There’s nothing all that unusual about this Princeton University Graduate School registration card until you look at the bottom right corner of the first image. There you see that someone who passed the general examinations (the last step before a dissertation for Ph.D. students) in 1942 didn’t receive his Ph.D. until 50 years later–in 1992. But he didn’t take 50 years to write a dissertation, so graduate students everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief.
On January 25, 1992, Milton Byron Babbitt received his Ph.D. in musicology 46 years after submitting his dissertation, having passed a surprise oral exam.
Though viewed as impressive, his thesis on the mathematics of the 12-tone system was rejected in 1946 because Princeton University’s Department of Music then only offered a Ph.D. in historical musicology, not theory and composition. At that time, the music faculty deemed his work “unreadable” despite praise from his outside reader in the mathematics department, Professor John W. Tukey.
In the 1980s, the music department felt he deserved a second opportunity to complete the degree. After much discussion, they resubmitted his dissertation for review without his knowledge in 1991. As can be seen in the last image above, the mathematics professor who initially supported Babbitt’s candidacy for the Ph.D. was asked to write a second reader’s report as part of this process.
It has been 8 years now, but I still remember my dissertation defense like it was yesterday. I had almost three months between the end of writing my dissertation and when I defended it. There was plenty of time to think … and to worry! Here are some do’s and don’ts I learned that I hope will, in turn, benefit you.
Put down your dissertation for a designated period of time, at least a week or two. Step away from it. Spend time with family or friends. Take a vacation. Attend your favorite sporting event or fine art performance. Then come back to it and read it again with as fresh a pair of eyes as possible. Look for honest areas of strength and weakness.
Have another fresh pair of eyes read your dissertation. Ask her not only to look for weaknesses but obvious questions that come to mind: Why did you decide to go into this direction and not another? Why didn’t you do this? What could have done better? These are all helpful questions that you may be asked at your defense.
Think of responses to questions that professors may ask. You may go as far as prepare notes, outlines, and scripts to answer these questions. This will give you the basis for a response in your defense.
Identify and think about what a next logical research project would be. I know you are tired and don’t want to think of what’s next. But every study has its limitations and has to bracket some questions. Think about what Volume 2 of your study would be!
Attend other defenses to see what yours might be like. Talk with your major professor about what she envisions the defense to be like, what questions folks may ask, and other information she is willing to reveal.
Be confident that your professors have a lot invested in the time and energy they spent with you along the way. The defense is also a time of celebration and accomplishment!
Don’t let your fears get the best of you. You will be anxious. You will have worries, but don’t focus on them. Focus on your preparation and actively working toward your oral examination.
Don’t assume you know what is going to be asked. Professors will surprise you. Be ready to say, “I don’t know!” to some questions even after all your research and writing. In the same way, be willing to ask for clarification if questions seem vague or you need clarification. That’s always OK and can give you more time to formulate your answer.
Don’t hesitate to ask someone to take you through a practice defense, whether other students, a trusted professor, or your spouse. Ask them to practice all the questions you have prepared and some you have not!
Don’t be defensive. Professors will ask tough questions. Some may disagree with your findings and methods of research. Some will critique aspects of your writing. Be able to separate your work from your person. This is difficult to do when you have poured your life and soul into a dissertation, but it will show that you know how to have a scholarly debate and take critique constructively.
Don’t be afraid to show emotion. Your passion for your dissertation should show as well as your ability to thoughtfully discuss the topic at times without emotion. But your work becomes a big part of your life. Professors like to see someone who truly cares about his work but also who has the ability to talk about it in a scholarly manner.
Don’t be afraid to invite your family, friends, and fellow students to your defense. You will amaze most people at your depth of knowledge and ability to discuss topics beyond the everyday conversations most people have. They will want to be part of this important event and celebrate with you! Plus you may just need some honest feedback and debriefing.