Don’t Defend Your Thesis…*

*…too soon. Don’t defend your thesis too soon. 

A note for any non-Australian readers: in Australia, a PhD is supposed to only last for 3 years (sometimes 4). During the 1st year, somewhere around the 9-month mark, the candidate is confirmed. This confirmation is a big hurdle requirement, and involves writing a research proposal, giving a talk to one’s committee, and answering lots of difficult questions. As far as I can tell, most people find the confirmation more stressful than – or at least as stressful as – the actual completion of the thesis. In Australia there is no big “defense” at the end of the 3 years; the candidate simply submits their thesis in pdf format, and waits for the reviewers to respond a few months later. Easy. 😉

I’ve noticed that a lot of people – myself included, way-back-when! – approach the confirmation as if it was a defense. This might have something to do with the way (academic) pop-culture introduces us to the idea of A Defense as this big thing that American grad students go through, and we simply map our closest approximation onto that idea. Or, it could be because the confirmation is a hurdle requirement, and our experience of hurdles from undergrad tells us to just grit our teeth and jump them.

Whatever the reason. What happens when you approach a confirmation as if it was a defense? Well, you get defensive. And for good reason – you’ve spent a long time reading and thinking. You’ve developed a research idea. You’ve felt stressed. You’ve written a proposal. You’ve re-written a proposal, after feedback from your supervisor. You’ve already doubted yourself a hundred times. You’ve wished for an imposter syndrome resistant lab coat.  Now, soon, you’ll have to face senior, important, people, who will ask you difficult questions and try to find holes in your argument. Of course you want to defend yourself!

thesis_defense

People might also tell you to defend yourself. They’ll tell you not to worry, that “of course they’ll pass you.” They’ll reassure you that your research idea is good, that your supervisor wouldn’t let you present a bad proposal to your committee. They’ll tell you that all you need to do is anticipate, and answer, the committee’s questions; that is, all you need to do is defend your ideas.

Maybe this is reassuring. But, it is not good advice.

Yes, you’ve spent a long time reading and thinking. Yes, you’ve developed a research idea. Yes, you’ve written a proposal. Yes, you’ve re-written a proposal, after feedback from your supervisor. Yes, you’ve already doubted yourself a hundred times.  Now, soon, you’ll have to face senior, important, people, who will ask you difficult questions and try to find holes in your argument. Of course you want to think hard about those questions, thank them for finding holes in your argument, and spend time re-writing your ideas! 

It doesn’t matter how good you think your research proposal is (or how good your supervisor thinks it it); the feedback you get during your confirmation is going to make it better. I’m almost 100% certain of this. But feedback can only improve your research if you take it on board. If you’re too busy defending your ideas to update them, nobody gains anything, and those alternative  perspectives provided by your (well informed, well experienced) committee go to waste.

So, don’t defend your thesis (at your confirmation).

Here is a non-academic, mostly unrelated, example of someone trying to “defend too soon”. Sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it. And on a more serious note, here are 12 tips about PhD-ing from James Heathers, that I mostly agree with.

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