On May 30, 2012 I successfully defended my dissertation entitled “Messianic Banquet Imagery in the Synoptic Gospels: An Intertextual Study.” The whole experience was challenging but enjoyable. At the end of the session I was confident that the committee helped to make my dissertation better by questioning me on key arguments and forcing me to sharpen my thoughts. I now am engaged in the processing their recommendations and corrections and hope to submit a final, corrected copy by the end of the month. This has been a long process and I have learned a great deal about the process of writing and defending a dissertation.
First of all, if you have written a good dissertation, there is no one who knows as much about your topic as you do. You have done more work in your area of interest than anyone else and you have tried to strike out into new territory in order to extend the body of knowledge in your discipline. That ought to give you some confidence, but also some caution and humility. Maybe there is a reason no one has developed the topic quite the way you have. Someone who hopes to defend a dissertation ought to be confident, but humble as well.
Second, it is nearly impossible to anticipate the questions that will be asked during a defense. I had anticipated about ten areas in my dissertation which I would have questioned, yet not a single one of these came up in my defense. I prepared by re-reading my document several times, jotting notes and trying to anticipate the worst. Perhaps simply re-reading the whole document would have been enough, since my examiners were not as critical of my details as they were of the overall thesis of the dissertation. I suppose everyone who has defended a dissertation has some story of an odd line of questioning, I certainly do.
Third, if your dissertation has been approved for a defense, your committee should already be supportive of your project. While this does not mean you will have an easy defense, it should at least mean that you have some level of tacit approval from the examiners. No university wants to have the reputation for failing PhD candidates at the defense level. I had three examiners who had read my dissertation and approved it for a defense, and two readers who were external, one from the University and one from outside. For the most part all of the discussion during the defense was an extension on the details of my dissertation, ways in which I could make my argument stronger or extended it beyond the boundaries set by the project.
Fourth, inevitably someone will point out that you have missed something important. This may be a reference to an article they wrote thirty years ago in an obscure journal published Kalaallisut (the main dialect of western Greenland). More likely there is some thread which you did miss, this is natural and part of the process of a defense. It is also possible you did include a reference to this research in a footnote someplace, and they missed it. (This happened in my defense, in fact had several pages on they topic an examiner said I missed!)
Last, if writing a dissertation is like a marathon, then the defense is the finish line. I am not a runner, but I hear runners say that simply finishing a marathon is sufficient reward. There is some wisdom in this, since I met far too many people who were content to remain ABD (“all but dissertation”). A dissertation defense ought to be something of a celebration of the completion of a long academic process.
On the other hand, the original messenger who ran a marathon died shortly after proclaiming victory. A fitting epitaph for a dissertation: “Till in he broke: ‘Rejoice, we conquer!’ Like wine through clay, Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died – the bliss!” (Robert Browning Pheidippides, 1879).
Several people have asked me “what’s next?” I would like to publish the dissertation in some form in the near future, although I am not sure what form that will be. I plan on spinning off a few journal articles from the project and have at least two short papers which were cut from the project which ought to make good journal articles.
I am more than ready to move on what what ever is next.