Doctoral Dissertation Oral Defense

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© Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C.Psych., Former Research Director, Graduate Program in Counselling Psychology, Trinity Western University, Langley, BC, Canada

Use the following steps when preparing for the oral defense of your thesis/dissertation.

1. Evaluation of oral examination is based on your presentation and your answers to questions from the examining committee.

2. Be well prepared for your presentation—academically, mentally and physically. Try to be well rested and focused before your oral defense.

3. In your preparation, don’t try to memorize all the studies cited in your thesis, but you do need to know the details of the few key studies that form the basis of your investigation.

4. You need to be familiar with larger issues, such as the basic assumptions, theoretical framework, paradigm, cross-cultural perspectives, Christian integration, etc.

5. More importantly, you need to have a deep understanding of the nature of your research problem and the major issues involved.

6. You may bring with you important materials for easy reference in the course of your defense; these may include key articles, computer print-outs of results, etc.

7. Your presentation is evaluated in terms of content and clarity as well as style.

8. Don’t speak too fast and don’t read from your notes.

9. Treat your presentation as a public address because there may be non-psychologists present at your defense. Therefore, don’t use too many jargons and don’t pack it with details. You need to tell people in simple, concise language:

  1. What you did,
  2. Why you did it,
  3. How you did it,
  4. What you found, and
  5. What the results mean.

10. Prepare handouts or power-points. Typically, they should include

  1. An overview or outline of your presentation,
  2. Introduction (including research question, rationale and hypothesis, if any, and definition of key constructs),
  3. Method (including design, methodology, sample, instruments or questionnaires, and procedure,
  4. Results (including tables or figures summarizing your findings), and
  5. Discussion (including reasons for new or unexpected findings, contributions and limitations, and practical implications).

11. Make sure that you space yourself well. Don’t spend too much time on one section. For example, you should not spend more than 5 minutes on introduction, since you are allowed only 20 minutes for your presentation.

12. Most of the questions are rather general and broad, dealing with substantial methodological, theoretical and application issues. However, some questions focus on specific points regarding sampling, statistical analysis, or some questionable conclusions.

13. Be prepared to clarify or elaborate on your assumptions, theoretical positions, methods, and conclusions. Often, an examiner plays the devil’s advocate to see how well you can think on your feet and defend yourself.

14. Occasionally, an examiner may ask a question which is unfair or cannot be adequately answered. After a few futile attempts, feel free to say that you don’t know the answer. You may even be bold enough to say, “Since none of my answers are acceptable, I would really appreciate it if you could give me some pointers or tell me what would be a correct answer.”

15. Here are some common questions:

  1. If you were to do it all over again, what changes would you make?
  2. What specific aspects of your findings can be utilized by counselors or psychologists in their practice?
  3. What is the most important contribution of your thesis? Can you say it in one or two sentences?
  4. What are some of the competing hypotheses? Could you think of an alternative interpretation of your findings?

16. Don’t rush to any answers. It is perfectly acceptable to think for a couple of seconds, or ask if you are on the right track. If you are not clear about the question, you are entitled to ask for clarification.

17. Try to be concise and to the point, but at the same time demonstrate that you have a good grasp of the complex issues involved. In other words, do not give superficial answers, but at the same time, do not go all over the map.

18. Put up a good defense without being defensive. Be confident without being cocky. A good defense means that you can provide strong logical arguments as well as empirical support o defend your position or conclusion. However, don’t be defensive when people criticize your study. If they are able to point out some real flaws or weaknesses in your study, accept their criticisms with humility, grace and gratitude.

19. Before the oral defense, talk to your advisor about areas of concerns based on external examiner’s comments. Then, discuss with your advisor how to best address these concerns. (Your advisor cannot tell you the specific questions the examiners will ask, but s/he can direct your attention to issues or areas that require some thinking or additional research.)

20. After the oral defense, meet with your advisor for debriefing and seek advice on how to revise your thesis.

Purpose of the Final Oral Defence

  • To ensure that the Candidate is able to present and defend the dissertation and its underlying assumptions, methodology, results, and conclusions in a manner consistent with the doctoral degree being sought;
  • To communicate the results of the work to the campus community.

Structure of the Final Oral Defence

The detailed Final Oral Defence procedures are outlined in the Exam Instructions. A copy of these instructions is provided to the Examining Committee approximately one week before the Oral Defence.

The basic structure of the Oral Defence is:

  • Candidate makes a public presentation of the dissertation (maximum 30 minutes)
  • Examining Committee members question the Candidate
  • Members of the audience are invited to ask questions of the Candidate
  • Examining Committee holds an in-camera discussion where it decides on the overall recommendation it will make to Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (see Evaluation Protocol below)
  • Chair conveys the recommendations of the Examining Committee to the Candidate

Candidates are encouraged to arrive 30 minutes early to get comfortable and set-up in the exam room. Exams start promptly at the official start time. The doors to the exam room are closed at the start of the exam and no one may not enter the exam room once the Final Oral Defence has begun. The Final Oral Defence usually takes two to two and a half hours.

Audiovisual Equipment

The examination rooms in the Graduate Student Centre come equipped with the following: projector, screen and white board. Candidates are asked to bring their own laptops to the examination.

The displays in rooms 200 and 203 are equipped with VGA and HDMI inputs. Candidates using laptops without these outputs must bring the appropriate adaptors.

Please notify the Doctoral Exams team in advance if you would like to borrow a laptop.

Language Requirement

Candidates for the Final Doctoral Examination must have fulfilled all course and/or language requirements of the degree program. It is the responsibility of the Candidate's graduate program to ensure these requirements have been met, and that the Candidate's oral language proficiency is adequate for full communication between the Examination Committee and the Candidate.

The Final Doctoral Examination is a public event at UBC and as such will be conducted in English. The Candidate's oral proficiency in the language of the examination must be adequate for full communication between the Examination Committee and the Candidate. For theses in language programs, some questions can be posed or answered in the language concerned, provided the Examination Committee can follow proceedings (by translation if necessary) in this other language.

Remote Attendance

Normally, only those individuals physically present in the examination room can be counted for quorum. It may be permissible for the External Examiner or a third member of the Supervisory Committee to attend the defence remotely. To discuss this possibility, contact the Doctoral Exams office at least 4 weeks before the Oral Defence date.

Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies has a telephone that can be made available for doctoral examinations in room 200 or 203 to facilitate remote attendance. The examination rooms in the Graduate Student Centre are not equipped for videoconferencing. In cases where an Examining Committee member wishes to attend via Skype or another web-based system, the Research Supervisor will be responsible for supplying the required equipment (for example, a computer with webcam and Skype account), managing the set-up of that equipment, and establishing the connection.

Should any technological issues arise during the course of the exam, the exam will not normally be paused to resolve them. Only those examining committee members who have been present for the full duration of the exam can cast a vote in the proceedings. Losing the remote connection during the exam will mean that any remote attendees are not eligible to vote during the in camera session.

Please also note that the Examination Chair has the right to discontinue a remote connection if it is interfering with the proper conduct of the examination.

Unfortunately, remote attendance by audience members cannot be accommodated.

Attendance of the External Examiner

The External Examiner's participation in a Candidate's Final Oral Defence offers the opportunity for a valuable dialogue about the dissertation and the research it presents. Therefore, the participation of the External Examiner in the Final Oral Defence is encouraged, but it is not required.

Inviting the External Examiner to participate in the Final Oral Defence is at the discretion of the Research Supervisor; Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies will not extend such an invitation. For information about inviting the External Examiner, please see Scheduling the Oral Defence.

Recording the Examination

See Recording the Examination.

Evaluation Protocol for the Oral Defence

The Examining Committee is asked to make an overall recommendation after evaluating two aspects of the Candidate's performance:

  • The Oral Defence: The Committee should evaluate the Candidate’s performance while presenting the synopsis, responding to questions, and defending the work. The Committee must decide whether or not the performance met the standard of excellence expected of a Doctoral Candidate at UBC.
  • The Dissertation: The Committee should evaluate the overall merit of the dissertation, considering scholarship, scope and impact of the contribution made, and the quality of writing. They are asked to take into consideration the External Examiner’s report, the assessments of the other Examining Committee members, and Candidate's responses to questions during the Oral Defence. The Committee will decide what revisions, if any, will be required before the dissertation can be considered fully acceptable.

Evaluation options available to the Examining Committee are:

  • The dissertation is satisfactory, provided suitable revisions are made (if required)
    • No revision or only minor revisions are required. The Committee charges the Research Supervisor to verify that the required changes have been made.
    • Substantive revisions are required. The Committee chooses two or more of its members, including the Research Supervisor, to verify that the required changes have been made.
  • The dissertation is unsatisfactory. Major rewriting and rethinking are required.
  • The dissertation is unacceptable; it is fundamentally flawed and therefore beyond revision.

The Examining Committee is then asked to select one of the following overall recommendations:

  • Pass. Pending final submission of the dissertation to the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, the University should award the doctoral degree to this Candidate.
  • Re-examination required. The Candidate should be allowed a second attempt to pass the Final Doctoral Examination. (No more than one subsequent attempt is permitted.)
  • Fail. The University should not grant the doctoral degree to this Candidate.

In any category where the Committee's judgment is unanimous, or nearly so (in that at most one examiner dissents), the Chair will express it using the check-boxes on the Chair's Report form. Dissenting opinions will be noted in the text of the Chair’s report. In any category where two or more examiners disagree with the majority view, the Chair will select a box labelled “No Decision” and provide a written description of the differing views in the text of the report. If this occurs, the Chair will inform Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies as soon as possible (typically within one business day of the examination). The Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies will review the Chair's Report and promptly determine an appropriate course of action, in consultation with the Examination Chair and the Examining Committee.

The Examination Chair is responsible for completing the Chair's Report form and submitting it to Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies within one week of the Oral Defence.


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