Dissertation Proposal Defense: How It Went

December 2, 2022, 11:50 am

Tapping my feet nervously, I’m sitting at my home “office,” which is just my dining room table with my laptop and a second monitor. My wi-fi has been spotty lately, so I have an ethernet cord stretched halfway across the room, probably a safety hazard. Two of my committee members are out-of-town, so my proposal defense is on Zoom, the better to avoid viruses in circulation this winter anyway. I’m in comfy pants and a nice sweater. I’ve done my makeup for the occasion, a small gesture to connote that this isn’t just another Zoom meeting. My dissertation proposal defense is at noon.

Earlier this morning, I ran through my presentation a couple times. It’s a little longer than the recommended 5-8 minutes, but it doesn’t really matter. I have an idea of how the proposal defense is supposed to go, so I already know that the format is awkward.

I know that once everyone arrives, the first order of business will be to kick me out of the room so my committee can discuss my proposal without me. I’m not sure why they don’t just ask the student to show up 5-10 minutes later than the committee members.

I know that I have to give a presentation, but that it’s mostly a formality. The committee already has read my proposal and prepared comments. The presentation is a superfluous requirement that I should keep as short as possible. (At least, this is my interpretation of what my chairs have told me.)

I’ve also been told that this presentation is informal (but not too informal), that it’s really about the Q&A/discussion portion, and that I’m ready. None of this makes me feel any less nervous. A presentation is a presentation, no matter how short. More time on Q&A means more time outside of my control; discussion is unpredictable. “We wouldn’t let you defend if you weren’t ready” is a nice sentiment, but I’ve heard of proposal defenses that didn’t go well. I’m catastrophizing, since the proposal writing process was more difficult than I’d expected. So the nerves remain.

I log in roughly five minutes before the start time, to get the Zoom room open early in case someone gets stuck in a waiting room. One of my co-chairs logs in around the same time. We make awkward() small talk until my second co-chair and two additional committee members arrive.

Disclaimer (and Soapbox)

The purpose of this post is to provide a picture of my proposal defense, but the standard disclaimers about graduate school apply. “Your journey is unique” sounds cliché, but each person’s experience is truly different: unique to you, your committee, your research project, and any number of other factors. I still find it useful to hear about advanced students’ experiences with different milestones, but it’s helpful to get more than one person’s account. And in the end, your program’s requirements and your chair/advisor’s expectations will always supersede anything you read online or hear from anyone else. My account will be most similar to sociology students at Indiana University, but even then, experiences vary.

In my department, and I assume many others, this information isn’t written down anywhere. It’s up to advisors to pass this information onto students by word of mouth. Not all students think to ask or get this run-down. We have an internal “Guide to Graduate Study” document, which shares the official steps and paperwork required at this stage, but nothing about the defense itself or what students will experience. Some departments do have a more detailed description of the dissertation proposal defense process on their websites, which I discovered while working on this post. When we talk about the “hidden curriculum,” this lack of clarity around standard milestones is part of the problem. Unfortunately, this is a soapbox I can never seem to leave.

Structure of a Dissertation Proposal Defense

Below is the typical structure of a proposal defense in my department, and how my proposal defense was structured.

  1. Set-up
  2. Presentation
  3. Q&A
  4. Discussion
  5. Deliberation
  6. Decision

My four committee members and I were scheduled to meet for two hours. We used the full two hours and went a few minutes over.

Detailed Structure

1. Set-up.

Everyone logs into the Zoom room, and your committee immediately kicks you out so they can discuss a) whether they agree to move forward (a formality), and b) the structure of the conversation (who will give comments first, second, etc.).

This was the part I found the most awkward. Faculty arrive and make small talk, sometimes not having seen each other for some time. You wait and contribute if someone speaks to you, while your insides are churning anxiously. Then you’re asked to leave so you can deal with your churning insides alone, pacing, tapping your feet, reheating a cup of coffee or tea, skimming through your presentation slides – pick your poison. My committee spoke for about 15 minutes before calling me back in.

2. Presentation.

You’re called back in to give a brief presentation. This part is also a formality, since your committee has already read your proposal and have comments prepared.

I was told to keep my presentation as short as possible to leave more time for discussion. My co-chairs suggested 5-8 minutes; I think I spoke for around 10. Slides weren’t required, but I’ve found that it helps to give your audience a visual aid, so I had a few very simple slides. They were:

  1. A slide reminding me to get permission to record before I started
  2. Title slide
  3. Background/framing
  4. Research Questions
  5. Detailed Research Questions (this slide was unnecessary so I glossed over it, using it as a transition)
  6. Methods (a one-slide image of my data, sample, sample size, analytic approach, and data presentation plans; you should highlight whatever’s most relevant to your project and the points you want to discuss with your committee)
  7. Additional Components (these were topics present in my data that didn’t quite fit with my current framing; I wanted my committee members to be aware of these in case they did seem relevant to the project, especially since I hadn’t discussed them at length in my proposal)
  8. Questions for Committee (I listed three questions/points that I definitely wanted to discuss with my committee. It was useful to have a slide on this so we remembered to go back to these questions later.)
  9. Extra slides (I had several extra slides, especially explaining the arts-based component of my project. The questions I anticipated weren’t the ones my committee asked, and I never ended up showing any of these slides. They were more of a security blanket to help me feel more prepared.)

What I prepared could have been even shorter, but it was difficult to pare down my project into such a short presentation. Five minutes felt insultingly short after I’d poured so much work into the proposal itself. But it was helpful to think of the presentation as a refresher for your committee, where you share only the top-level narrative of your dissertation. The most important slide, and perhaps the only one that mattered, was the one with questions for my committee.

3. Q&A.

After you present, each committee member takes turns giving remarks and asking questions. I responded to each person’s question as we went, and other committee members would build on the conversation and ask follow-up questions. My co-chairs took a back seat since they had already given feedback on my written proposal.

The first question posed was the most difficult for me to answer, especially as it related to theoretical framing, the part of my project that’s the most unclear at this point and will definitely change over time. Later, the professor who’d posed the question noted that it was fine if I didn’t know the answer yet but I should be prepared to think it through. The rest of the direct questions posed were much easier to answer and often turned into more of a discussion.

4. Discussion.

The “discussion” section isn’t necessarily distinct from “Q&A,” but after each person has shared their overarching comments and questions, the conversation can continue more naturally, as you build off of what others have said. This is the time to ask your committee for feedback on any specific points or questions, while you have them all in the same space.

My committee and I moved seamlessly from these structured remarks to an informal discussion. I asked follow-up questions as needed. The points I brought up sometimes sparked ideas or suggestions from my committee. We made sure to go back to the questions I’d posed in my presentation. And we continued this way until we only had five minutes remaining and had to hurry to wrap up. At an academic talk, it’s always a good thing when the audience has a lot of questions; it means they’re engaging with your work. This felt similar; it was encouraging that my committee had a lot of questions and suggestions, and that we easily could have continued talking. Even though there were a few points I didn’t yet have good answers for, the tone of the conversation was positive.

5. Deliberation.

After discussion, you’re kicked out of the room again so your committee can settle on the outcome. Because we only had a few minutes left, I was kicked out in a hurry this time, but not before a committee member asked whether I felt we’d addressed all of my questions.

6. Decision.

You’re called back in, informed of your committee’s decision, and hopefully have time to discuss what’s required (if anything) with either your full committee or just your chair(s).

I was told beforehand that the possible outcomes were:

  1. conditional pass (revisions and/or a memo requested);
  2. pass (memo requested but not required to pass); or
  3. unconditional pass (nothing required).

Naturally, anything besides an unconditional pass seemed like an indication that I could/should have done better. But one of my co-chairs stressed that I shouldn’t view any of these outcomes as negative feedback. Instead, a memo would help me reflect on and clarify the steps I would take moving forward.

After about five minutes – we were running over time – my committee invited me back to share that I had passed, and that I should write a follow-up memo that I only had to send to my co-chairs. Again, my committee stressed that this memo was intended to help me, making sure I didn’t lose momentum after the proposal defense.

7. Bonus: Check-in with Chair(s).

After congratulations and goodbyes, I had a brief check-in with just my co-chairs to make sure I was clear on what was expected of me and my next steps. There is no deadline for this memo, but I’ll have to reflect on the components required for the memo to move forward with my dissertation anyway.

Post-Defense Impressions

The lead-up to my proposal defense – writing and revising my proposal – was a process I found incredibly stressful. In comparison, the defense itself was remarkably smooth. Perhaps this isn’t surprising – doing more work and struggling up front should lead to less trouble later down the road – but by that point I’d been so pessimistic and had so much accumulated stress (from the proposal and other stressors that semester) that I was truly surprised.

Overall, the conversation was productive and brought up useful points. All of my questions were addressed, but not always answered; in the end, many decisions about research design and direction were left for me to decide. But the discussion was a good reminder to make sure all the components of my research design are tied back to my research questions.

Afterwards, I felt a strong urge to rush through the memo and get it over with so that I could focus on my research again, not worrying about feeling accountable to anyone until the dissertation defense. But I have some decisions to make, data to review, and careful thinking to do. I took a week away from my dissertation entirely. Since it’s now winter break, I’ve settled on working on the memo for only 30 minutes a day, just to keep in regular contact with the project, which has helped the work feel low stakes and manageable.

I can honestly say that I do feel like I have a good idea of the next steps I need to take, even though some of them will inevitably end up being larger or more complicated than I expect.

More than anything I’m relieved it’s over.

For the next few posts, I’ll continue writing about different aspects of the dissertation proposal and proposal defense. If you have any questions about anything, please feel free to leave a comment or contact me. If I see your comment in time, I’ll try to include it in a future post.

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