In the lead-up to my PhD defence in November 2013, one the main worries that I had floating around in my head was how to structure the oral presentation. I asked various friends, colleagues, and mentors for advice, which they gladly provided, and I conducted Internet searches for any sort of list of best practices. Much of what I encountered online was geared towards the physical sciences, and as an historian, only some of what I found was beneficial to me.
A few minutes ago, I saw a request for help on Twitter that reminded me of my pre-defence experience: “HELP: how do i structure my thesis defense? im looking online for tips but coming up short because everything is science-centric.” Suddenly, this call for help flipped a switch in my mind. I recalled that of the 40-50 people who were at my PhD defence, several came up to me afterward and stated that they really liked how I had structured my oral presentation. A few of them even wanted a copy of my presentation, which I was more than happy to pass along.
With that in mind, and since tips and advice meant for those studying the humanities and social sciences can be hard to find online, I’m providing here a few pointers that I found especially helpful. Please note that my area of study is history, so some of what I describe in this post might not be useful in your situation. As individual experiences can vary widely, use at your own discretion. For example, much of what I’m relating here will likely apply more to North American graduate programs than those located elsewhere in the world.
First point: breathe. When you initially sit down to work on the oral presentation, it can seem like a large and nebulous task. However, keep in mind that you’re at the end of a very big and very difficult project, your degree/thesis, and what you’re about to face is just the last step. I’ve always found the best way to tackle any large project is to break it down into a series of smaller jobs or tasks. That way, I can quantify what I need to do, plus it makes the whole endeavour come across as manageable, which you might need to remind yourself during panicky moments. Besides, who doesn’t like crossing tasks off a list?
My next pointer is to get advice from as many sources as possible. Don’t just rely on this post. As stated above, I talked to friends, colleagues, and mentors. You might even be able to get presentations to use as templates from a couple of them. There’s also your supervisor, who should have some advice for you. Moreover, search online, use resources available through your university, hit up the library, etc. Like anything, the best decisions are usually the well-informed ones.
Next, be sure to follow your graduate school’s presentation guidelines, if they exist. If you’re supposed to keep your oral presentation to a maximum of 15-20 minutes, then do that. Don’t go over the time limit. In fact, respect your audience and never go over the time limit, whether you’re presenting at conferences, teaching a class, etc. Also, if your grad school has guidelines as to how the presentation should be structured, follow them and not necessarily what I’m outlining here.
When giving the actual presentation at the defence, put your best self forward. Remember, you’ve worked really hard for a long time to get to this point, so don’t tarnish it with a weak presentation performance. I know that not everyone is comfortable speaking in public, but do your best. It’s better to be a little overdressed than underdressed, meaning wear more formal clothes if you have them and maybe not jeans and a t-shirt. Speak slowly, enunciate well, and don’t get too jargon-y. My mother always told me that if you’re reading something aloud to an audience and it feels like you’re going too slow, then you’re probably going at a proper pace. In history, it’s commonplace for people to read from a script, much to the chagrin of some. If it’s more commonplace in your field to not read from a script, be sure to practice a lot beforehand. Even if you’re going to read from a script, practice reading it in front of family, friends, colleagues, etc., if they’re willing.
Finally, the structure of the presentation. Once again, I’d like to reiterate that my approach seems to have worked well for historians, although it might not be the best fit for your field. I’m going to describe the basic outline below, but you can find a PDF copy of my presentation at the end of this post.
To begin, I thanked everyone on my PhD committee, then those who were in attendance at my oral defence. I then proceeded to outline how my presentation would unfold, so that folks had a basic idea of what I would be talking about that afternoon. The next section was an explanation of how I became interested in environmental history generally and my dissertation specifically. This part of the presentation was popular with the audience. Indeed, my off-campus external wished that I had left in some details that I had taken out about growing up on a small family farm in northwestern New Brunswick.
The section on how I became interested in my dissertation segued into what I termed “insights gained from my research.” Basically, this is where I laid out my research methods, some of the questions that came to me while I conducted the research, and my “aha” moment, that is, what my dissertation was going to explore. Once all of that had been established, I then moved on to my historiographical and theoretical considerations. This is where I discussed my theoretical approach and how what I had written fit in the larger body of scholarship.
The next part of my presentation was a breakdown of the various chapters and findings. You should keep in mind that the committee has already read your thesis, so you just need to provide a nice summary of what you found, not a complete rehashing. People in the audience who haven’t yet read your thesis, or who won’t read it, will also appreciate a brief summary of your findings. In the final section, I highlighted what I considered to be “three important and interconnected conclusions.” This is where I tried to draw some larger lessons from my study. Admittedly, they weren’t perhaps the strongest, but that’s what the book is for.
That’s about all I have to offer. I hope you find some of these tips helpful. One last pointer: remember, you are the expert. At your defence, you’ll know the topic better than anyone else in the room. Take the time to think about the questions and answer them confidently. Good luck and enjoy the experience.
If you have any more helpful tips, please leave them in the comments section below.
Mark McLaughlin’s PhD Oral Presentation, November 2013