The Dreaded Dissertation Defense, Defined

By Hazel Isaac-Smith, PhD

Man gets interviewed by executive leadership

Doctoral learners are typically terrified of the proposal and dissertation defense – and rightly so! The dissertation defense is a defining moment of any doctorally prepared individual’s professional life.

At Grand Canyon University, learners in our doctoral degree programs will face two defenses: one for the proposal and one for the dissertation. The fear of facing a defense is primarily not knowing what to expect.

There are typically two main questioning themes by the dissertation committee. The first is to see if the learner has a thorough, grounded knowledge of the topic. The learner is, after all, an “expert” on the topic that has been researched, so the questions directed will test this understanding. The second line of questioning seeks to evaluate the learner’s ability to reason with and apply the knowledge acquired during the dissertation process.

Outlined below are some questions all doctoral learners can benefit from reviewing in preparation for a defense. Here is what your committee may ask you and why.

Topic Knowledge

These questions are designed to test your knowledge on the research topic. These questions will determine what you know and what you do not know. This Socratic form of questioning will be direct, very systematically organized and based on concepts and principles of not just your research, but also the theories that form the framework of your research.

You will hear “why” and “how” questions and your answers must be thorough, succinct, and well-organized. Here are a few examples:

  • Can you explain why…?
  • Why did you present this concept this way?
  • Your research presents a contradiction to X theory. Can you elaborate?
  • How would you address the main limitations of your research?

Application and Reasoning

These questions are designed to help you apply and exceed the research topic. You will be expected to take the thinking in many complex directions, thereby showing a deeper understanding of the topic. You will be asked to make logical implications, address assumptions based on evidence and provide alternative points of view. Critical thinking and plausibility is being examined in this line of questioning.

  • You spent years researching this topic. Why did you choose it?
  • Why should the community/field care about it?
  • Can you explain your contribution to the field?

Sample Questions

The following questions are examples of what a dissertation committee may ask at a dissertation defense:

  • Based on your findings, what will your next research project be?
  • How would you build on this research?
  • How could you improve your research skills?
  • How can your research be used in practice?
  • Looking back, what might you have done differently?
  • What are the main weaknesses with what you did and why are they there?
  • What have been the significant contributions of your research?
  • Summarize your key findings.
  • Comment on and justify your research methodology. Why have you done it this way? What are the alternatives to your approach?
  • How has your thinking changed as a result of this research project?
  • How have you evaluated your work?
  • How do your contributions generalize?
  • What surprises did you find in your study?
  • What was the most challenging aspect of your research?
  • Will your research change current thinking in the field? If so, how?
  • How will you communicate your work to other scholars in your field?
  • What advice would you give a learner who is starting the dissertation process and considering using the methodology you used?
  • What are the broader implications of your research?
  • What specific aspects of your findings can be taken to practice?
  • Is there an alternative interpretation of your findings?

Remember, the role of the dissertation committee is to present a platform for you to share your research, not to make you defensive (even though you will be defending). This is your opportunity to shine as a scholar and be proud of your achievement as a doctoral learner. You will likely only defend a dissertation once – dress to impress, be prepared and present with confidence!

Grand Canyon University integrates the dissertation process throughout the doctoral program to help learners succeed in their doctoral journey. Visit our website to learn more about the College of Doctoral Studies.

More about Hazel:

Dr. Hazel Isaac-Smith is a senior research specialist for the Office of Dissertations, College of Doctoral Studies at Grand Canyon University. She has 15+ years of teaching and administrative experience in higher education. Dr. Isaac-Smith has a BSc in communicative disorders from Andrews University; BEd from the University of Toronto; MEd in special education from York University in Canada and PhD in emotional/behavioral disorders from Arizona State University.

Dr. Isaac-Smith has a passion for working with adult learners in higher education and brings substantial teaching experience, having taught students ranging from preschoolers to doctoral students. Her research interests lie in the field of linguistics, the pragmatics of language, and psycholinguistics. At Grand Canyon University, Dr. Isaac-Smith’s primary role has been to guide doctoral learners and their dissertation committee members to the successful completion of their dissertation journey.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.