PhD defense advice and resources

I’ve received a few inquiries for advice about the PhD thesis defense, so here is a compilation of the tips and resources that I found helpful.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham


Here is the net of the advice I received from colleagues mixed with my own recollections:

What to expect

The defense format varies among universities and countries. Here is the standard anatomy of the defense in my department at Georgia Tech:

  1. 45-minute public talk on your research. Aside from your committee, other grad students, friends, and family are invited.
  2. Public Q&A. Typically, this portion is dominated by questions from other grad students, but don’t be surprised if your committee gets quite involved at this stage, especially if they have a question they think might benefit the general audience.
  3. After the general Q&A, your advisor will dismiss everyone but your committee. Ask for a 10-minute break during this transition to recoup, eat a quick snack, say goodbye to your fans, etc.
  4. The closed session. Here’s how it went for me: Each committee member got a chance to go through their series of questions one by one, during which the other members would chime in with clarifying/follow-up questions. We proceeded through each member like this until everyone was satisfied. It was neither adversarial nor intense.
  5. You are dismissed from the room while your committee deliberates whether you passed and works to consensus on what additional revisions they will require.
  6. Your advisor will open the door, invite you in, and say “Congratulations, Dr. __”. Enjoy this, it’s an incredible moment.
  7. Your advisor will typically summarize their discussion and convey additional requests from your committee. Go ahead and schedule a meeting for the next day because you are mentally spent by now and won’t remember anyway.
  8. Go celebrate! Here’s what you will feel like (via Research in Progress):



On the lighter side, PhD Comics ran a great series on the defense several years ago. Start with this one and click ‘next’ through the series:

While not specifically aimed at the thesis defense, Matt Might’s piece on giving academic talks is the best resource I have ever found for this type of presentation:

Here is a long list of defense-specific articles that I found helpful:


I’d love to hear if there are any resources that I should add to the list. What do you remember from your defense that might help a fellow grad student? If you are a professor, what key advice do you give your grad students?