Beeld: Arian Khoshchin, canva.com

As we usher in the new year, Isabelle Kohler shares her anticipation for a joyful milestone in her academic career – the PhD defense of some of her students. She offers insights and tips to PhD candidates in a similar situation on how to make this experience both memorable and triumphant.

This is my first column of the year 2024. Even though the year started a few weeks ago, I still feel like it’s a brand new year, full of fresh plans and exciting prospects!

On a professional level, I’m quite excited about this year: some of my PhD students will graduate.

Aaah, the PhD Thesis defense. The Holy Grail for PhD students. A major milestone that’s eagerly awaited yet can be quite daunting. It’s the time when PhD candidates finally show to their colleagues, friends, and family the extent of their hard work of the past few years.

I still remember my own PhD defense quite distinctly, even though it was over a decade ago. It was a day marking the completion of almost five years of hard work. I had spent three months day and night writing my thesis and a grant proposal, so by that point, all I wanted was to finish and take a holiday. My mind is still filled with random memories of that day: the lunch with the thesis committee before the defense where they offered me wine while I was a bundle of nerves; the intense, nearly three-hour discussion with the jury; the emotional moments during the acknowledgments; and the joy of seeing everyone – friends, family, and external collaborators – who came to celebrate with me. It was truly a special day.

And now, it’s equally special to be on the other side of the stage, sitting and listening to my PhD students answer questions. It makes me so proud to see them reach this important milestone and answer questions with confidence and enthusiasm. It’s one of those rewarding academic moments – the icing on the cake after years of supervision and mentoring. I can’t wait for my PhD students to experience the same special day!

I’m fascinated by the fact that the format and even the name of the PhD defense varies from country to country. In the UK, for example, it’s called a ‘Viva’ or ‘Viva Voce’. Elsewhere, it may be known as a ‘PhD Defense’, ‘Dissertation Defense’, ‘Thesis Defense’, or a ‘Disputation’. I was almost shocked when I attended my first PhD defense in the Netherlands: only 45 minutes of questions? And no mandatory presentation before the questions? In Switzerland, I had to give a 45-minute presentation before being questioned for almost 3 hours straight! That’s why I now enjoy being part of dissertation committees outside the Netherlands as well to discover more of these differences.

Is 2024 also the year you plan on defending your thesis? Congratulations! It will be a great day, I promise.

How can you best prepare for that day? Let’s review the five keys to mastering your defense:

  • Understand the format. Each institution has its own format for PhD defenses. Make sure you understand the specifics – how long the presentation should be, the structure of the questioning session, who will be present, etc. Make sure you attend the defense of your more advanced colleagues to get inspiration
  • Read your thesis (yes, even if you’re tired of it). You should know your thesis inside out. Re-read it and make sure you understand every detail. Be prepared to answer questions on any part of your work, including your methodology, data, and conclusions. This is also important if you have an interdisciplinary thesis project with multiple collaborators.
  • Anticipate questions. Try to anticipate the questions you might be asked. These can include questions about the core content of your research, the implications of your findings, and how your work fits into the broader field. You may also be asked about the limitations of your study and future research directions. Be prepared to delve into areas that are crucial to your thesis. Make sure you are up to date with the latest developments in your field that may be relevant to your thesis. Be ready to articulate the significance of your work in the broader context of your field.
  • Plan a mock defense. Organize a mock defense (or two) with your supervisors and peers. This gives you a sense of the actual defense environment and helps you get comfortable with answering questions on the spot. Try to practice in front of a group with a different expertise. Ask one of your senior colleagues to write down all the questions and how you answered them, and discuss this with your supervisors.
  • Practice your presentation. If your defense begins with a presentation, prepare it well. Practice this presentation several times. Pay attention to timing, clarity, and how effectively you’re communicating your main points.

Mastering your PhD defense is not only about science, but also about details that matter! Make sure you consider these aspects to master the Holy Grail:

  • Dress appropriately. Respect your university’s dress code and dress as professionally as possible. Choose clothes and shoes that make you feel comfortable: you don’t want to focus on sore feet during the defense! Sweating a lot? Invest in underarm sweat pads: you also don’t want to ruin your confidence.
  • Listen carefully to the questions. During the defense, listen carefully to each question before responding. It’s okay to take a moment to think or ask for clarification if you don’t understand the question.
  • Take care of the logistics. Check all logistics ahead of time – the time, place, equipment for the presentation, where you stand in relation to the committee, etc.
  • Breathe. It’s normal to be nervous, but it’s good to have tools to manage your nervousness (deep breathing, positive visualization, etc.).
  • Sleep. Despite the stress of last-minute tasks and requests, try to maintain a healthy lifestyle in the weeks leading up to your defense. Fresh air, healthy food, exercise, and sleep will give you the foundation for a successful and enjoyable defense.
  • Maintain a positive mindset. Remember that your committee is not there to destroy you; they want you to succeed. The defense is not just an exam; it’s a celebration of your work.

I wish all C2W International readers a peaceful and fruitful 2024, and all soon-to-be PhDs a memorable defense!



If you’re interested in learning more on how to navigate academia and the PhD journey – from securing a PhD position to your PhD defense day, don’t hesitate to join the NextMinds Community! For this, you have plenty of choices: visit NextMinds website to learn more about my work, sign up to the weekly newsletter, and follow me and NextMinds on LinkedIn.