Guidelines for the Conduct of a Dissertation Defense:
Preprospectus, Prospectus, and Final
These guidelines are descriptive, not prescriptive. They describe the general conduct of a dissertation defense in the Educational Leadership Program in the Leadership, Technology, and Human Development Department in the College of Education at Georgia Southern University. The responsibility for the defense belongs to the dissertation committee chair and departures from these typical guidelines can occur based on the context, the student, and their topic of study. In an effort to bring more continuity to the defense process for both doctoral students and committee members, it is recommended that the committee chair follow these protocols in directing the defense.
What is a defense?
A dissertation defense is an oral presentation and discussion of a dissertation study. The purpose is to share the results of the study and to demonstrate to the committee and the academic community that the author has done work of sufficient quality to receive the doctoral degree and is able to speak to it in an open forum.
Dissertation chairs in the College of Education do not allow candidates to schedule defenses until the quality of the dissertation document – whether preprospectus, prospectus, or final – is good. It is expected that the candidate will also be appropriately prepared to be able to speak to his or her study as it relates to the oral defense. The end goal is that the student is sufficiently prepared to be successful in the defense.
What are the historical origins of the modern dissertation?
The history of theses and dissertations in western higher education revolves around two very different conceptions of what advanced students should know and demonstrate. For approximately 650 years (1200-1850), advanced students defended a thesis by demonstrating mastery of the classic authors. This demonstration occurred through using the method of syllogistic argument.
As the industrial revolution advanced through Europe and the accompanying scientific advances were disseminated through practical applications, German universities started to include scientific, technical, and business curricula. This academic philosophical shift also altered the role of faculty and advanced students where mastery of a topic occurred through independent research tested by publication, peer challenge, statistical and other changes in the construction of new thought and theory. The role of faculty and students evolved to one where they had a responsibility to generate new knowledge, skills, and beliefs that could improve the arts and science of western life.
The University of Berlin led this revolution. When academics and students studying abroad returned home, they brought the new perspectives with them. This change helped create the Johns Hopkins University (1876) in Baltimore, the first modern American research university. Cornell, Michigan, and Harvard quickly adapted with new curricula. From this emphasis on pure and applied research, came the modern American dissertation: a written discourse that demonstrates mastery of previous work and that advances the status of a field or discipline by the discovery or application to the art and craft of that discipline through the creation of new knowledge, skills, or applications.
The doctoral candidate, committee chair, and their committee members attend the dissertation defense. It is best if all committee members attend in person. If not, options such as Zoom or other online video conferencing can be arranged.
Final dissertation defenses are open to any interested member of the academic or professional community, such as other program or non-program faculty members, other program students or graduates, academic and professional guests. Personal guests sometimes also attend the final dissertation defense. Only the presentation and questioning portions of the defense are open. Individuals who are not members of the official committee will be excluded from the pre-discussion and voting deliberation portions of the defense.
What is the order of events?
This varies and will depend in large part on discussions between the committee chair and the doctoral candidate.
1. The candidate works with their committee chair to get the document ready for defense.
2. Upon approval of the committee chair, the doctoral candidate schedules a defense date and time with the committee and arranges a location. NOTE: For preprospectus and prospectus defenses, the committee must have the document two weeks prior to the defense. For final dissertation defenses, the committee must have the document three weeks prior to the defense date. Electronic versions should be sent to all committee members.
3. Once the defense is scheduled, and the committee members have the preprospectus, prospectus, or final dissertation document, there can be no more updates to the document until the defense. If any major concerns about the dissertation document arise the dissertation chair should be contacted immediately.
4. On the date of the defense, the most common practice is to begin with the chair welcoming the attendees. The chair also briefly goes through the procedures for the defense as described here and confirms that both the committee members and the student understands the process.
5. Next is the presentation component of the defense. The purpose of the presentation is not to substitute for the committee’s reading – typically they have not only read the document but also written feedback on it, which they often give to the candidate to inform revisions after the defense – but rather to demonstrate that the candidate can speak to his or her topic and research design. In this sense, the presentation should be no longer than 20 minutes.
Speaking about one’s research is in itself an academic skill that is different from writing the study. Presentations can be done in many formats: seated at the table with the committee, standing with PowerPoint, handouts, or posters. The format itself is not as important as the substance of the presentation and should reflect the most effective way to communicate to the audience an overview of the student’s research. Some chairs, in consultation with candidates, allow questions during the flow of the presentation, others prefer to hold questions to the end. The chair should inform the committee of the student’s preference prior to beginning the presentation.
- After the presentation, the student will be asked to get organized with the supporting materials they have brought to the defense such as their dissertation document and notepad. It is recommended that students not bring too many supporting materials to the defense as they can be a distraction to their ability to answer questions. The intention here is that the candidate is sufficiently knowledgeable about the topic, literature, and methodology that he or she can speak freely during the questioning period. Committee members should realize that the purposes of the rounds of questions could include some or all of the following depending on the defense level:
- allow the candidate to demonstrate what they know about the general topic;
- allow the student to address any holes or weak components in the research design noticed by the committee members and to defend their choices;
- allow the student to articulate their understanding of the research methodology and its consistency with the purpose of the study;
- allow the student to clarify minor questions the committee has related to organization, specific literature included, and components of the research process;
- allow the student to explore, explain, or justify their choice of conceptual or theoretical framework selected for the study;
- allow the student to explore further their methods, findings, or theoretical interpretations, and practical applications of results;
- allow the student to speak clearly to their data analysis or report included in Chapter 4;
- allow the student to explore what they learned and could contribute in general about educational professional practice from conducting the study.
The questions may range quite broadly from very specific to very general. They may be retrospective, intended to ask about something that was already done in the study, or prospective, intended to get the candidate thinking about future possibilities or alterations to the overall study design. They may include open-ended questions to which there is no known or “right” answer as well as closed questions about particular literature, theory, methods, or findings. It is not “mean” to ask “hard” questions. The content of the questions will also need to be adjusted accordingly depending on the dissertation defense level. The intent is for the candidate and all the attendees to learn as much as possible about the study, the research design, the candidates fitness to conduct the proposed research, and/or the candidate’s fitness for the degree.
Note: Although the Educational Leadership Doctoral committees typically include the committee chair, a content specialist, and a research methodologist, it is essential that all members contribute to the questioning on all matters pertaining to the candidate’s dissertation document. As appropriate, this means that all committee members should be prepared to come to the defense with questions pertaining to the topic, content, research methodology, or data analysis, findings, and conclusions as appropriate.
During the questioning component of the defense, it is recommended that committee members not get into a long presentation about their understanding of the topic, but allow the candidate time to share and explore their knowledge of the study and its design. Committee members should also avoid telling the student what to do as it relates to the theoretical lens, the literature review, or the research methodology and its analysis. Instead, the committee members can assist the student to be aware of what could be or needs to be done through appropriate questioning. If the student cannot reach this level of understanding through appropriate and relevant questioning, then the committee member can offer suggestions to the student of where the research design can be changed or improved.
Committee members should also be considerate of one another, and this is where the committee chair should moderate to make sure that all committee members have appropriate time to ask the candidate their questions to determine the fitness of the candidate to proceed or to pass or fail the defense.
Suggested Process (as appropriate to the level of the defense):
Round 1 – Questions pertaining to the topic, theoretical lens, literature/research
Round 2 – Questions pertaining to the research design, feasibility of the research, methodology, data analysis
Round 3 – Questions pertaining to linking candidate’s research to educational practice
Round 4 – Additional questions not answered through Rounds 1-3
6. When the questioning is complete, the candidate is excused from the room.
7. The committee members now deliberate and cast their decision on whether to pass or fail the candidate. In committees of 3 members, a unanimous vote should be achieved. In committees of 4 members, there can be one dissenting vote. In instances of a passing vote, the committee chair should recap what the committee members expressed as necessary changes to the student’s document and give the committee time to reflect on their recommendations for the student and their doctoral dissertation.
In instances where it is difficult to get members to agree on a decision, the chair should make every effort possible to moderate the discussion and help get committee members to a common consensus – whether pass or fail – considering all the facts pertaining the student, their written document, and the oral defense given by the student. In instances where further support is needed to reach a consensus among the committee members, the Doctoral Program Director or the Associate Dean of Administration and Faculty Affairs can be contacted and brought in to help further moderate the process. It is best that a unanimous vote be reached.
In instances of a failing vote, the student will have no sooner than 2 months after the first defense and no later than 6 months after the first defense to schedule a second defense. In matters of a failing vote, the committee chair will be responsible for writing a brief report indicating the reasons for the decision and include this with the appropriate form. This is necessary so that we have appropriate documents in case a student appeal is submitted. The report should express that all procedures were followed to ensure the integrity of the defense for both committee members and the student.
8. At this point, the candidate is brought into the room and informed of the committee’s decision.
9. The meeting is then adjourned.
10. It is further suggested that the committee chair then take some time to debrief with the student and discuss the next steps, including recommendations made by the committee.
11. The committee chair submits the appropriate paperwork to the Graduate Academic Services Center (GASC) or to the Doctoral Program Director.
In summary, the following basic script is a recommended process. Time spent on each segment varies.
The order, format, flow, and timing of the defense will be finalized and formally approved by the chair before the defense to ensure a complete, clear presentation of the study and examination of the candidate.
- Welcome by the chair and overview of the defense process is given
- Presentation by candidate
- Committee members ask questions and discuss study
- Candidate is asked to leave the room and the committee members deliberate on the decision to pass or fail the student
- Post-meeting announcement of outcome of committee deliberations, often including a conference between the candidate and committee chair (sometimes the whole committee) to review required changes in the dissertation document.
- Student prepares a short document listing the recommendations suggested by the committee members as a result of the defense. This shows that the student clearly understands their next steps toward improving the final document. This document is then forwarded to all committee members for approval or further clarification if necessary.
Last updated: 7/20/2023