, dissertation defenses give you a sense of how the dissertation process works. I attended several during my time at Princeton, beginning with Xu Lanjun’s on October 2, 2007. At her defense, the questions were apparently similar to those that had been initially explored years before at her prospectus defense, and knowing this helped me to understand how a large project like this comes together. Additionally, the experience impressed upon me how important it is to convey dense material in a digestible, meaningful way. I can’t say I was entirely successful in my dissertation or my defense in this regard, but it was good to at least be aware of the challenge.

Questions and Answers

At Xu Lanjun’s defense there were several questions that I found relevant for my own research. In particular, ones about how to interpret historical change over time helped me to focus my thinking. The screenshot below is from my notes that day, and it is one of the two places in my notes in which historical change was mentioned by the committee members.The sentence says: “If you want to argue newness, don’t you have to argue presence – establish past?” Obviously, the gibberish I wrote wasn’t an exact transcription of what was said, but it gets the point across in my notes.

Surviving Your Defense

I saw some pretty impressive defenses over the years, read brilliant research, and learned a lot about a range of topics. However, one of my selfish goals was to steel myself for the ordeal. I came into graduate school thinking of the defense as an intellectual form of the Klingon Rite of Ascension, but later came to view it as a great opportunity for candidates to receive crucial feedback on improving their work.

It turns out that a defense can be fun, and many of the ones I saw were quite constructive. In fact, the faculty and students who attended mine offered a great deal of critical, helpful feedback that has given me a direction to go in revising my dissertation for publication as a book. I suppose there is no way to know ahead of time how your defense will go, but attending those of your fellow students will at least give you a sense of the possibilities.

Helpful Resources