The PhD defence – the right mindset

You fear your defence. You are scared of questions you cannot answer. You are aware of all you do not know. You fear criticism from the jury. The idea of being publicly humiliated paralyses you. Change your mindset!

The defence – the right mindset

You are no longer a student

You have worked – you have worked a lot.

You have learned.

You have a degree of expertise on your subject that you did not have all those years ago, when you started.

You certainly don’t know everything – as an expert, you are the only one actually aware of how little you know, and that itself is a sign of becoming an expert.

Who said that your knowledge must be universal ?

You are qualified to defend your thesis. You will receive your title of Doctor.

Your expertise will be recognized publicly, scientifically – and legally.

So, if you haven’t changed your mind yet, now is the time: when you arrive at your defence, you don’t enter the room as a student undergoing examination.

You enter the room as an expert who will talk with other experts.

Moreover, those experts will discuss a subject with you that you are a master of, which you have worked on more than anybody else.

You have published articles and/or written a large piece of work – your thesis.

You are no longer a student. You are an expert.

The jury is not about to tear you down

Your jury is made of scientists – usually very busy people.

Some of them have come from faraway to participate in your defence.

Do you really believe they made the trip for the sole purpose of “tearing you down“?

Be aware that your jury is made of former doctoral students: they have all gone through what you are going through.

They all had stage fright before their defence.

They all had anxieties – had moments of doubt.

For those reasons, you can be sure they understand your situation.

Let them have empathy for you.

A thesis defence is always a moment of intense emotion.

The members of the jury will therefore understand your stage fright, your emotions, and your hesitations.

The defence is not an examination

The defence is not a knowledge check.

Your jury did not sacrifice half a day or more just to verify what you know.

Remember: you are no longer a student. You are an expert.

Distinguished scientists came to listen the expert you are.

To listen to what you have to say.

Because you have something interesting to say – something new, something fresh.

Your defence is an opportunity to speak about your subject with cultivated people who are eager to know you and learn more about your work.

You will engage in discussions that will lead you to deepen, explore, and reflect on your work.

The defence is not a court

Your jury did not travel to judge you, nor to reach a verdict or convict you.

Of course, not everyone will agree with everything – I would say ”good”!

Otherwise, the defence would be a simple formality, an empty conversation – boring.

A defence is the opportunity for a fascinating intellectual and scientific exchange.

And – perhaps the opposite of what you might fear – you have the level to nourish this exchange.

You have made discoveries.

You have presented strong arguments to support your affirmations.

You have drawn conclusions – you have founded them scientifically.

They all express your point of view – even if they do not intend to be absolute.

What makes all this interesting – what makes your thesis so interesting – is that it will invite a debate.

Thus your work provides not only some answers – it poses new questions, opens up new discussions, proposes new paths for research.

Of course your thesis has limitations, maybe imperfections – and of course, they will be mentioned: the jury members must apply the academic standards required by the university.

Nevertheless, these criticisms will definitively not be the core of your defence.

A piece of advice: instead of facing them as reproaches, consider them input for improving your future work.

Above all, please do not beat yourself up by apologising for your limitations or imperfections: once again, you jury is not there to examine your knowledge or to condemn you.

You are no longer a student. You are an expert.

Questions are not a knowledge check

If your jury asks you questions, it is not to verify your knowledge.

It is because they are interested in your work.

So, if a member of the jury asks you a question, it is not because they know the answer and want to set a trap for you.

They ask because they do not know, and you are the expert on the subject !

If you know the answer, then of course say it.

But if you don’t have one, don’t apologise.

Keep in mind that even an expert does not have universal knowledge.

If you are asked a question for which you cannot provide an answer … answer like the expert you are – the expert who does not know all the answers.

Then an expert, knowing exactly what they don’t know, is especially capable of saying when they don’t know something. Behave as an expert. You will probably answer somehting likeI don’t know, but I can imagine that… because…

Remember that you may answer by developing hypotheses, posing new questions, proposing paths to explore.

By doing so, you are showing your ability to think scientifically.

To behave as the expert you definitely are.

Incidentally, you also show that, when facing a question you don’t know the answer, you can keep a cool head about it.

The questions your jury will ask will offer opportunities to not only demonstrate your knowledge, but especially your qualities as a scientist: your ability to gain height, to step back, to examine a question from a new angle – to explore a new question.

Hence – change your mindset.

You are not a student anymore – you are an expert!

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