Preparing a Dissertation Defense

A dissertation defense can come in many forms but in essence the point is to showcase your research from the past several years of your career. Our department has a three chapter format for dissertations and, usually, these are each publications that have already been published, recently been submitted, or will soon be submitted. Even though you have completed a lot of difficult, complex scientific work, you still have to cater your defense to your audience.

If you don’t cater your talk to your audience, they will quickly lose interest and zone out. You want to make sure to engage and not talk over their heads. So my dissertation had a lengthy, jargon-rich title, “Respiratory Structure Morphology, Group Origins, and Phylogeny of Eublastoidea”. Rather than titling my defense talk with this ridiculous title, that would only excite a few people, I chose something simpler and more effective: “Phylogeny as a Tool in Paleobiology”. From this you can get an understanding that I am talking about paleobiology (=ancient life) and using phylogeny (=evolutionary histories) to test research questions.

Jen with her title slide, just before presenting her dissertation defense!

The paleontology group in our department is quite small, two faculty and a handful of students. There is a larger sedimentology group that understand fossils quite well but much of my department lacks an understanding of the fossil record (in great detail) and don’t necessarily understand how to read tree/branching diagrams. Knowing this, I started the talk with a few sentences on the overall importance of my talk, why anyone (even my mom) should care about the talk and then I spent time on background information. Information on the group I use to test questions, how we read tree diagrams, and what kind of patterns we look for within the trees.

I then split my talk into three sections that were similar to my dissertation chapters. Since I was focusing on using phylogeny as a tool in deep time, I left out some of the other complex methods that would have taken away from the overall theme of the presentation and focused on the evolutionary histories and what they could tell us about these animals in the past. I made sure each slide had enough text but not too much – viewers get invested in text and think they should read it, which often takes away from what you are actually saying. I also made sure to include visually appealing images – I still haven’t mastered color blind palettes so if you have suggestions please let me know. These images had to start simple and get more complex and I had to make sure to explain each of them thoroughly.

For all talks I give, I write up a corresponding script (thanks, Alycia!). Writing a script helps me organize my talk and gives me an idea of what I want to say during the presentation. I practice a lot – because I know that I won’t get nervous if I *know* what I’m going to say. The first several times I practice I read directly off the script, trying to get used to saying the words and using the slides to visually demonstrate what I am saying. I practice at least a handful of times and usually by myself, I get nervous with only a few people in the room so it throws me off! Everyone is different so I suggesting finding the best way for you to practice so you are confident, maybe it’s with a group of people or maybe it’s by yourself!

Hints for giving successful presentations:

  • Know your audience
  • Have someone look through your slides or watch your talk to make sure your organization of the talk makes sense
  • Use a laser pointer or animations but not like a crazy person, move the laser slowly, and don’t have things flying from all directions on your slides
  • Be confident, you are likely one of the experts in your field, discipline, topic, whatever and the audience wants to listen to you or else they wouldn’t have come

I recorded a version of my defense below!

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