Thesis defense thoughts

As a graduate researcher working on a research project investigating how online graduate students develop their academic identities, I was really intrigued by my partner Will’s recent experiences in defending his master’s thesis.

The external examiner characterized the thesis as “a pioneering study” in their area, and it passed oral examination with no revisions. He’s already been invited to submit a journal article on his thesis research, and people have suggested that he should publish the thesis. So I think I am unbiased when I say that it is a good master’s thesis. However, Will felt that he could have done a much better job of answering his committee members’ questions during the defense, which others who were also at the defense explained were tough though not untoward. Will suggested that he launched into trying to answer questions immediately without reflection, and wasn’t sure if he actually answered them in some cases.

I asked him to give me examples of the kind of things the examiners were asking that made him realize how much he still didn’t know about his topic and even feel like maybe he wasn’t cut out for academia. What I realized from his descriptions was that he may have felt more prepared had he known how to frame his responses in ways to buy time (e.g. “Thank you, that’s a really important point, and I’d like to address this further…”) and to frame responses so that he could limit the theoretical perspective or sources he looked at (e.g. “From a sociological perspective, so-and-so said…, but in my study, I am defining this construct as …. following…”).

These are sorts of responses that Clare has mentioned to me from early on my doctoral study. I pay particular attention when more advanced colleagues like Laura relate defense experiences or when I observe how faculty respond to questions at conferences. Since Will is the kind of learner who doesn’t learn well from being told something, we now think we should have roleplayed some scenarios. Next time, perhaps! While Will and I are are always talking graduate school at home, he is also an on-campus student who frequently talks to faculty in formal and informal meetings so I’m certain that he would have figured these kinds of conventions of academic discourse. What happens to online graduate students studying at a distance?


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