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14 recommendations for a successful disputation
A disputation, the public defence of a PhD candidate’s thesis, is a serious matter. How can you prepare as best as possible?
When viewed from the outside, a disputation can be seen as a necessary and bland ritual; a rite of passage in which the university marks when the candidate takes the step from junior researcher to full-fledged academic.
However, this session can be extremely demanding for the candidate and found to be far more than just a ritual. Many years of effort with innumerable hardships and sacrifices come to an end once the thesis is submitted. In the space of a few hours it will be decided whether one can progress further in academia with joy in one’s heart, self-confidence and honour as a researcher, or whether one disappears with a feeling of dejection and eyes downcast.
Professor Emeritus Knud Knudsen at UiS has been present at many disputations. Throughout the years he has supervised a considerable number of candidates and has himself had the role of opponent on several occasions, both nationally and internationally. Knudsen encourages the sharing of experience between academic generations and emphasises that disastrous disputations are extremely rate.
“The Norwegian PhD system is such that if one progresses as far as the disputation, a lot is required for it to go completely wrong. However, one can defend the thesis with great honour or with a little less honour. The majority prefer the former. For those who succeed, the experience from the disputation is a source of valuable memories that one can happily live off for the rest of one’s life. A successful session can also provide extra impetus to the start of one’s carrier,” Knudsen says.
There is not much time to prepare during the busy PhD years. The disputation is considered to be reassuringly far into the future. And when approval finally comes, a great deal else must be organised. Even with the 90 per cent seminar and other supportive measures in advance, the arrival of the disputation date is strangely abrupt.
“The challenge is in the fact that the role of candidate only occurs once in a lifetime, even if a few extra bright sparks manage this two or even three times. During these hours there are minutes of major uncertainty, where considerable demands are placed on the candidate’s knowledge, resourcefulness and ability to improvise,” Knudsen says.
In brief: Preparation and practice are required.
The following are Knudsen's14 recommendations for a successful disputation:
Familiarise yourself with the university’s rules and formalities for the session. Project an optimistic and cheerful demeanour when the procession marches into the room.
Review all practical aspects of the arrangement in advance: location, PowerPoint presentation, font size, light and sound. Nothing is more disturbing for the candidate than when there are problems with the technical side. Do not trust that others have this under control.
Be prepared both academically and professionally. Learn the roles in the game: You have the role has a humble, intelligent and agreeable researcher with appropriate ambitions and self-confidence. The opponent must act informatively and be constructive. However, the role of opponent also includes questions, scepticism and criticism. This may be unexpected for the candidate, frightening for his/her family and insulting for the supervisor. Therefore: Do not forget that the opponent is just doing his/her job. Be thankful. Never again in your academic life will someone have so thoroughly read through your work.
Practice the role of defender in front of colleagues, friends and family. During their PhD years, most candidates have had a great deal of training in writing, but little training in speaking in a structured and clear manner, nor have they had to spontaneously answer questions in front of a larger gathering of people.
Google your opponents, learn about their backgrounds, interests and most important publications.
Discuss the 10 most probable questions with your supervisors in advance. Experience has shown that you will have good use for at least 6-7 of these.
Let the audience see that you have looked forward to and are enjoying the disputation.
You can also share at least some of the glory with your opponents. It is your day, however, the opponent has put in an enormous amount of work and deserves attention and respect.
Do not play tough or get angry. Never say: “That is the stupidest question I have ever heard.”
Admit that (a few) problems in the thesis have yet to be solved and talk about how you will continue to work on solving these.
Answer calmly and confidently using a positive tone of voice, but with reasonable insistence when you are sure of your argument.
In beforehand, make up your mind about which questions you strongly want to defend, and which could be treated in a lighter manner
Do not apologise too much. Be proud of what you have done, and explain why there are sensible reasons for the steps taken in the thesis.
Be yourself, i.e.: Present the best aspects of yourself.
And remember: The audience is on your side and everyone involved (including the opponents) wants this to go well.
This article is produced and financed by the University of Stavanger
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