What is a Dissertation Defense?

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One of the most significant parts of earning your doctoral degree is the dissertation defense, but what is a dissertation defense?

What is a Dissertation Defense

Depending on your program of study, a portion of your studies will involve conducting either independent, original research or research on an existing theory or topic that’s expanded upon.

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Once you’ve been deemed ready to present your research, you’ll begin the final stage in your doctoral program to defend your research in front of a committee.

What Is a Dissertation Defense?

PhD degree student discussing with dissertation committee

A dissertation defense is one of the final steps in a doctoral program. It involves an oral presentation to a dissertation committee that details the research you’ve been working on throughout your program of study.

One of the first steps in the dissertation process is selecting a dissertation committee, which consists of a chair member and other faculty or scholars. The dissertation committee is important because they support you throughout your research and while writing a dissertation. The committee also decides whether you’ve succeeded in your dissertation defense.

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Once you’ve finished your oral presentation, the dissertation committee may begin a line of questioning related to the presentation and your research.

Some questions you may encounter during the PhD dissertation defense include:

  • How does your research contribute to the field?
  • Can you explain why the community or field should care about this research or topic?
  • How can you expand upon this research?
  • Why have you chosen this research methodology?
  • How can your research be applied to the field?

A dissertation defense usually takes at least 2 hours, so there are many more questions that will be asked. The point of a PhD defense is not only to prove to the dissertation committee that you’re knowledgeable of your chosen topic and discipline but also to present your findings.

Once questioning is finished, the dissertation committee will usually have a closed session in which they decide whether your dissertation is approved with no revisions or minor editorial revisions or whether major revisions are needed.

How to Defend a Dissertation

PhD student reviewing for his Dissertation Defense

Defending a dissertation can be intimidating due to the lack of knowing what to expect from the committee. Preparation is key when it comes to feeling confident going in to defend your dissertation.

While the doctoral defense process can widely vary depending on your program of study and topic, here are some tips you can keep in mind leading up to and even during the process:

  • Practice your oral presentation in front of an audience.
  • Get enough rest on the days leading up to the dissertation defense.
  • Create a strong introduction to your presentation that captures the committee’s attention.
  • Take your time during your oral presentation.
  • Be attentive and listen to the entirety of each question.
  • Be prepared to get questions you may not know the answer to and know how to communicate your uncertainty.
  • If you need more time or don’t understand a question fully, politely ask the committee member to repeat the question.

An important thing to remember is the dissertation committee is there to support and help guide you, but they may also challenge you and your ideas during questioning.

How Long Is a Dissertation Defense?

PhD student during her dissertation defense

The structure of a dissertation defense can widely vary depending on your college or university and program of study. This can affect how long a dissertation defense takes. Most dissertation defenses take at least 2 hours, but some may take longer.

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The oral presentation may have a time limit of around 30 minutes up to 1 hour. The remainder of the time may be used for questioning and decision-making on behalf of the dissertation committee. The oral presentation may be open to the public, but the rest of the examination is typically a closed session.

What’s the Difference Between a Capstone vs. Dissertation?

Woman reviewing some pages of her doctoral dissertation

There are several differences between a doctoral dissertation vs. capstone, including how your research is used and delivered.

  • Doctoral capstone: This project typically focuses on the expansion or application of research to solve a problem in a real-world setting relevant to your chosen field or discipline.
  • Doctoral dissertation: This document introduces new findings or further expands upon a theory based on independent, original research.

A dissertation for PhD programs concludes with a final examination of the dissertation presented by the candidate. A capstone can be delivered as a paper, presentation, portfolio, or other means. A number of universities now offer no-dissertation doctorate programs. Some of these include on campus or online doctoral programs in education without dissertation or DBA degrees with no dissertation requirement.

Defending a Dissertation

PhD degree student presenting his dissertation

The independent research and writing you’ll complete throughout your doctoral program builds up to the dissertation defense.

While it can be overwhelming to think about, the dissertation defense is your opportunity to present all of your hard work and to carry on a discussion about your research and findings with other academics.

You will be evaluated, and some questions presented by the dissertation committee may be challenging, but coming to your dissertation defense feeling prepared can help you feel more confident.

If your dissertation is deemed satisfactory, you can pass and submit your dissertation for graduation upon the completion of any revisions requested.

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Amy holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from Old Dominion University, with a minor in English. She previously worked as an educator before starting her career as a writer. Amy spends much of her time researching and writing, with the goal of sharing valuable information with readers.