Coping with Questions in Your Thesis or Dissertation Examination
Although the specific procedures of thesis and dissertation examinations vary a great deal among disciplines, fields of study and individual departments, most theses and dissertations are examined via committee, and questions are an essential aspect of such examinations. Each examiner will usually have an opportunity to ask the thesis or dissertation candidate about his or her research and writing, and these questions tend to generate discussions that involve the other examiners as well. How a student copes with the queries of his or her examiners can contribute significantly to success or its opposite, so it is essential to answer in thoughtful and informed ways, no matter how obvious or unexpected the questions might be.
You may, for instance, find yourself answering questions on issues that have arisen repeatedly during the writing process. Such questions are likely to be posed by the committee members familiar with your work and may well focus on alterations that you had to make or aspects of your research that you had to defend in the past. Your committee may be using these questions to enable you to talk about important developments in your work or simply to inspire a better answer than you provided earlier. In some cases, the goal may be to hear again (or, more accurately, have your external examiner hear) the brilliant response you offered to explain a potential problem or particularly ingenious innovation when the matter first arose. This is the sort of approach that a supportive supervisor might take to fill any gaps he or she perceived in your presentation or to direct you towards topics that will impress your other examiners. However, it is very difficult to determine exactly what the intentions of your committee members may be when they ask you questions, and it is ethically inappropriate for them to inform you about such aspects of the examination in advance, so the best policy is to listen carefully to each and every question and provide the best answer you can on the basis of the research you have done, the thesis or dissertation you have written and your own perspective.
It is rare that a member of the supervisory committee you have worked closely with for years will ask you something entirely unexpected, but it is not impossible that one of your mentors will discover a potential problem or consider your research from a different angle while reading through your final thesis or dissertation, especially if he or she has not been particularly engaged in your work during the writing process. It is far more likely, however, that the most unexpected queries and comments will come from your external examiner, who may have heard about your work before receiving your thesis or dissertation, but will have read it for the first time just before the examination. Although his or her questions may not always be welcome, particularly if they catch you entirely off guard, it is important to look upon them as the valuable products of a new perspective that can offer opportunities for you to refine your thinking and perhaps your thesis or dissertation as well, even at this late stage.
Remembering that you know your research better than anyone else does will help you remain confident and articulate your thoughts clearly, which can make all the difference in the world. You may even discover that you are able to nudge the discussion in the directions you would prefer at crucial points, but if you find yourself uncertain about how to answer a question, it is better to admit that you had not thought of an issue or heard about a theory than to waffle in an attempt to find words and ideas that will very likely prove unconvincing to your knowledgeable listeners. Be sure to note the validity of the question, however, and the fact that you will indeed think about it now. If you are asked about your future research and publication plans, keep in mind that such questions are a very good sign that the people asking them envision an academic or scientific career for you. Answering optimistically about the work you have planned and why it is fascinating and important is therefore a far better strategy than qualifying your answer with ‘Well, if I pass this thesis exam’ or something of the sort.
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