How-to

Preparing to defend

Courtney Chandler
Jan. 19, 2024

It’s a fresh year, and 2024 may be the year you (finally) defend your Ph.D. thesis. Preparing for a defense (which is basically your graduate school graduation) is a multi-month process, and I want to share my advice for those moving in that direction. 

Game cubes spelling the word 'thesis'

I broke it up into a rough timeline — take it with a grain of salt, as the process will inevitably vary among programs. Always refer to your program coordinator or director for the final say on when you need to do things. 

Up to a year out 

In my graduate program, students had to get approval from their thesis advisory committee before starting defense prep. The last committee meeting was my opportunity to make the case that my project was complete (or as complete as it was going to get — do science projects ever really end?). Afterwards, my committee members had to sign a form giving the okay for me to defend, and that was it. I had this meeting about six months before I defended. Some people have more time between their last meeting and defense; some have less.

Before this meeting, talk to your program advisor or director to make sure you understand the administrative requirements. I was surprised at the amount of paperwork that was needed. And you might need to communicate with other parties, such as the school registrar, to make sure your records are in order.

This is also a good time to start thinking about your post-graduation plans. If you aren’t sure what you want to do next, start having informational interviews to get a sense of what career fields might interest you. If you’re reading this column, you probably know that the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has many online career resources that are worth checking out.

If you want to do a postdoc, start using conferences and meetings to network with investigators you’d be interested in working with. You can also cold email investigators (that’s what I did) to ask about openings they may have in the near future. Many labs are flexible with start dates, so reaching out early is a good idea, especially if your grad school funding ends right after you defend. 

Start basic prep to set up your thesis writing too. Think of a general outline. Gather the citations you know you will need. Design or find relevant figures. These are all good preparatory activities.

A few months out 

Set a date. Ask your committee members when they are available, and pick a day that works for the defense (their schedules might make this harder than you’d expect). Make sure you reserve any rooms you need.

Most importantly, spend this time writing your thesis. If you’ve published part of your research already, that can serve as a great starting point. Gathering citations and figures early and writing in chunks helped me space out the work. I would finish a chapter, send it to my readers (I had to identify two committee members other than my mentor who would read my thesis) and then work on the next chapter while awaiting edits. 

My program required that our thesis be finished about two months before the defense date. Know your program’s requirements, and make sure you have enough time to write, discuss with your mentor (and committee members as applicable), edit, rewrite … you get the picture.  Even though I started writing months before my defense date, I had to push to get it done in time. 

If your final thesis defense involves an exam, make sure you’re prepared. I gave a public seminar and then had a closed-door oral exam with my committee members. The exam focused largely on my thesis work, which was easy since it was seared into my brain after writing, but I also made sure to briefly review biochemistry and molecular biology basics. 

Shortly before 

I spent my last few weeks finalizing and practicing my seminar presentation. I had plenty of slides from past presentations to pull from but needed to re-order and revamp them to fit within the broader context of my thesis project. I spent a lot of time thinking about the “story,” especially since my thesis was composed of three somewhat disjointed topics.

I also practiced my slides to death — my friends, my lab mates, and even my roommate’s cat all heard about my project at least twice. This helped me get my nerves under control and go into the seminar talk feeling confident.

A couple of weeks out, check in with your program coordinator or director again to make sure you have everything in order. I’d also recommend going to the room you will be presenting in (if you haven’t been there already) to make sure it has the setup and equipment you need. I even plugged my computer in to make sure there weren’t any weird Mac-to-PC issues.

This is an oversimplification of all the steps it takes to get to a thesis defense, but I hope this rough outline helps you prep for the big day. To all those defending in 2024, good luck and congrats!

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Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a biochemist and microbiologist in Baltimore, Md., and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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