Recommendation for the oral presentation at a thesis defense

Steve Simon


I got a question about what to prepare for the presentation that a student was going to do for a thesis defense.

Of course, the first thing is to ask the committee chair and other other members of your committee for what they are looking for. Their opinion is far more important than mine.

The second thing is to try not to be too nervous. If you had written a bad thesis, you would have gotten feedback about it much earlier in the process. There may be patches that need to be fixed, but it is very unusual for a committee to let you get to a defense if they hated what you were doing. If their questions seem hostile, they are only trying to probe. They want you to succeed. That’s not going to be true, of course, out in the real world, so appreciate having a friendly audience this one time.

The third thing to keep in mind that many thesis defenses have members in the audience who are not on your committee. These might be other faculty, fellow students, and sometimes even family members. So your talk has to include enough detail that someone who has not read your thesis can still follow the general idea behind your work. It helps to have some extra slides at the end that can cover things that you won’t have time for in your presentation but which may help if you get questions about something that you covered in your written thesis but did not cover in your presentation.

Order the presentation in the same order as your written thesis. Most theses have an introduction, literature review, methods, results, and discussion. That’s also a logical order for your presentation. If you have too much material, you can cut a bit evenly from each section. But never, never, never cut out a section entirely.

General rules about presentations (e.g., don’t read your slides word for word) apply here, of course.

Beyond that, my only recommendation would be to try to anticipate questions that you might get, especially about alternative approaches that you may have considered and rejected. Be prepared to say (if appropriate) “I did not do that, but that’s an excellent suggestion for future work.” And be deferential to the committee. Accept pretty much any recommendation they make unless it is terribly bad. And find a way to avoid using the words “terribly bad” in your response to their terribly bad suggestions. Often the committee chair will rescue you if another member suggests something that is terribly bad, and he/she is allowed to use harsher language than you can.

Good luck! I’m sure you’ll do well.