Defending Your Thesis at Viva

  • A thesis defense is a pivotal moment for doctoral candidates. It carries immense significance and is often associated with anxiety and subpar performance.

But doctoral candidates must learn how to navigate this critical stage. A successful thesis defense not only signifies academic achievement but also prepares students for the challenges of academia and beyond.

In an increasingly competitive academic landscape, the ability to effectively present and defend one’s work is a critical skill that can greatly impact a researcher’s career trajectory.

On Dec. 8, 2023, CARISCA Director Nathaniel Boso and research faculty member Dominic Essuman presented a webinar to help students prepare for their thesis defense. The focus was on guiding doctoral candidates in effectively preparing for and defending their research while also positioning themselves competitively within academia and beyond.

The event was part of the CARISCA Training Series, which aims to boost the research capacity of KNUST and other African scholars.

The training covered three primary topics:

  • Designing an effective thesis presentation
  • Delivering a quality thesis presentation
    Preparing for and managing the thesis
  • Q&A session

Essuman, a former PhD student of Boso’s who is now a lecturer at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., kicked off the session. He introduced various presentation styles adaptable for communicating different facets of a PhD thesis. He provided practical tips applicable to each phase before, during and after the thesis presentation.

Boso then employed examples to illustrate how participants could transform their research into a compelling narrative. He shared practical guidelines for achieving this goal and then guided participants through typical PhD viva questions, detailing approaches for addressing each question effectively.

Following are key takeaways from the training:

Ensuring effective communication
Choose and combine presentation styles to best communicate different aspects of the work and captivate your audience. For example, a “persuasive” style involving storytelling and reference to important cases and examples can help convince the examiners why your research matters.

On the other hand, “demonstrative” style will suffice while explaining your conceptual model and its underlying logic. Employ the “informative” style to show in-depth knowledge of your research.

Regardless of the style, your presentation should not involve too many details. Keep in mind that the examiners have already reviewed your written thesis.

Use slides to illustrate your major points, not to duplicate what you plan to say. The slides should contain minimal text. Consider using appropriate visuals such as images and short videos. Avoid reading the slide titles, and find a smooth way to transition between slides.

Preparing for the presentation
Master your materials so you can demonstrate a deep understanding of your research. This will help you demonstrate that you have earned the right to hold a doctor of philosophy degree in your field.

If you know who your examiners are, be familiar with their research background. Understand their philosophical perspective, methodological approaches, and their research outputs that relate to your work.

Think about and prepare for potential questions, such as:

  • In one sentence, what is your thesis about?
  • Why did you choose theory X and not other theoretical lenses?
  • What’s original about your work?
  • Where is the novelty?
  • Why did you choose the research method you used?
  • Can you summarize your key findings in one sentence?
  • How does your thesis contribute to knowledge?
  • What are the strongest/weakest parts of your work?
  • Be yourself. 
  • Don’t attempt to mimic someone else’s presentation style or to memorize your talk. You want to come across as natural and confident.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! Be aware of your timing, tone and body language.

What to do during the presentation
Take your time. Don’t speak too fast or too slow. A moderate pace is best.

Use open, friendly body language, and use your hands to help illustrate your points.

Engage your audience by making eye contact and incorporating stories and audiovisual elements into your presentation.

Speak clearly and confidently. Avoid filling pauses with “umm” and “err” or talking as if you are in a classroom setting.

Handling the Q&A session after the presentation
Thank your audience and acknowledge their questions and feedback.

Always be respectful and considerate while answering questions. Don’t be defensive or confrontational in your responses. Maintain a positive and receptive attitude.

Don’t avoid questions. Attempt to answer them if you can. If you can’t answer a question during the presentation, be sure to follow up with a response afterward.

Use questions and feedback as an opportunity to learn and further develop your research.

Telling Your Story
The audience wants to hear a clear storyline, right from the beginning of the presentation to the end. So, take the audience on a journey to understand and appreciate the story behind your research.

Imagine yourself as a novelist, telling children about an interesting scientific story. Avoid technical terms and jargon.

Make the dependent variable in your research the beginning of your storyline. Get your audience to understand how the dependent variable is important. Then explain the problem with the way that variable has been studied before.

Afterward, take your audience on a journey from the problem point to a place where that problem is being addressed adequately by your research. What matters most is communicating the importance of your research, the importance of the problem and the contribution that you’re making.




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