Practical Guidelines for Devising a Concrete Plan: Before, During, and After the Dissertation Oral Defense

Practical Guidelines for Devising a Concrete Plan: Before, During, and After the Dissertation Oral Defense

The ASQ Higher Education Brief (Di Pierro, 2010), like most scholarly articles, introduces archetypical guidelines needed to pass an oral defense for designated doctoral programs. The article presents the well-known fundamentals for doctoral students such as: attending other defenses, organizing the PowerPoint, rehearsing for the presentation, revising the document after the defense, and editing options. Why are these preparations so important one might ask? Historically, Cassuto (2012) elaborated that oral examinations can be dated back to the late 1930s, and are given to prospective dissertators as a rite of passage into academia. Since the orals are a major determinant of graduation, doctoral students tend to be extremely apprehensive of partaking in the oral defense. Contrariwise, dissertation committee members can sometimes be just as frightened or confused as students about the procedural task of an oral defense. Why? Lack of proper training and/or not being provided with more detailed, practical examples of how to successfully conduct an oral defense can be a contributing factor. This editorial aims to assist all stakeholders involved with devising a concrete plan for before, during, and after an oral defense.

Final Edits to the Dissertation Before the Oral Defense

Doctoral students are expected to present a final, polished copy of their dissertation to the committee before the oral defense is conducted. Therefore, no new edits and/or documents should be allowed once the final copy is surrendered to the committee. Any future changes to the dissertation must occur after recommendations emerge during the oral defense. The Dissertation Chair should confirm that all of the revisions have been addressed before approving the final submission into the Editorial Manager website.

Coordinating Schedules Before the Oral Defense

In actuality, the most difficult undertaking of an oral defense is coordinating an agreed upon date and time that works best for the entire dissertation committee. The doctoral candidate is responsible for receiving confirmations of the scheduled date and time for the oral defense. Some excellent resources for accomplishing this mission would be to use a scheduling software (e.g. Google Scheduler, Yesware, When I Work, and Humanity) to easily identify a consensus of dates and times. Make sure that time zone conversions (e.g. Pacific, Mountain, Central, and Eastern) are included for all committee members so that this oversight does not lead to a catastrophic situation. The Dissertation Chair should also reinforce that the agreed upon date and time cannot be changed for any reason, especially since this could postpone the student’s graduation. Afterwards, the doctoral candidate should send two reminder emails to committee members with the first email being sent at least one week prior to the oral defense comprising these attachments: 1) date, time, YouSeeU link, 2) final copy of dissertation, and 3) final copy of the PowerPoint presentation. The last reminder email should be sent the day before the oral defense. It is also suggested that doctoral candidates execute a mock session before the actual oral defense takes place to resolve any logistical matters and to exchange phone numbers with the committee. A dissertation committee will reschedule the oral defense if technical issues tend to engulf the oral defense, so having the backup conference call number is exceedingly important.

During the Oral Defense for Doctoral Candidates

Doctoral candidates should log in to the YouSeeU site a few minutes before the start of the oral defense. At this time, the free teleconference number and login information should be sent directly to all committee members in the format of an email and text message. Confidence is critical for doctoral students during the oral defense; but, there is no need for concerns because the oral defense would not have been approved if the dissertation did not meet University of Phoenix Dissertation Criteria Checklist. The proper protocols have to be followed to complete the doctoral candidacy process. The overall purpose of the oral exam is to demonstrate an understanding of the research and how it addresses gaps in the current literature via scholarly conversation. The committee has already reviewed several drafts by now, so do not spend more than thirty minutes explaining the five chapters of the dissertation. Instead, the leading discourse should be about 1) why this particular topic was selected, 2) how the topic relates to the degree program, 3) what practical implications subsist, and 4) what presentational and professional publication opportunities could arise from the study.

During the Oral Defense for Dissertation Chairs

Dissertation Chairs should advise their doctoral students to take detailed notes during the question, answer, and clarification session of the oral defense. Revisions for the written document and PowerPoint should be given a one week turnaround as the deadline because Chairs are commissioned with other maintenance task that have to be completed before finalizing graduation requirements for doctoral candidates (e.g., reviews conducted in the Editorial Manager, signed Signature Pages, submissions to the Dissertation Abstract Journal). Dissertation Chairs should also provide the entire committee with their oral defense strategy. First, an introductory message or a formal thank you to the committee for their hard work and dedication to the development of the project would be appropriate. Next, a detailed agenda with designated time frames should be conveyed to the committee at the outset as well. For further illustration, a Chair might impart:

The oral defense will take about one hour. The student’s presentation will take approximately 30 minutes (Introduction 5 minutes, Literature Review 5 minutes, Methodology 5 minutes, Results 10 minutes, and Discussion 5 minutes), following a 15 minute question, answer, and clarification session. The student will then be asked to exit the conversation for about 10 minutes so that the committee is able to deliberate, whereby the following outcomes could be decided: Approved, Approved with Minor or Major Changes, Not Approved. The remaining 5 minutes will be used for concluding remarks from the committee and possibly as a congratulatory moment for the doctoral candidate.

After Completion of Oral Defense for the Dissertation Committee

After completing the oral defense, the Dissertation Chair should provide committee members with a follow up email, including the Oral Defense Rubric as an attachment and a reminder that the form is due within 24 hours. Committee members should email the completed rubric directly back to the Chair so that all forms can be uploaded into the classroom forum. The Chair should create a Classroom Message recapping the committees’ recommendations from the oral defense that must be completed before signature pages will be disseminated. Dissertation Chairs and committee members should now update their curriculum vitae and University of Phoenix profile to include the latest dissertation.

<span style="text-align:" center;"="">References

Cassuto, L. (2012, March 4). The Comprehensive Exam: Make It Relevant. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Di Pierro, M. (2010, January). Preparing for the Oral Defense of the Dissertation. ASQ Higher Education Brief. Retrieved from

Dr. M. L. Witherspoon is a Dissertation Chair for the University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies, a member of the Center for Leadership Studies and Educational Research Hub, and a college professor in the communication, education, and research disciplines. 

Feel free to reply here with questions, insights, and additional commentary on this topic.


Ryan Rominger's picture Ryan Rominger | April 2, 2018 8:49 am MST

Dr. Witherspoon,

I appreciated reading your guidelines for students, Chairs, and Committee Members regarding the oral defense. This is a wonderful review of key actions which must be considered. In my experience, when I was an Associate Dissertation Director at another school, we often found that students who spent time preparing for the proposal and final draft meetings (including the final oral defense) felt less stressed and had more positive outcomes. As you note, it is important for students to record the defense so they may go back over the comments and make important changes to the proposal or final draft. I have also found that this can be a good time to 'Celebrate' the student's success as she or he is in the process of becoming a scholarly peer, by earning the doctorate. When a student successfully passes, it can be a great boost for the student to be welcomed into the fold, so to speak. After all, graduates not only become peers but also co-authors and co-presenters!

Dr. Rominger

Michelle Witherspoon's picture Michelle Witherspoon | April 2, 2018 10:22 am MST

Thanks for your commentary Dr. Rominger. From my experiences as a committee member, I have found that other Dissertation Chairs do not dedicate enough time towards the preparation (i.e., content and presentation requirements) of the oral defense. It is hoped that this editorial will assist all parties involved in the oral defense process. 

Dr. Witherspoon

Chara Price's picture Chara Price | April 9, 2018 1:19 pm MST

What a wonderful blog!  I am an admin for this site and featured it on the homepage.  

Michelle Witherspoon's picture Michelle Witherspoon | April 10, 2018 11:27 am MST

Thank you Dr. Price for featuring my blog on the homepage!

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