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The formal steps toward the PhD defence, and beyond

In this text we discuss the formal steps you need to take toward the PhD defence.
PhD defence
© University of Groningen

Before the defence can take place there are a number of formal steps with tasks for the supervisor and the PhD candidate, so always try to find out for your institution what the steps are for supervisor(s).

The final steps towards the defence of the PhD thesis differ from institution to institution. It is important for you to become familiar with the rules and regulations that are active at your university for this brief, yet quite formal leg of the process. You can build up a timeline like in the one below if your institution does not have it on their graduate school website.

Establishing the date for the defence

At the University of Groningen, all who are registered as legally responsible must approve the thesis manuscript before a provisional date can be set for the defence. After approval of the PhD thesis manuscript, supervisors and candidates can start looking for suitable dates and times for the defence, taking into account availability of all official advisors and supervisors, as well as family and friends.

Even if the thesis is ready for sending to the jury or defence committee, take into account that other technicalities might take considerable time. Be aware that at many universities the most favourable time slots might be fully booked early on. Keep in mind that the committee members will need time to assess the thesis, and at most universities a dedicated number of weeks is allocated for this activity. Still, members of the jury may not be able to hand in their assessment in time, and delays need to be taken into account in the overall time schedule that you are working with. In addition, official regulations of a university may demand that submission of the final, printed work, occurs a certain number of weeks before the defence takes place.

Preparing the defence

Your university might have specific requirements related to the composition of the defence committee, as well as to the time-frame within which the composition of such a committee needs to be communicated to the office of your faculty. Defence committee members should be personally invited ideally 6-8 weeks prior to the defence so you increase the chance of your invitation being accepted. After acceptance, you should (re)inform them as soon as possible about where the defence will take place and at what time. Furthermore, it is important to share information on the language and other protocols that apply. Informing them early on about the composition of the committee may not be required, but is considered useful, as it provides all members with information about which expertise will be represented in the committee. This makes preparation time for committee members effective and the discussions at the defence can cover broader subjects, making them more dynamic and lively. Send a reminder of the defence date, time and place some 2 weeks before the defence takes place, to make sure your colleagues will show up.

Although having the PhD candidate organise a mock PhD defence a few days/week prior to the big day is not common, some may ask for such an opportunity. Having one or two experienced staff members and some fellow PhD students play a part in such a mock defence often works well, but there is no golden standard for this.

Take emotions into account

The defence moment can be a very emotionally loaded moment. It is the completion of many years of study, and a rite of passage after which the PhD candidate will become a member of the academic community. As a supervisor, your role is to hold space for the PhD candidate’s emotions, and make them realise that the PhD defence will also be one of the few occasions in their life where they know more than any committee member in front of them. Furthermore, explain to the student that not being able to answer a question because they honestly do not know the answer is nothing to be ashamed of. This is the basic foundation of scholarly work aimed at moving boundaries, isn’t it?! It is important that the student knows they are free to say that they do not know the answer to the particular question. If your institution like the University of Groningen does not grant the PhD if the PhD candidate remains silent at a question or says “I don’t know”, encourage them to find alternative ways of replying, such as “This is a very good question but in my studies of the literature I have not found a satisfying answer so far.”

Post-PhD blues?

The thesis is finally ready and defended, the learning trajectory completed, and the PhD awarded. It is time for the newly-minted researcher (and for you as their supervisor) to celebrate. Yet, at the end of the PhD trajectory the PhD student might actually experience a period of anti-climactic exhaustion, accompanied by a sense of emptiness, disorientation and uncertainty about the future. Eva Lantsoght in a recent blog defines this as “post-PhD blues”, a phenomenon that, according to her survey, affects 50% of those who complete the PhDs.

As a supervisor you might want to talk about this phenomenon with the PhD, and explain that it is quite normal to experience such feelings after reaching such an important milestone in their life. Whether they have a job or a postdoctoral position already lined up or not, and whether they still need to revise the dissertation for publication, you might encourage them to take at least a few days off and celebrate with friends and family.

Closure time – an exit checklist?

Depending on your field, once the thesis is defended it is also time to close all that was started at the beginning of the trajectory. Office keys, lab keys and equipment might need to be returned, research data stored safely, and any other handover task carried out. For sure you will want the researcher to share with you their new email address, as they will likely soon lose access to the university email service. Agreements might need to be made about the responsibility of finishing manuscripts for publication, and rebuttals to be written once reviewers’ reports are in. There are indeed a lot of loose strings to be tied even after the successful defence. In order to keep everything under control, it might be useful for you to keep a checklist, so that all the requirements are being taken care of in time before the researcher leaves for their new career, or for that well-earned vacation.

Do you have an example of an exit checklist that you use for your PhDs? If so, please share it with the other learners in the comment section.

Additional resources:

PhD student protocol at the University of Groningen (video)

Lansoght, Eva (2021). Defending a PhD thesis is an emotional moment candidates and supervisors should be prepared for. LSE Impact blog.

© University of Groningen
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