Why You Shouldn’t be Scared of Your Thesis Defense

thesis-defenseTime in graduate school can seem like it stretches on forever: all those never-ending classes, exams, long experiments, time courses, lab meetings, conferences, departmental talks, etc… And yet, I’ve noticed that graduate students are scared, nay terrified, of their thesis defense! What should be the happy, proud culmination of years of research, hard work, and effort ends up as a miserable month or two of writing, preparing, and defending the thesis. I’ve seen this many times with many people, including myself, as my friends and coworkers would attest to the nervous wreck that I was. However, looking back at that time two years ago, I have come to several realizations that would have calmed me down, and I hope that they will help allay your fears and help you enjoy your thesis defense:

  1. Your committee won’t allow you to defend if you’re not ready! Seriously, I have never seen anyone defend whose committee didn’t think he/she was worthy of a PhD. After all, those committee meetings are a test of your knowledge and your science, and the permission to defend is an admission by your committee that they see you as a PhD scientist now, not a PhD candidate.
  2. YOU ARE READY! You’ve done the work, read the papers, thought through the project, planned experiments, troubleshot those experiments, prayed to the science gods, and navigated every challenge along the way. You know what one needs to know to get a PhD.
  3. Possibly the most important point: this is YOUR project. Nobody knows as much about it as you do. As mentioned above, this has been your obsession for the past few years, you have gone through the articles, done the experiments and figured out the conditions, as well as had the “sneak preview” of the results before anyone else, in addition to all the experiments and data that did not go in your thesis (the troubleshooting, for example). You should rest easy in self-belief, knowing that you will not have any issues during the defense; you know more than or as much as everyone else in that room.
  4. Answering questions: here is the biggest tip for your defense—it is OK not to answer everything, to pause and think about an answer, and to speculate. After all, your committee wants to see your scientific thought process, and they might ask you hypothetical questions or ridiculously convoluted ones that don’t have an answer, at least not a single correct answer, so relax, take your time to think, and have an open scientific discussion with them.
  5. Scared of presenting your work? Well, at this point you’ve already had a bazillion meetings and presentations, and you’ve discussed your incomplete project with the same people you will present your now COMPLETE story to. It’s not like your defense is going to attract huge crowds of people you don’t know: The majority will be your department, your coworkers, your friends, family, and a few random students and scientists from your institute who have some interest in the topic of your study. These are all people who are supportive, friendly, and helpful, so draw on that support from the crowd and just present with a big smile on your face. It’s your time to shine, and those moments can be few and far between in science (we’re not in it for admiration and fans, unless I’m going about this all wrong).
  6. You’ve put in a lot of hard work all these years! This is your time to finish with a bang, so celebrate by kicking ass at your defense, sharing your knowledge and the problem-solving skills you’ve honed throughout your research, and having a great time!

The enjoyment of your thesis defense depends mostly on believing in yourself. You’ve made it this far, the defense is mainly your public celebration of the work you’ve put in and the knowledge you’ve acquired. You know the data, the ideas, the answer, and the future directions. If you’re reading this before your defense, the Cliff Notes version of this whole article is: You’re going to be great, you’re at this point because you deserve your PhD degree, and you will be done with this whole process in a few hours. Enjoy it and celebrate hard afterwards! And an early Congrats from me!

About the Author:


Hashem is a Postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Melanie H. Cobb, studying regulation and interactions of WNK protein family members. Email: Hashem.Dbouk@UTSouthwestern.edu

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