Preparing Effectively for Your Thesis or Dissertation Examination
The examination that determines whether a thesis or dissertation will be approved and the candidate awarded the degree he or she has been working towards for years usually stands as a particularly important milestone in the research career of a postgraduate student. Indeed, considering tuition costs and the personal sacrifices made by many students, it can feel rather like your work, your financial future and your very world are dangling on the precarious outcome of that examination. It is therefore imperative to prepare effectively and approach the process with confidence.
The first and most vital preparation is, of course, to write an excellent thesis or dissertation, accommodate in revisions and explanations the concerns of your supervisory committee, and proofread and edit the entire document with extreme care, following all relevant guidelines, before submitting it for examination. Assuming that your work is well prepared, the best way to prepare yourself for defending your thesis or dissertation in the final examination is to be intimately and thoroughly familiar with your own work. This will enable you to discuss its strengths, limitations, surprises and groundbreaking leaps with your examiners, and also help you answer the critical questions they may have about your research and writing. A careful read through the thesis or dissertation shortly before the examination is usually constructive, especially if you take reflective notes as new ideas and potential problems come to mind.
The feedback you have received on chapter drafts and the entire thesis or dissertation from your supervisor and other members of your committee will provide much of what you need to know about the concerns and worries they will bring to the examination, but ensuring that you are familiar with their work and publications (as you probably already are) can also be extremely helpful. From the perspective of your examiners, you are quite literally changing from student to colleague in the course of your thesis examination, and your thesis or dissertation mentors who are now your examiners are likely to begin treating you as a colleague or professional equal. This is a compliment, of course, and a sign that they are taking your work seriously, but it also means that you may see a different aspect of their personalities – one less nurturing and potentially more combative – so do be prepared for this change, which can sometimes come as an unsettling surprise to students.
Your external examiner will almost certainly adopt this professional stance, since you are not his or her student and the job of the external examiner is, after all, to ensure (from beyond your university) the intellectual quality of the thesis or dissertation. Since your external examiner is likely to be as much of a specialist in your field of study as your supervisor is, the perspective he or she shares will be particularly valuable, if not for the thesis at this point, certainly for your future research. Receiving his or her feedback with a positive attitude is therefore the best approach, and this is more easily achieved if you can anticipate that feedback by understanding the examiner’s perspective as well as you can through critical reading or rereading of his or her scholarship, particularly anything closely related to your own work.
Although most supervisors will remain supportive of their students during thesis or dissertation examinations, unfortunately, this is not always the case. Some supervisors feel the need to take a step back and use a tougher approach in an examination, especially at the doctoral level, so you may find yourself rather alone in defending your research and the thesis that has grown from it. This is not a cause for panic, however, though it is wise to prepare emotionally for the possibility. Conducting the research for your degree and writing and revising your thesis or dissertation have certainly prepared you intellectually to defend your work and its significance with wisdom and diplomacy, so a quiet confidence in yourself and your work is appropriate and will set the tone for success.
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