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PhD Oral Presentation Stress


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Hi All,

I'm a PhD student in psychology. My oral defense is scheduled in two weeks. However, I'm super super stressed. My supervisor has not been very helpful in terms of giving feedback throughout  the past four years. I basically depended on myself to find relevant literature and develop my research ideas. I went to a couple of conferences and presented my projects. I received mostly positive feedback. However, when we submitted the manuscript based on my dissertation project, it was rejected four times. Reviewers' comments were super harsh. I cried multiple times and I believe I developed a physical condition because of this. My period suffered a lot. Anyway, I am not confident about my dissertation, but my internal and internal/external committee members said I did an excellent job, they did not even provide many comments in our meetings. They are very sure I will pass and I am a hard working and excellent student. 

However, I always doubt myself, especially when I'm preparing my oral defense right now. I am worried that my external examiner who is an expert in the field will ask me difficult questions that I can't handle. I am scared that he will dislike my design. The more I'm preparing now, the more flaws I can find in my dissertation, e.g., design and the layout of literature review. Although my supervisor has assured me I will be okay. I am still worried because I'm not sure if I should trust his judgement. He has been very nice to me and we had a good relationship overall.

Could anyone please share your thoughts and experiences. 

Thank you soo much!

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7 minutes ago, AbbyHunt said:

Could anyone please share your thoughts and experiences. 

Thank you soo much!

This must be a very stressful time for you, but you are getting there! I have been through the PhD defense stage and can totally relate. 

First of all, given you have done well in conferences, and your committee and supervisor also think you do well, please believe that you will do well! Prepare your oral defense as you did for your conference presentations. Go through your talk with your supervisor. Schedule for some practice, preferably in front of your supervisor and colleagues. Think of potential questions that you may get asked and prepare for them. Then you are ready to go!

Now, I am sure you will ask, "What if my expert external examiner asks me difficult questions?" Well, it is possible for surprising questions to come up, but you know your project the best! Your expert examiner happens to know a great deal of your field, but he does not know your project as well as you. Don't freak out even if his questions seem to catch you. It's more likely a sign that he is interested in your work (which is good) than trying to find flaws to fail you. 

No, he will not dislike your study design if you can justify the rationale behind it. Being scientifically sound is what makes a study likeable. You must have got that to excel in conferences and internal reviews. And don't worry about any flaws you identified. It is okay to be not perfect. In fact, we can never be perfect. What is more important is to be aware of the flaws (i.e. limitations), and how you will address them for future work. This is a major part you will get assessed on. 

Finally, publishing a paper is very different from defending your PhD. Even if you present good work, they may still reject you or get you to do a lot more work. It is very common. It doesn't mean your work is bad. (Yes, reviewer comments can be very harsh.)

For the time being, put the publication aside and focus on your defense. Don't forget to give yourself time to relax. You need it. I am sure you will succeed. Good luck! 

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Like Hope.for.the.Best has said, you are the expert in the room. Nobody knows your thesis and the work immediately surrounding it as well as you do! And that is all that is required. The objective of the examiners is to determine two things: that you wrote the thesis and understand the underlying work. They will not ask you a question from a different, removed field of study. Also, as my supervisors told me, there are very few (if any) PhD students who can answer every question thrown at them - saying "I don't know" is perfectly fine. Remember that a viva is often just as much a learning experience for the examiners as it is for you. Plus, nobody wants you to fail! Considering this and in tandem with the positive feedback you obtained from your committee, I see absolutely no reason why you should not pass with flying colours. I was very stressed before the viva as well, but walked out of there thinking "was that it?" in the end. Try to ask your supervisor or a colleague for a practice viva a week before - helped me loads and put things in perspective.

As for publications, that is a different beast entirely. So much is down to luck! Selecting the right venue, at the right time, getting the right reviewers who are not overly harsh and make constructive comments, submitting outside of the holiday season to avoid long wait times - everything comes into play! Develop a thick skin and go with the flow - you got to the viva stage and will get published, the supervisory team is not supposed to let you submit unless they think you are ready, and the work is publishable in whole or in large part.

Best of luck, let us know how you get on!

Edited by Spykeeboy
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Normally, a student who's greenlit to go to oral defence is pretty much guaranteed to pass; the real question is how much revising will be required before final submission. That is to say, normally, the only thing that can sink you at this stage is a catastrophic failure (like: you don't actually do the viva, or you make it clear to the committee that you don't know anything about what you wrote, raising concerns about plagiarism). That sort of thing. The questions may be tough, but they just want to see you thinking through problems, applying your hard-won expertise to new scenarios and challenges. They want you to guide them through it; you're the expert now, not them.

There are occasional exceptions, especially in countries with a more adversarial viva process/hands-off supervision, usually because submitting is entirely in your hands and not really up to your supervisors. Those can be pretty rough. But even then, failure isn't the end. One of my supervisors initially failed his viva at Oxford, but he's a very well-known international expert now. He just had to buckle down and resubmit.

Like Spykeeboy said, everyone in that room wants you to pass. In fact, it looks really bad on them if you don't, because they didn't manage to weed you out earlier. Sending an unprepared dissertation for defence looks awful, and it's clearly not the student's fault.


On the journal front, try not to sweat it. Referee reports are often mean-spirited. If it's too mean, I ignore it entirely; if it's mean but raises what seem like legitimate issues, I address the problems and tell myself that the asshole is an insecure prick who's posturing to make himself feel better about his own visible shortcomings. So fixing the problems and moving on just feels like taking the high road. I've had (and heard of!) some horrific reports for papers that went on to win prizes or be published in much higher-ranked journals.

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