I recently successfully defended my master’s thesis, so after several months of preparation which helped me a lot, I thought this would be an opportunity to write an article to detail what I have done to prepare for my thesis defense as part of my master’s degree!
The advice in this article can very well be applied also for doctoral students who are preparing to defend their dissertation, not only for master’s students.
What is a thesis defense?
The defense is one of the last steps before graduating for a master’s or doctoral student. This is an oral presentation in front of a jury made up of a few professors. Once the dissertation or thesis is completed, it is sent to the jury, who have about 1 month to read it. Then a defense date is determined.
The defense begins with a 30-40 minute presentation followed by a question period for the jury members and the public (some defenses are private). It can take +1 hour. After the question period, the jury withdraws and deliberates on the grade to be given to the student for the oral presentation and determines whether the student is suitable for graduation. Some modifications to be made to the thesis are always requested and sent to the student, who will have to make these modifications and proceed with the final submission of the thesis within a certain time limit: and voila, it’s over, the student- he has officially completed his master’s or doctorate!
Please note that how defense works vary from university to university and country to country. What I have shared here is my experience at the École de Technologie Supérieure in Montreal.
5 tips to get ready to defend your thesis
1- Prepare a PowerPoint in advance AND of good quality
As soon as you have finished writing your thesis, immediately start working on your PowerPoint. That’s what I did, and for a month and a half, I worked every day to improve my presentation! You really need to take the time to make a good, well-structured PowerPoint.
For the design of the slides, I always use SlidesCarnival to find a clean but professional theme (I used the Clean Minimal theme in my defense). Other sites offer themes for free, such as Slidesgo and SlidesMania.
Some general tips for creating a good PowerPoint for your thesis defense:
- Limit yourself to “bullet points.” No complete sentence!
- Write a few words as possible
- Use accent colors to make prettier slides
- Try to have one relevant image per slide, if possible
- Vary the presentation style of the slides
- Do not use unnecessary animation – try to use it to help the audience understand your message
- Show page numbers
Below are some examples of what I did in my PowerPoint to have a good structure and a quality presentation:
- Used the “highlight” to draw attention to certain words or a subtitle.
- Framed certain symptoms, added an animation to clarify an important point, and made the box appear as I talked.
- Wrote “10,000,000” in big characters to emphasize that Parkinson’s affects so many people (which means changing the style of the slides to convey my message).
- Played on the format and on the “highlight” to reduce the number of words and clarify my research questions.
- For the slide about the motivation for my research, I underlined a few important words I wanted to emphasize.
- When sharing tables, I start by presenting the full table. Then, while presenting the table and insisting on a particular row or column, I change the background to yellow to bring the audience’s attention.
2- Practice many times before your thesis defense
Practicing your presentation before your defense allows you to improve and gain confidence so that on D-Day, you are ready! Before the defense of my thesis, I practiced several times in different contexts to an academic audience, for example:
- Presentation in a reading group
- Presentation to my research laboratory
- Presentation to my master’s supervisors (maybe this is not allowed at your university)
Before each practice, take the time to specify that you are preparing to defend your thesis. Emphasize that you want to receive as many suggestions for improvement and questions as possible. Personally, the questions from my jury members stressed me a lot before the presentation, so I wanted to take advantage of the practices to answer as many questions as possible to work on my confidence. And that helped me a lot!
After each presentation, improve your slides based on the feedback received. So, after a few practices, you will feel 100% ready for your defense!
During my presentation with my supervisors, they especially mentioned points to remember to specify during the defense. So, I wrote in large red letters these points that I often forgot to mention while presenting. So during my defense, as I was in presentation view, I could see when a slide had a sentence in red, and I could make sure to mention it.
3- Prepare a list of questions
Another big part of my preparation was creating a long list of potential questions that my jury members might ask me. I wrote over 90 questions. I started by writing each chapter of my thesis:
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Literature Review
Then I wrote down all the potential questions in each of the sections. All the questions that people asked me during the practices, the things that I found more difficult to understand, all without exception. I also searched on Google. Several sites list typical questions often asked during defenses (How to Ace the 25 Most Common Project Defense Questions, Top 20 Questions Asked, Oral Defense questions, etc.)
90 questions might sound like a lot, and it sure is! But, I used several different models in my thesis (SVR, KNN, PLDA, NN). Therefore, for each of them, I had multiple questions:
- What is an SVR / KNN / PLDA / NN?
- Why did I choose this model?
- What are the pros/cons of this model?
- What are the hyperparameters that we need to tune for this model?
So the number of questions grew quite quickly! However, I felt ready to answer. Being more ready than not enough has always made me feel more confident during oral presentations. It depends on everyone, maybe for you, it is not necessary to prepare so much.
4- Create flash cards to practice questions
I have been using Quizlet for years to study before an exam. It’s a website where you can create free memory aid sheets and practice independently. I really like the functionality that allows Quizlet to read out loud the flashcards that you create.
Sometimes, I go outside for a walk and listen to my flashcards. It makes it much more fun to study while walking! Before an artificial intelligence exam, I used this read-aloud feature to revise while falling asleep. I was too stressed out to fall asleep, so studying while trying to fall asleep fixed the problem!
There are different modes to study: classic flashcards, write the answers (my favorite), test (combine different learning methods), and two game modes to try.
5- Attend other thesis defense
Finally, my last tip is to attend some defenses from other students who have studied in a field similar to yours. Pay attention to how the defense goes, what kinds of questions are asked, etc. It was definitely helpful to me. I remembered that in one of them, professors had asked a lot of questions about hyper-parameters. So, during my preparation, I paid special attention to this subject.
I hope this article has helped prepare you to defend your master’s or doctoral thesis. Feel free to share in the comments if you have any other advice for future students!