How to prepare for your PhD oral defence

All right folks, long overdue post on how I am getting along with preparing my thesis defence. I know that this process isn’t the same for everyone and different universities adopt different criteria and requirement to earn a PhD degree. In my university and pretty much in many UK institutions, you have an oral exam with a professor from your university and another one from elsewhere. They question you about your work and assess your general knowledge on your field of research and your subject of study overall.

What is a PhD thesis defence in the first place and why you are assigned a committee to evaluate your work? A thesis defence is basically a non-blind peer review assessment of your scientific work. As for any publication, your PhD thesis also goes under review. Other scientists that have nothing to do with your work, assess whether

  1. You actually did the work yourself,
  2. Your work is scientifically consistent and your claims are in line with your experimental data,
  3. you can make a valid scientific argument and defend it
  4. If you are aware and understood the limitation of your work

74278958_544735432738079_406176392917549056_nSo, how I am preparing for it? I didn’t open my manuscript for almost two months. When I submitted my thesis at the end of August, I was extremely tired and exhausted. I didn’t have enough energy to go through all my research again and again. I started revising a few weeks ago when I was given a date for my defence. Personally, I think that taking a break was a great decision. It gave me the chance to read my own work objectively and evaluate it critically myself. I found loads of typos and inconsistency in the text. I initially panicked and thought that I was going to get major revisions. However, doing a PhD thesis in science-related fields is more about the content and make sure that you have high-quality data which you can argue scientifically rather than the elegance of the text.

Don’t panic if you find inconsistencies in the text or spelling and grammar mistakes!


So, if you come across the same problem, don’t panic! Prepare a list of your grammar and spelling mistakes for your examiners! If your committee points out that there are inconsistencies in the text and the way you presented your data is hard to understand, be ready to accept their feedback and suggestions on how to improve the text. Don’t get stubborn and stick to your arguments. Your committee is trying to help you to create a document with great scientific value!

74271981_2529226803977796_3517313898841636864_nA PhD degree means that you become an expert in your field of research. You should be aware of the background knowledge in your field, which people and papers gave the major contribution to it. Hopefully, most of these people and papers are mentioned in the bibliography of your thesis. However, don’t stop there. Read more paper and try to have a broader knowledge that goes beyond the two experiments you did in the lab. For example, I studied transition metal catalysts, in particular, palladium and iron. I have been trying to have a broader understanding of these two metals and their applications that goes beyond the way I used it for my research. I have been also looking at different metals such as nickel or copper and learn about relevant chemical reactions in the field.

If you want to know more about it check out my interview for the chemistry cake podcast.

Additionally, make a general revision of your general knowledge about the subject of your studies. I do chemistry but that would be the same for any other subject. I revised the mechanism of all the chemical reactions in my thesis. I revised or learned from scratch the chemistry of the enzymes mentioned in my thesis, for example.

Finally, don’t forget to enjoy the process. I have been going through my PhD thinking that I wasn’t good enough and I didn’t deserve this opportunity. Up until the day I started writing my thesis when I became aware of all the good things I did, all I learned and how my abilities to do research improved. None will judge you badly if you get nervous on the day or it takes a bit of time to answer questions. Your work is what you did over your PhD training, not what you will be able to showcase in a few hour time or by doing a presentation!