How to Successfully Defend Your Dissertation & Not Have a Nervous Breakdown

March 14, 2017
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Today marks the 1 year anniversary of my (successful) dissertation defense. Even though things obviously worked out in my favor, that still doesn’t take away from the empathy I feel while I watch my colleagues go through this arduous process. I remember very little from the two months leading up to my defense. It’s pretty much a blur. By the time the day actually arrived, I was exhausted, exhilarated, and everything in between. I didn’t know what to feel. Others wanted me to be excited that I was “finished” (for those of you Ph.D.’s out there, you know that the defense is only one, albeit major, benchmark to graduation) while my committee members made seemingly joking remarks about “now the real work begins”. I think I felt my soul die a little bit. In preparation, I remember spending time with Google asking questions like, “tips for a successful dissertation defense”, “how to not cry in the middle of your defense” (lol), “dissertation defense examples”. While some of the information I found on the internet was helpful, I don’t really feel like anything I read really prepared me for that experience. I put together a list of tips based on my own experience and that of my colleagues, and hopefully you find some (or all) of this helpful!

Learn by watching

Sit in on other defenses. This is the best way to get an idea for the environment, content and vibe of a dissertation defense. I mean, let’s be honest we all would rather learn from other people’s mistakes than make our own. I sat in on a handful of defenses before I gave mine, and I really think it made a difference in my plan of attack. I also picked the brains of my more senior colleagues about things they wished they would have done differently. Sitting in is also a collegial act that helps build connection with other academics.

Practice makes perfect

True in most areas of life, and exceptionally true in the case of dissertation defenses (& any presentation, really). I practiced my defense so many times that I was rehearsing it in my dreams (no joke). Given that most defenses have a time limitation, practicing is essential, especially if you tend to go off on tangents. You shouldn’t be dependent on your presentation slides. A good presentor has a conversation with their audience where the slides simply serve as a roadmap for that conversation. I like to think about the advice I got from a mentor of mine who said, “Know your defense well enough that if the power went out you could keep going.” This is advice that I have carried with me into my professional life.

Suck it up & get feedback

I tend to be hyper self-critical. It sometimes impacts my desire for feedback even though I know how valuable constructive criticism can be. I can let the fear of someone criticizing my work inhibit my professional development and ultimately producing a higher quality product. So, how did I overcome this hurdle? I gave my defense slides to a couple people I felt completely comfortable with – close friends, close colleagues. It’s advantagous to get feedback from both academics and non-academics. A variety of lenses will help you view your presentation in many shades – some of which may be immensely helpful and bring new insight into your work.

Let off some steam

For those of you who are part of #BachelorNation, take a tip from Corinne Olympios and take a nap, I mean hey, “Michael Jordan took naps. Abraham Lincoln took naps.” My point is, do something that helps you relax and center yourself (something that is a good habit to develop, in general). When I’m super stressed out I take to one of two activities (sometimes both): cleaning & running. I think I’m drawn to both of these activities because they’re physical and upon completion give me a sense of accomplishment. Play “Shake it Off” and dance around a bit (totally done that before). Get on Instagram and browse photos under #puppy – there’s research to support that looking at cute things can have positive health impacts like adding 7.5 minutes (see here) on to your life and lowering your blood pressure. You do you.

Confidence is key, so don’t bullshit

You need to know your defense presentation backwards and forwards (see “practice makes perfect”). Don’t try to bullshit your way through your results section. I know in my field this tends to be the most complex area. You need to know why you chose your analysis plan, how to explain it and how to make inferences from it. Think of your defense as a multi-course meal. This is the main course of your presentation, and it’s the longest course of the entire meal. If all of a sudden your meal went from salad to desert you would be wondering why, and so will your committee. Knowledge is power here.

Plan a post-defense reward

I had a bottle of champagne in my fridge for two months with a tag that said “Do not drink until after defense”. It was a solid motivator during that last week when all I kept thinking about was how once I was finished I could come home, pop that champagne, and celebrate this amazing accomplishment. Find something to reward yourself with that can help keep you motivated – a trip, that cute dress you’ve been eyeballing, a night out with friends, or in my case, a bottle of champagne. Celebrate! You deserve it, Dr.!

Here are a few tips for the day of:

  • Don’t have too much caffeine. You’re already going to be hyped up and pumped full of adrenaline. Have your normal morning cup of coffee/tea and then cut yourself off.
  • Try to schedule your defense earlier in the day (you don’t want to be waiting around all day).
  • Dress to impress. Research shows that if you feel confident in what you are wearing that you are more likely to perform better in a task. Rock that #bosslady/#bossman outfit.
  • Get there early. You do not want to be rushing. Worse. feeling. ever.
  • Invite some friendly faces. You’ll want to have some people you can trust in the audience that will nod enthusiastically while you’re talking about your research.


What other tips and tricks do you have to help get through stressful academic moments like this? Comment below?



Thank you for sharing your tips and experience. I will be defending in a matter of weeks. I fully understand the varied emotions and feelings that you talked about. I am looking forward to completing this MAJOR milestone.

Hi Dawn!

Wow – congratulations! This is a huge accomplishment. Going through this process, is just that – a process. You will be processing all those emotions as you continue to prep and then afterwards. Just remember that, assuming you prepared the way you’re supposed to, you are the expert on your topic the day you present. Go into it with confidence! I wish you all the best the day of!