ME TO STUDENT (practicing for a defense):”I love you, but I’m going to grill you!” STUDENT’S RESPONSE: “I’ll be the cheese!” – Notes to grad students preparing to defend proposals

Dear Graduate Students,

That time is coming when you will have to defend your dissertation proposal to your committee, and they will decide if you are ready to move to the next step to prepare your dissertation research as a doctoral “candidate.” That transition from “student” to “candidate” is important, and lets our academic community know that you have done enough work to lay a strong foundation for continuation of your new idea. Last week, when a student in my group wanted to go over some points for an upcoming defense, I wanted the student to know that there would be a serious grilling, but that I was still being supportive. The student responded with a readiness to “be the cheese.” I found this response humorous, and was pleased that the student was ready to listen and learn. Since three of my scholars are defending within the next few weeks, I wanted share some thoughts regarding expectations from faculty.

My dear students, we (the faculty) want to see you succeed. This is your chance to “show and prove” that you are ready to take on the task. Here are some points.

  1. Be confident in your work. You’ve done the work, showcase it. Speak clearly, and enthusiastically about your research. Look your professors in the eyes — remember, that you will be their future colleagues. Do not let your voice trail off at the end of your sentences. Along the same lines, do not end your sentences as if you are asking questions.
  2. Remember that you are defending your work, therefore, you need background evidence to justify the work. What have you read? Have you combed the literature? Do you understand the origins of your work? Who are the mothers and fathers of your field and topic? Where did they study and conduct their research? How did those research environments and departmental philosophies affect their thought processes? How does your work link back to the origins? Know “your academic history.” As an example, as a speech scientist and engineer, I was thrilled to trace some of my own work’s origins back to Gunnar Fant (1919 – 2009) who was a professor in the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm. I still have a coveted copy of Fant’s “Acoustic Theory of Speech Production” (1970) in my office.
  3. What have you done lately? Discuss your pilot studies. What have you done to support your hypothesis? Have you conducted any trials? How do the outcomes justify the need to move to another step? Discuss your subject pool, animal model, sample algorithms, etc., as applicable.
  4. Does your proposed plan make sense? Did you choose the best method? Are you using the right equipment, facilities, software, frameworks, etc.? Can you defend against the use of other methods, e.g., “Why are you using method A, instead of method B?”
  5. Do you have a feasible timeline? Did you plan a 20-year study, or a reasonable 2-year project? If you have specific aims, will you be able to complete all of them in the time allotted? If you need to use human or animal subjects, do you have ready access to them? Do you need access to a collaborator’s lab equipment? Will you need written permissions to use a particular database? Did you propose something that requires access to sensitive materials? Are your Responsible Conduct of Research and Institutional Review Board certifications up to date? Have you allotted time for IRB review?
  6. Know your committee! Have you reviewed your committee’s academic work? Do you understand their perspectives? Have you considered how their training and approaches to research will influence their expectations of you? Read your committee members’ CVs, research papers, websites, students’ dissertations, etc. As an example, I was trained at Northwestern and was allowed to take a multidisciplinary approach that combined three fields. As a faculty member, my lab’s spectrum was broad. As a result, I tend to look at research as a big picture, often with questions that span a variety of disciplines. Know that your committee will be looking for ways that their knowledge fits into what you are proposing. Understand why you asked them to be on your committee, and expect them to bring that expertise to the table. As an example, your stats person will ask you about everything related to stats, from your choice of variables to your analysis tool. Your AI expert may ask you anything from neuroscience, to computer science, to anthropology – depending on their expertise and experience, e.g., new ideas developed during a sabbatical, interesting concepts brought forth at a conference.
  7. Don’t be frazzled by questions. Anticipate questions in advance. Seriously — write a list of potential questions in advance. Don’t pat yourself on the back by asking yourself easy questions. Don’t hover on the surface of the research. Go deep into the layers. Have three layers of “if/then” — e.g., “What if A is the case, then B occurs? If B occurs, then C might result. When C happens then D will cause ______. “ Be sure that you are prepared to address areas of each committee member’s expertise — afterall, isn’t that why you wanted them on your committee in the first place? You have people on your committee who can guide you and your research approach, based on their content knowledge. You invited them to be on your committee (or your advisor told you to invite them) therefore, you should expect them to share their perspectives, whether “sharing” comes in the form of a suggestion, or a drilled question. In the same way that you anticipate questions, think through answers. See yourself as a scientist, engineer, educator, psychologist, mathematician of renown — now. If you already had the doctorate, how would you answer the questions? Don’t “hand-wave” and give scant answers. Even if you don’t know the answer, you should be able to logically think through an approach to a possible answer. Sometimes the right “answer” is in the thought process!
  8. What are the limitations of your approach? Think about this in advance. Don’t wait for your committee to tell you about things that won’t work.
  9. Develop your proposal defense materials based on the department’s guidelines or culture. Now is not the time to be a lone wolf. Start with the slide template that your  advisor, lab, or research group uses for proposal defenses, dissertation defenses, or conference presentations. “Familiar” backgrounds and templates are helpful, because they allow the committee to focus on your work, without being distracted by a different colorful background, new fonts, or formatting that they haven’t seen before. Number your slides (this is something that our dissertation coach, Dr. Wendy Carter-Veale, tells our Dissertation House participants in every prep session.)
  10. Practice out loud, in front of people. It is important for you to hear yourself talk. You need to know, in advance, how you will put thoughts and words together. If possible, practice in the room where you are scheduled to present. It will reduce nervousness, and allow you to case the room so that you can practice how you will stand, determine the need for a podium, decide if you will stand to the right or left of the screen, etc. When you invite people to your practice talk, ask them to give you a true critique. Invite content experts and people who are curious so that they can GRILL you (in love)! Put on your Teflon and be ready to hear strong critical comments. Do not limit your practice audience to friends who will shower you with compliments. You can go to lunch or dinner with your friends AFTER the practice, and they can encourage and build you up then.

Ok! Ready? On the day of your defense, dress comfortably because you don’t want to be worrying about your clothing. Remember that you are a researcher. You are curious. You love the work, and you are enjoying the process of finding answers. Good luck to you … shine!

All the best,

Renetta Tull

Renetta in Houston 2018 Dissertation Institute

Photo taken in Houston, TX –  Summer 2018, at the Dissertation Institute, sponsored by Old Dominion University and Virginia Tech. The talk was part of the “When Faculty Say ‘X'” workshop series that I started many years ago. 

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