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The Dissertation (Defense) Meeting

Tomorrow's Research

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The quality of the dissertation reflects on the candidate, the faculty who worked with the candidate, and the university that grants the doctoral degree. A dissertation that does not meet at least a minimum threshold of acceptable scholarship is a grave disservice to all three. In a sense, the committee’s review safeguards the novice scholar from prematurely subjecting his or her work to broader (and probably far more critical) scrutiny.


The posting below looks at how to deal with the inevitable pressure of the dissertation defense. It is from Chapter 14 – Entering into Public Discourse: The Dissertation Meeting, in the book, The Qualitative Dissertation: A Guide for Students and Faculty, by Maria Piantanida and Noreen B. Garman. Published by Corwin, a SAGE Company, 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320 Copyright © 2009 by Corwin, All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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The Dissertation (Defense) Meeting

Challenging the Stereotype of “Defense as Inquisition”

The Inquisition Image

Embedded in dissertation folklore is an image of the defense as a grueling inquisition aimed at revealing all the flaws and weaknesses in both the study and the candidate. The trial-by-fire image frames the dissertation defense as one last, arbitrary exercise of faculty power. If the candidate survives this grilling and clears this final hurdle, then she or he is rewarded with the degree. It would be pointless to argue that there are no instances in which the defense has occasioned faculty misuse or abuse of power. But it is even more pointless to cast committee members in the role of enemy and assume that they operate with malevolent intent. Such dysfunctional distortions of the dissertation committee’s role and responsibility serve only to undermine the deliberative process.

The quality of the dissertation reflects on the candidate, the faculty who worked with the candidate, and the university that grants the doctoral degree. A dissertation that does not meet at least a minimum threshold of acceptable scholarship is a grave disservice to all three. In a sense, the committee’s review safeguards the novice scholar from prematurely subjecting his or her work to broader (and probably far more critical) scrutiny.

When candidates have established a deliberative relationship with their committee, the dissertation meeting can be an integral part of an ongoing and evolving process. The defense does not have to be an all-or-nothing test in which the student irrevocably passes or fails. Rather, it can serve as a collective look at the most recent iteration of the evolving inquiry. Granted, by this time, candidates are hoping that this iteration is good enough to bring closure to the dissertation process. But conscientious student-researchers would consider it no favor for their committee to rubber-stamp a dissertation before it is ready.

Students caught up in the high drama of the dissertation defense as inquisition seem to assume that they have no say in the decision to schedule the meeting, nor are they privy to what will happen during this mysterious rite of passage. Looking at the meeting within the context of ongoing relationships can help to dissipate potentially debilitating anxiety.

Continuity of Process and Relationships

Sometimes, candidates seem to imbue the dissertation defense with so much special significance that it is treated as a completely new and isolated event. Remembering that the meeting has evolved from an ongoing process and within a context of established relationships can help candidates to know what to expect. If the relationship with committee members is based on mutual trust and respect, is there any realistic reason to expect a sudden change in demeanor or behavior?

Perhaps some students believe that the ritual of the defense demands a harsh, adversarial stance from committee members. To determine whether this is a realistic concern, candidates can talk with their advisors about the purpose and tenor of the meeting. In addition, they can attend several dissertation meetings to observe firsthand what happens. Those who act on this latter suggestion are cautioned not to over generalize from the events of only one meeting. Each committee probably has its own unique personality, each candidate has a particular history with his or her committee, and each meeting probably unfolds in a different way. A single observation is likely to yield a narrow, and perhaps skewed, perspective. Again, discussing one’s observations with one’s advisor provides a good check and balance.

We can imagine some students groaning in despair as they read the preceding paragraphs. Reflecting on the relationship with their committee chair or particular committee members may evoke a deep sense of dread if there has been a history of less than satisfactory interactions. We are in no position to second-guess the roots of such relationships. Indeed, some faculty may be extremely difficult to work with. It is regrettable if students have inadvertently or of necessity chosen such faculty to be on their committee because that detracts from the dissertation experience. Yet in our experience, such unsatisfactory interactions arise far less often than the folklore might imply. Our point is to caution candidates against automatically assuming the worst.

Conversely, some students might think, “I’ve got it. My chair is a good friend and will get me through this.” Counting on friendship, especially in the case of questionable scholarship, can lead to a rude awakening when committee members seriously critique the dissertation. Such a turn of events could feel like a betrayal, especially if students have trivialized the significance of the dissertation and the meeting. For conscientious, responsible faculty, critiquing the dissertation is not about friendship; it is about scholarship.

One other issue is worth flagging at this point. Students should not automatically assume that faculty bring a wealth of experience and wisdom to the dissertation meeting. Junior faculty receive virtually no formal orientation to or preparation for their role as dissertation advisors. As a result, they are likely to draw upon their own limited experience with the dissertation process. Depending upon their satisfaction with the process, they may either try to re-create the experience for their advisees or reject a model that was distasteful. Inexperienced faculty may also be surprised to discover that each university has its own dissertation culture. Norms assimilated at the institution where they completed their doctoral work may not readily fit into the culture of the university where they embark on their faculty career. This may precipitate a period of readjustment for beginning faculty.

Senior faculty may face a slightly different dilemma. Those schooled in the quantitative or empirical mode of research often sense that guiding a qualitative study is somewhat different. Yet they are not quite sure of where the difference lies. Faculty in this position may be groping to understand how best to help their advisees, even as they are struggling to understand a new epistemological ballpark.

Developing one’s own style of guiding the dissertation process and conducting the meeting grows with time and experience. Certainly, our own understanding of the process has deepened as a result of working with a wide range of students with very different needs and abilities. Serving on committees with other faculty also broadened our appreciation for different styles of advising students and conducting meetings. Again, our best advice to all students is to enter into substantive conversations with committee members about their views of the dissertation. It is hoped that portions of this book can help students frame their concerns in ways that promote productive explorations for everyone involved.

Reframing the Defense

We hope that the preceding discussion helps to dispel the image of the dissertation meeting as an inquisition of hapless doctoral candidates. Before leaving this image, however, one other point is worth mentioning. Underlying the trial-by-fire mentality is an assumption that it is the pressure of the dissertation meeting itself that “makes or breaks” the candidate. This suggests that the ultimate criterion for earning the doctoral degree is how well one responds under fire. Perhaps, for some students and faculty, this represents a test of the candidate’s capacity for tough discourse and rigorous deliberation. From our perspective, this parodies the real rigors of the dissertation – completing an intellectually sophisticated, conceptually sound inquiry. As mentioned throughout the book, we believe deeply in the transformative power of the dissertation, the journey from student to scholar. In our experience, the transformation occurs incrementally throughout the journey, rather than instantaneously as a result of grilling at the meeting. The ultimate test lies in the scholarship evidenced in the dissertation.

If, as we suggest, the dissertation meeting is not a ritualistic inquisition or trial by fire, how might the nature of deliberation among candidate and committee members be better understood? There is, of course, no simple answer to this question, because the deliberations are shaped by a complex constellation of issues. At the heart of this constellation is the dissertation document itself, providing an account of the inquiry. A core issue, then, is the quality of the dissertation from the committee’s and candidate’s perspective. Intertwining with this issue is a second issue – what the dissertation process itself represents to candidate and faculty. Both of these are connected with the issue of public discourse, most immediately within the meeting and then over time. The interplay among these issues underpins the deliberations occurring during the dissertation meeting.